How NFL jersey sales thrived during a bad year for the league

Fanatics CEO: NFL jersey sales strong during protests
Fanatics CEO: NFL jersey sales strong during protests

The NFL had a rough year. But NFL gear crushed it.

Sales of gear like jerseys, shirts and jackets were up 40% compared with the year before.

Fans bought up merchandise even though the league was slogging through a season full of problems. Ratings fell 10%, owners revolted against league leadership, the US president went after protesting players, and concussion talk dogged the sport.

The company that runs the NFL Shop, Fanatics, thinks these sales figures serve as a "very different form of Nielsen ratings" for the league, according to CEO Doug Mack.

But the incredible rise might have more to do with the company than the NFL's popularity.

Fanatics started as a retail store in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1995. But nowadays it bills itself as the global leader in licensed sports gear.

It produces gear and runs the e-commerce operations for nearly every pro sports league in the US. It has similar deals with over 500 colleges and a growing number of international leagues and teams. It runs the NBA flagship store in New York City and has even started making its own branded gear with its logo appearing next to that of pro leagues in jerseys.

Mack credited an exciting playoff season as part of the reason for Fanatics' 40% climb in NFL jersey sales. The match-ups featured compelling storylines and the Super Bowl saw the Philadelphia Eagles competing for their first ever win against the powerhouse New England Patriots.

"You could have not asked for a better set of NFL playoffs and outcomes and storylines, and what we saw is that translated directly into merchandise sales," he said.

But the real winner may be the company's new and more nimble process for making its products. Fanatics merchandise is almost entirely made on-demand.

Related: Steelers player who stood for national anthem has top-selling jersey

Suppliers used to produce mass amounts of jerseys and branded gear that was tied to specific players. The product would sit around until someone ordered it. Gear for less popular players would be made in smaller quantities or not at all. A lot of goods were made and never sold.

"So often we'd have to make buys for merchandise a year in advance, and a year out in sports, you don't know what's gonna be happening, who's going to be the hot team, who's going to be the hot player? Sometimes you don't even know the day before," Mack said.

While Fanatics keeps a small amount of gear on hand for the most popular players, like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, most of what it makes is to-order. For example, it stockpiles blank jerseys and add players' names when an order is placed. The model allows it to quickly respond to trends.

The process allows them to capitalize when a less notable player suddenly becomes popular.

Pittsburgh Steelers player Alejandro Villanueva's jersey sales skyrocketed when he walked out of the tunnel during a pre-game performance of the National Anthem. By being in the tunnel, he broke with his team, which had decided to stay in the locker room.

Villanueva is an offensive tackle, not exactly a glamour job in the NFL, and his jersey normally wouldn't be in such high demand, or easily available.

Another example was when two Philadelphia Eagles players donned latex German shepherd masks to symbolize that they were the underdogs against the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Fanatics was able to quickly advertise and sell gear featuring the German shepherd image.

Related: Why some NFL jerseys are getting a new look

For the Super Bowl, Fanatics mocked up championship samples for both teams. When the game clock hit zero and Philadelphia had won, Fanatics uploaded the set of the Eagles' images, pushed them to the NFL Shop's site, and alerted fans.

As part of its partnership with leagues, Fanatics has also focused on making better products. Instead of generic or stiff shirts, they offer quality textiles and greater variety for women and children.

"Philadelphia waited forever to win the Super Bowl. This is their first Super Bowl ever, and the fans deserve a better product," Mack said.

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