With WWF head mouthpiece Vince McMahon’s bad-ass football league preparing to kick off this month, you can be sure of one thing: the marketplace will not want for all manner of product sporting the league logo. (Remember the WWF condom, anyone?) For now, though, the XFL braintrust are preaching moderation when it comes to its licensing strategy.
‘We’re purposely limiting our number of partners. We don’t want to go where other leagues have gone and have hundreds of licensees. We don’t want to create a price war in every category and at every distribution level,’ says Kevin McGoldrick, director of licensing and merchandising at the XFL.
So far, the league has signed approximately 30 licensees, a number McGoldrick says he will not be adding to much further. Among the companies joining the huddle in the kids area are: Hasbro, which, as master toy licensee, will create a range of toys, including action figures based on players and possibly XFL cheerleaders; THQ, which will produce video games for multiple platforms; Topps, which will create trading cards of players and cheerleaders; and Happy Kids and Trinity Products, which will produce kids novelty jerseys and T-shirts respectively. Other licensees include Champion (replica jerseys, tees, fleece), Antigua (sideline polo apparel) and Nike (on-the-field gloves and shoes). The XFL will be segmenting its merchandise for mid-tier, mass and specialty retailers based on the channel in which each licensee does the majority of its business.
Most of the kids XFL merchandise, including the toys and the video games, won’t reach stores until season two, though Hasbro is planning to release one action figure sometime this season. In March, Topps will bow with its first set of cards. Each pack (US$1.99) will feature seven regular cards and one relic card, which will contain a piece of XFL memorabilia, like a cut-off strip of a player’s jersey, for example. To promote the cards, Topps has given 200,000 promo packs to the XFL, which will distribute them at each of the eight home game openers, at WWF and RAW live events, and to consumers who buy any XFL merchandise through its website. In April, Topps will launch a consumer-driven print campaign for the cards with ads in Tuff Stuff magazine and in wrestling publications.
Topps, like all of the league’s licensees, is hoping that the same folks who turned the WWF into a multimillion-dollar merchandising concern can do the same for the XFL. Since league play begins after the NFL season ends and will conclude in late April, just as the NBA’s playoffs are starting, the XFL has an excellent opportunity to win over consumers, says Jerry McCarrick, publishing director at New York-based Topps. It doesn’t hurt that NBC, which owns 50% of the XFL, will be broadcasting the league’s games nationally on Saturday nights. (TNN and UPN will carry games on Sunday afternoons and Sunday night respectively.)
Already there are signs that consumer interest in the league is running high. According to McGoldrick, the red-and-black XFL football, which licensee Spalding released in November, was ranked the fifth best-selling football based on retail sales for the month of December.
Still, successfully merchandising the XFL will likely prove more challenging to execute than it was for the WWF. The WWF, while harboring pretensions to being a legitimate sport, is a pure entertainment property, replete with made-up story lines that licensees can easily translate into product. The XFL, on the other hand, is billing itself as the real deal. ‘It’s not going to be scripted. It will be real football. There are things we can hope for, but we’re going to be playing it by ear,’ says McGoldrick. Rather than selecting players from the get-go around which to build licensing and marketing programs, the XFL’s plan is to let its most marketable players-whether by dint of their talent or personality-emerge naturally.
On the field, the XFL is promising a quicker, more exciting brand of the sport than is currently available. To achieve this, it has implemented rule changes to speed up games, such as the no-fair-catch rule, making it mandatory for teams to return all kick-offs, and shortening the amount of time allowed between plays. There are other touches, too, that will (ahem) distinguish it from other football leagues. ‘In the NFL, you get penalized if you taunt the opposition when you score a touchdown. In this league, razzing the other team is going to be mandatory,’ says Topps’s McCarrick. On TV, the XFL won’t resemble any other sports property on the dial either.
NBC will use different camera angles and will mike players and coaches at all times to bring TV viewers closer to the field of play. And if the game action should lag, there will be plenty of off-the-field shenanigans to keep viewers distracted. NBC has hired well-known TV talent, including wrestler-turned-politico Jesse the Body Ventura, who will do color commentary for some of the games, and actor and ex-NFLer Dick Buttkis, who will serve as a roving Commissioner of Rules, ready to discipline any players who dare to step out of line. Oh, and then there are the cheerleaders. Did I mention the scantily-clad cheerleaders?
‘The [cheerleaders] are definitely going to be high-profile. We see them as being a large part of the entertainment package we put out there,’ says McGoldrick, who adds that the league will develop separate story lines on them and other off-the-field personnel.
How high-profile? ‘If one team scores, don’t be surprised if you see the opposing team’s cheerleaders or mascots duking it out on the sidelines,’ says one XFL licensee.
Even with the promise of female cleavage and uncontrolled violence, the XFL will have a tough time stealing away fan loyalty from the NFL. Retailers, though, appear willing to take a chance on it.
‘We’ll have to wait and see if kids relate to the action in the league. The XFL will have to watch that they don’t go to the same extreme [in terms of content] that the WWF did, because they actually succeeded in turning kids off. If they can control what they do, they have a shot. We’re certainly going to try it,’ says Mark Kaplan, divisional merchandise manager at Rocky Hill, Connecticut-based Ames Department stores.