Sports apparel maker Fanatics scores

NEW YORK • This fall, when some of the National Football League's (NFL's) corporate partners fretted about its handling of American football players kneeling during the national anthem, sports merchandise company Fanatics pounced - and scored.

When Alejandro Villanueva, a Pittsburgh Steelers player, stood for the anthem and the rest of the team stayed in the locker room, his name began trending on Twitter.

Fanatics quickly posted a rendering of his No. 78 jersey on its website and did the same on the Steelers' portal and the NFL's online shop, both of which it also operates.

Sales skyrocketed. Manufacturing facilities in Kentucky and Florida went to work for next-day shipping.

"That moment happened, people wanted to immediately buy that jersey," Mr Michael Rubin, the company's chairman and principal owner said. "A week later, that moment is mostly over."

These micro-moments, as he calls them, happen all the time in sports: A player reaches a milestone, has a breakout performance or is traded to a new team.

Apparel companies have traditionally been poorly positioned to meet the accompanying fan demand as it surges. Fanatics is changing that and, in the process, carving out a lucrative niche.

It has licensing rights with North America's four major sports leagues, more than 500 colleges, Major League Soccer and the Professional Golf Association.

The company is similar to fast-fashion retailers like H&M, Uniqlo and Zara, integrating design and manufacturing with distribution to fulfil orders within hours.

After the Chicago Cubs won the baseball World Series last year, Fanatics used Uber to deliver championship gear to fans within minutes.

As a result, Fanatics has more than doubled its revenue in just a few years. It expects to take in US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) this year and ship more than 10 million items from Nov 27, Cyber Monday, to Christmas.

The strategy has drawn a US$1-billion investment from Japanese conglomerate SoftBank. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has a stake.

The industry that fuels Mr Rubin's enthusiasm is substantial. According to the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association, global retail sales of licensed sports items reached US$25 billion last year. The largest portion of that, 28.1 per cent, was apparel.

But after a jersey and T-shirt craze in the 1990s, demand flattened. Leagues allotted their most precious licences to brands like Nike and Adidas, which mostly seemed concerned with using on-field uniforms as marketing tools, rather than with producing gear for fans.

At that point, Mr Rubin said, the licensed sports merchandise market was "a very sleepy business" without a robust online presence.

In 2013, he moved most of Fanatics' executive team to Silicon Valley from Florida and started a team dedicated to mobile platforms.

This year, it will spend US$120 million to improve the customer experience, data acquisition efforts and communication with manufacturers.

The investment is critical, he said, given that 90 per cent of business is online and more than 50 per cent comes through mobile devices.

Sports is particularly well-suited to online retail, with many fans living far from their favourite teams' hometowns. But Fanatics' success depends in part on its deals with the leagues, which could create competition by doing the same with rivals.

The company is not waiting for that to happen.

Mr Doug Mack, Fanatics' chief executive, said it wanted to expand globally and had acquired rights to sell merchandise from nearly a dozen English Premier League teams, including Manchester United and Everton.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2017, with the headline 'Sports apparel maker Fanatics scores'. Print Edition | Subscribe