Football season may be over, but that hasn’t stopped some retailers from appealing to their local fan bases with licensed merchandise

In early 2001, the Oklahoma Sooners capped an undefeated season by toppling Florida State to claim college football’s national championship.

The victory set off a frenzy, the likes of which hadn’t been seen around Norman, Okla., in decades. Retailers were among the first to feel the impact.

“This event brought our city back to its feet with a spending spree like Christmas for the next couple of years,” says Mike Thompson, owner of Thompson Pool & Patio in Norman.

As Sooner merchandise sprouted in souvenir stores throughout town, Thompson realized the opportunity before him. Within months, he had met with licensed product vendors and picked up a smattering of outdoor accessories festooned with college logos, everything from large scoreboard-style clocks to steppingstones to wind chimes.

“What [began] as a lark has turned into a very profitable part of the business,” Thompson says.

Today, fully 15 percent of his backyard products are sports-themed, and last year alone, Thompson sold more than $32,000 in licensed products, including floats, rings, welcome mats, even the wildly popular Crocs footwear.

It’s a phenomenon that knows no geographical boundaries. Retailers in all corners of the nation are discovering that team merchandise is not just a specialty item, but also a marketing tool and a means to target the loyal following of local fans.

An eye-catcher

Licensed products with team logos and colors are bright attention-grabbers, representing a departure from the fare of the typical pool or spa store.

“It’s one more thing to flesh out the visual aspect of our product offerings,” says Nate Buchan, retail manager of Brown’s Pools & Spas in Douglasville, Ga. “It gives people something interesting to look at while they’re coming in for something boring like chemicals, parts or equipment.

It’s also one of the main reasons Buchan is highlighting his University of Georgia merchandise.

“We’re calling it the Georgia Pride display, and putting a header on that grouping of product,” he says. “This idea can apply to any retailer. You can have Florida or Michigan Pride for your region.”

Indeed, a number of retailers who carry such products feature them prominently.

The main entrance to Morehead Pools in Shreveport, La., opens to a 5-by-8-foot wall adjacent to the cash wrap devoted entirely to Louisiana State University gear. Every fourth or fifth grill is wrapped either in the purple and gold of LSU, blue and silver for the Dallas Cowboys, or a black-and gold New Orleans Saints barbecue cover.

Meanwhile, giant soda can-shaped coolers featuring team logos dot the store’s floor.

“It keeps people coming in,” says store owner Michael Moore. “And it’s good POP; we keep [the sports items] by the counter and the register.”

Retailer Anthony Schiavone places his sports-themed charcoal grills next to high-end barbecues from Weber-Stephen Products. These specialty products, which resemble giant football or baseball helmets, often are purchased along with more expensive items.

So a diehard fan in the market for a full-size gas model also can pick up a less-costly, more versatile team-licensed charcoal grill for tailgating. “It’s more or less an impulse buy,”

says Schiavone, senior vice president of Seasonal World in Cream Ridge, N.J. “[The helmet grills] are at a good enough price point that they are affordable.”

Specialty items

Some retailers market their licensed products as limited-edition items. Advertising these specialty goods as available for “a limited time” can be a powerful tool when appealing to a passionate fan base.

A few years ago, barbecue manufacturer Cookshack of Ponca City, Okla., began offering smokettes adorned with logos of the state’s two largest schools: University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. When production stopped a short time later, Thompson quickly snatched up all of Cookshack’s remaining OU products. His store became the sole source for officially licensed (and tailgate-ready) Sooner barbecues.

Nor is the audience restricted to pool owners. Thompson has distinguished his store from even souvenir shops in the licensed merchandise he sells, including drinking glasses, meat platters, vegetable trays and tote bags.

Then there’s the Oklahoma University sports purse. “The women have gone nuts over [the handbags] because, again, it’s not something you can find [in traditional souvenir stores],” Thompson says.

In fact, many of his customers don’t even have backyards. Apartment and condo dwellers frequent his store regularly in search of the latest sports-themed products.

“Everyone’s got a favorite team whether they own a pool or not,” Moore adds. “And people love to support their teams.”

Go, team

Moore discovered licensed products two years ago while attending the International Pool & Spa Expo in Orlando, Fla. Coming from a family of “huge LSU fans,” he couldn’t resist purchasing a few items for himself.

“We actually bought some things like [LSU-themed] coolers just because we wanted them,” he recalls. “But then we said, ‘Let’s buy a few more, put them in the store and see what happens.’”

It wasn’t long until Tigers fans caught wind of Moore’s offerings.

“Even though we’re about five hours away from Baton Rouge, where the university is, LSU stuff goes quickly in this part of the country,” he notes.

It also doesn’t hurt that LSU’s squad in recent years regularly ranks among the nation’s top teams. That’s important in a region where one’s college football affiliation is worn like a badge of honor.

“You’ve got to have a specific team that’s popular,” Buchan explains. “[In the South], collegiate seems to do better than professional. For us, it’s the Georgia Bulldogs.”

As a result, Buchan keeps his licensed products limited to teams that are largely local … and victorious.

“You really reduce the fan base for that specific team as you go away geographically, or into less successful organizations,” he says.

For teams such as Georgia, Georgia Tech and Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves, there’s no shortage of local enthusiasm, or dollars. But mention Atlanta’s woeful Falcons, and interest sinks.

But if the opposite were true, and LSU was in the cellar, Moore concedes his licensed merchandise likely would not perform as well. In fact, he’d probably consider cutting back his product line.

“The true success [of licensed products] is substantially tied to how the team is doing,” he says.

Another benefit of college-themed items is the wide assortment of sports — and seasons. For example, if the football team is slumping, there’s always the basketball squad or hockey.

“They might be LSU alumni, and still want that grill cover with their [alma mater’s] logo on it,” Moore says. “We keep our customer base very wide if we’re going for the college market.”

‘Selling themselves’

Retailers have found a lucrative sales avenue in licensed merchandise. The best part for many is that collegiate sports fans often require little prodding to support their favorite schools or teams.

The large OU banner hanging outside Thompson’s store is a virtual call to action for diehard Sooner fans, he notes.

And in Louisiana, Morehead Pools proudly features an outdoor marquee that touted the Bayou Bengals (as LSU fans have affectionately dubbed their players) during the team’s recent title run.

But there’s surprisingly little marketing otherwise, save for the occasional e-mail blast or promotional e-newsletter to regular customers, Moore says.

Why? According to some, it simply isn’t necessary. In Louisiana, a rabid fan base practically ensures a steady stream of customers. A few months’ worth of buzz has generated all the advertising Moore needs.

“Word of mouth is still the cheapest way of doing it,” Thompson confirms. “We don’t have to [advertise]. They really do sell themselves.”