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Universal bulks up on sports properties

Cross-licensing, it can be said, is all about the art of gaining access. Uniting this entertainment property with that athlete or sports brand into licensed merchandise allows both principals potential entry to new markets. That's one of the major incentives behind...
March 1, 2001

Cross-licensing, it can be said, is all about the art of gaining access. Uniting this entertainment property with that athlete or sports brand into licensed merchandise allows both principals potential entry to new markets. That’s one of the major incentives behind Universal Studios Consumer Products Group’s string of new sports signings, which includes representation agreements with NFLer Deion Sanders, sophomore NBA player Wally Sczcerbiak and the Honda Racing Team motorcross and supercross riders, all of which the studio’s licensing arm announced recently at sports industry convention The Super Show.

‘Within the sports world, you have a whole different set of retailers, like the Sports Authorities and Oshman’s, for example, who we have never called on before. By associating ourselves with major athletes, and creating various sports products that make sense, we feel we will be able gain access to those tiers of distribution,’ says Tim Rothwell, senior VP of licensing, merchandising and retail development at Universal Studios Consumer Products Group.

Under the terms of the three separate agreements, Universal will use a two-tiered strategy to develop licensing and promotional programs around each of the athletes: one for adults that features mostly athlete-branded product, and another for kids that combines the athletes with Universal kids characters.

For Deion Sanders, who is famous for playing both professional football and baseball, Uni will license companies to create sports toys, apparel and interactive games featuring Sanders’ likeness or signature with Universal characters Woody Woodpecker, Crash Bandicoot and the Classic Monsters franchise. Rothwell thinks there’s also potential for licensees to merchandise Sanders’ multiple handles–Neon Deion and Prime Time-as well as his penchant for wearing bandanas.

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Wally Sczcerbiak, who is not yet considered a premiere player in the NBA, has a wholesome middle-America persona that Rothwell believes will endear him to a large segment of consumers. Sczcerbiak’s program will focus on incorporating his name or likeness with select Uni characters on basketballs and related accessories, and possibly an apparel line that would play off his high school nickname, Wally World.

The Honda Racing motorcross and supercross team, which along with Williams F1 Team is the second motor sports team USCPG represents, will focus on die-cast toy motorcycles, as well as a separate line of Honda-branded bicycles and accessories. Rothwell hasn’t ruled out doing co-licensed product, but for now he says it’s more likely any co-branding of its characters with the Honda brand or its riders will occur in promotional initiatives only.

While it’s not a huge part of its business yet, dual-brand licensing has already paid dividends for the studio. In ’97, a variety of licensed merch based on NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon’s vehicle that came emblazoned with artwork from Uni’s dino feature Jurassic Park sold US$20 million at retail, according to Rothwell.

And though it appears Universal is becoming more of a player in the sports licensing business (recent deals include repping Mexican NASCAR driver Adrian Fernandez, and it currently manages programs for five sports properties), Rothwell says USCPG does not want to become a full-fledged sports agency.

‘We have a focused strategy, and we’re only taking athletes who are up-and-comers or who have reached a high level of performance; then we’re trying to grow the businesses around them,’ says Rothwell.

Universal is planning to launch the merchandise programs for Sanders and Sczcerbiak in early ’02, with the Honda merch likely to hit stores later the same year.

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