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Fruit of the Loom's fledgling sports licensing division is planning a $12 million marketing push behind its pumped-up Pro Player brand this fall.

The effort from Bates Worldwide, New York, begins with print ads in Sports Illustrated, USA Today and local newspapers in late August, keyed to the start of the National Football League season. In mid-October, two TV spots will hit the air-one featuring NFL stars and the other cutting across all sports leagues.

While labor acrimony in baseball, hockey and basketball alienated many consumers-the licensed sports product industry grew a paltry 0.5% last year, according to Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association-Pro Player survived with a hot NFL product: a reversible jacket in home and away colors.


Now, Fruit of the Loom is expanding the line and is on track to boost sales by 35% in 1996.

Earlier this month, Pro Player scored with a T-shirt commemorating the Chicago Bulls' record-breaking 70 wins. Pro Player, with an exclusive license to market Bulls caricatures, sold more than $500,000 in the first week.

"Fruit has made a commitment to grow this business and develop a dominant brand, so we took the marketing dollars that supported our other brands and will put it behind Pro Player," said Doug Kelly, president of Fruit of the Loom Sports & Licensing and architect of the dual-label strategy. Its other major brand is Artex.

In recent years, larger mills like Fruit of the Loom gobbled up smaller companies and consolidated brands. It also acquired, but later pared, the Salem brand.


Industry pioneer and still independent Starter Corp. remains No. 1 at $340 million, down 4.2% from '94, but observers wonder for how much longer.

That's because sports leagues are selling fewer licenses, choosing bigger companies with mightier marketing muscle and broad distribution. The trend bodes well for Fruit of the Loom, VF Corp. and Russell Corp. VF is No. 2 and Fruit of the Loom No. 3.

Fruit of the Loom is now working with NFL Properties on a gift-with-purchase promo, and might tie into the league's "Second Season" merchandising program.

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