To the makers of baseball paraphernalia, the question is when - not if - the players’ strike will end.
A bigger question at the annual sporting goods industry trade show Friday was: Will consumers of baseball caps, T-shirts, jackets and other logo-emblazoned merchandise still care?
“Up till now, they’ve been pretty well ticked off. I haven’t heard any particular response like, `We forgive them,”’ said Randy Grubbs, owner of Fair Play Sports, a sporting goods store in Florence, Ala., where sales of baseball merchandise have stagnated since the strike began last August.
“My own opinion is it’s going to take awhile before people feel the same as before,” Grubbs said.
Licensed products for major league baseball are big business - $3 billion last year, according the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the trade group that puts on the Super Show in Atlanta.
The 10th annual four-day trade show and convention, expected to attract more than 100,000 industry insiders to cut deals, survey new products and gawk at celebrity athletes, began Friday. The event is closed to the public.
A report released at the show by the trade association said the effect of the baseball strike so far has not been catastrophic.
But the report also expressed concern that if the strike isn’t settled soon, long-term damage could occur “as images of greedy players, owners and sponsors unable to work out their problems become etched in the fans’ minds.”
Such concern was clearly on the minds of licensed product manufacturers exhibiting at the show.
In the early days of the strike, many retailers responded by marking down the price of their unsold baseball merchandise, said Rick Becker, vice president of sales for Tampa, Fla.-based apparel maker Nutmeg Mills Inc.
“That was the soft response,” Becker said. “When the World Series was canceled, you got the hard response and many retailers canceled orders for the holiday season.”
Apparel makers such as Nutmeg are already well into the period when retailers would normally be ordering items to sell to fans aroused by the coming of spring training. “We’re losing the key first quarter,” Becker said.
Becker, whose company also makes licensed products for other professional athletic leagues, said hockey merchandise is rebounding since the end of that sport’s labor dispute. He’s hoping for the same from baseball.
Tony Jones, managing editor of the industry publication Team Licensing Business, agreed fans and their wallets will be back if the strike is settled. But retailers are likely to respond with caution, he said.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a whole lot of product placed immediately,” Jones said.
Ian Gomar, marketing vice president for the large New Haven, Conn.-based apparel maker Starter Corp., said his company’s wide range of licensed products from other sports has helped it absorb lost baseball sales.
“We were obviously like everyone else … really hurt by the labor dispute,” he said. “When the game’s not being played, the consumer is not focused on it and probably not interested in purchasing apparel.”
Though it was conceived before the strike, Starter’s new marketing campaign may help the company rebound once the strike is settled. The campaign emphasizes team values over celebrity endorsements.
“There’s no more hero worship,” Gomar said. “The consumer is tired of heroes and astronomical salaries. They realize you can’t do it alone.”