Licensing Expo: Sports Brands Are Here, But Where Are the Leagues?

Home Runs, Head-Scratchers and Other Takeaways from the Expo

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We've seen many brands that consumers truly love on display at the Licensing Expo this week. However, few brands inspire as much passion, exhilaration (and yes, sometimes heartbreak) as those of major league sports teams.

This year there is an expanded lineup of sports brands exhibiting. The Major League Baseball Players Association is represented, as are NFL Players Inc. and Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, a popular soccer team from England's Premier League, among others.

The reason for the uptick is simple: In 2014, sports-related products made up more than 14% of all retail sales of licensed goods, to the tune of $14.1 billion in sales, according to industry association LIMA. The sports category grew for the fourth consecutive year with $698 million in royalty revenue in 2014. Sports merchandise is set to remain a billion-dollar moneymaker for years to come. With consumer interest trending upward, the leagues and their licensees must innovate to turn fan devotion into revenue.

Yet, notably, the major leagues themselves are not here. This is somewhat of a head scratcher. Where are the MLB, NBA, NF and NHL? Their consumer products businesses rival those of the big entertainment companies, which are all exhibiting. Last year, in the midst of the World Cup, FIFA wasn't present. The show organizers need to lure the big leagues to play ball at the Licensing Expo. My guess is that they probably think they don't need to exhibit at a show, but it's a great place to launch new licensing initiatives, meet with retailers and catch the trends. As the Brooklyn Dodgers used to say, maybe next year.

Every year the Expo has its surprise property offered for licensing -- usually tied to a trending TV show and, often, a short-lived enterprise. Two years ago it was "Duck Dynasty." Last year we saw Wikileaks and "Fifty Shades of Gray." This year's surprise offering is Starz's "Outlander" from Sony Pictures Television. Currently, "Outlander's" merchandise includes posters and t-shirts, but I'm told that other products will follow.

"Outlander" is by all accounts a complicated show that asks difficult questions about love, lust, independence, war, and free will -- wrapped in a story about time travel between 1945 and 1743 Scotland. It's not the most obvious choice for a licensing program, but then again, we work in a very creative industry. It's also worth noting that "Outlander" has a rabid and growing following. And, the books upon which it's based have delighted readers for years. So yes, this move may have some scratching their heads (did you see the season finale?), but with adoring fans, success can be right around the corner. Perhaps there's a big market in Scotland.

A less surprising TV world offering comes courtesy of Fox's hit TV series "Empire" -- a modern soap opera set against an exciting hip-hop backdrop. The Twentieth Century Fox consumer products booth has a number of screen-worn costumes on display. The clothing is hip, unique and likely to be as big a hit with consumers as the show itself, should Fox decide to license the brand for a fashion line. Reps were tightlipped on whether we'd see "Empire"-themed clothing in stores anytime soon, but stay tuned (why else would they display costumes at the show?).

The Expo is populated with famous and iconic brands. Some, like TV shows "Outlander" and "Empire," are instantly recognizable. Others may soon be introduced to the American viewer. There is a noticeable uptick in the number of Asian companies and properties this year. One that stood out was the Korean Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), the leading government agency dedicated to building a nation of imagination, creativity, culture and prosperity. At their booth, I was told to keep my eye on the cartoon "Robocar," an extremely popular animated children's television series in Korea that, KOCCA hopes, may gain a foothold in the U.S.

Another booth I visited was exclusively devoted to "Rilakkuma," a Japanese cartoon about a bear and his friends. "Rilakkuma," I was told, exceeds "Hello Kitty's" popularity in Japan, with many licensed products available in Japan. Based on my conversations, these brands see a growing opportunity to extend into the U.S. market and capture an entirely new audience of viewers and consumers. We'll have to wait and see how it plays out.

As usual, I walk away from Licensing Expo with lots to think about. See you in 2016.