Will he or won’t he?

Don't let that faint drip-drop noise you're hearing worry you. It's just the sound of hundreds of licensees collectively salivating over the prospect that Michael Jordan-easily the most marketable athlete to play in the NBA (or professional sports in general, for...
July 1, 2001

Don’t let that faint drip-drop noise you’re hearing worry you. It’s just the sound of hundreds of licensees collectively salivating over the prospect that Michael Jordan-easily the most marketable athlete to play in the NBA (or professional sports in general, for that matter)-is considering yet another comeback. And should his Airness decide to dust off his Nikes again, you can rest assured there will be no shortage of companies elbowing for a spot on the Jordan Comeback Tour Part II, hoping to crank out a volume of licensed merch that retailers have not seen for a single athlete since, well. . . the last time Jordan returned to the hard court in 1996.

With the smart money betting Jordan will suit up this fall for the Washington Wizards (since he owns a part of the team), existing NBA licensees are mapping out contingency plans for capitalizing on the event.

‘We’re very, very anxiously awaiting his comeback. Essentially, it could make [or break] our year,’ says Richard Heller, NBA marketing manager at Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based Champion Products. As the official replica jersey licensee of the NBA, Champion began including a Jordan Wizards jersey in sell sheets that it sent out to retailers in May.

The pre-orders Champion is racking up won’t become active until Jordan’s status is decided, says Heller, ‘but it gives us a read on what kind of volume retailers can expect.’ However in mid-June, Heller said orders were slow, adding that buyers wanted to wait until Jordan officially announced his comeback before allocating part of their budgets to the product.

While Heller says that Champion won’t produce any replica jerseys that commemorate Jordan’s return, other licensees, like Carlsbad, California-based Upper Deck, are basing the bulk of their lines on the event.

Upper Deck spokesperson Maria Mancera says that the trading card company, which maintains separate licensing agreements with both the NBA and Michael Jordan, is reviewing product it released in ’96. Back then, Upper Deck secured the jersey Jordan wore his first game back, snipped it up and glued swatches of it to cards. The popular memorabilia sets sold extremely well for the privately held company and sparked a new trend in collectible trading cards, says Mancera. ‘If he decides to play again, we’ll be juicing up all kinds of collectible products,’ she adds.

That both Mancera and Champion’s Heller are bullish on the ex-Bull’s return is not surprising considering the funk that the NBA and the entire sports licensing industry have been in for the last couple of years. During the NBA’s last heyday in the mid- to late `90s, the league was grossing US$2 billion in licensing revenues annually, half of which was triggered by Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, says Marty Brochstein, executive editor of The Licensing Letter.

Though Mancera won’t discuss figures, she says Jordan’s last exit from the game caused Upper Deck’s card business to dip, adding that it’s taken longer for the game’s new stars to connect with fans. Champion’s Heller, though, is more candid. The last time Jordan retired, ‘it killed us,’ he says, noting that sales of Champion’s replica jerseys more than doubled in ’96-Jordan’s first season back-over ’95. If Jordan were to play again, Heller projects Champion’s jersey business would increase by at least 50%.

While the NBA would doubtless love to have Air Jordan back in the fold, Sal LaRocca, senior VP of consumer products at the league, is quick to downplay expectations. He says there are a number of things that have changed since Jordan last played, which might block another storybook return. Firstly, Jordan would be returning to the hapless Wizards, a far cry from his `96 Bulls, a contending team that featured a number of marketable players. Secondly, the sports licensing biz is still slumping. Gross licensing revenues for the NBA-still smarting from the ’98 lockout-dropped to US$1.2 billion last year, down from US$1.4 billion in ’99, according to The Licensing Letter’s Brochstein.

There is also recent evidence that supports LaRocca’s view that the big-name athlete’s comeback does not always equal a licensing slam-dunk. For example, hockey star Mario Lemieux’s return boosted the NHL’s licensing revenues by only 1% to 2%, estimates Jim Haskins, senior director of marketing at NHL Enterprises. However, Haskins points out that Lemieux’s decision to return mid-season didn’t give the league much time to mount a full-blown licensing program.

But even if Jordan does give the league ample warning before suiting up, the NBA, surprisingly, doesn’t stand to boost its licensee count significantly. As it relates to Jordan, the league only controls the trading card and jersey categories.

Nevertheless, LaRocca says the NBA would welcome Jordan’s return: ‘It would be a positive for all of our businesses because it would draw global attention to the sport, and to the Wizards, specifically, if he plays with them.’

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