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Sports Licensing Reaches a Crossroads image

Sports Licensing Reaches a Crossroads

By Mark Seavy

The quick sellout of the new WNBA jerseys of Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese represents a crossroads for sports licensing—it could be a turning point for women’s sports merchandise or a cautionary tale.

Clark’s Indiana Fever jersey sold out within an hour and Reese’s Chicago Sky jersey sold out within a week. And while the sellout of much hyped player jerseys, often available in limited quantities, is not new, in this case it points to a need for Fanatics, Nike, and other merchandise suppliers to recalibrate their manufacturing strategies.

For example, Clark’s jersey will not be available again until August, by which time the WNBA will be well into its regular season. And Dick’s Sporting Goods will not launch sales of either jersey until October.

Unfortunately, this limited availability is in many ways an improvement. Reese and Clark (who signed a $20-million deal with Nike last week) had jerseys and other merchandise available, even if there wasn’t enough volume to meet consumer demand. When Chicago Sky stars Candace Parker and Diamond DeShields were drafted in 2021, no merchandise was available.

“The jersey issue was a colossal failure and the only reason behind it can be a disrespect for women’s sports,” said Steve Scebelo, President of sports and licensing consulting firm REP Worldwide and former President of NFL Players Inc. “It is not like Caitlin Clark surprised anyone—everyone knew that she was coming. You are leaving money on the table if you cannot figure it out.”

There are some, however, who argue that scarcity could ultimately drive demand.

“To be under-inventoried [for Clark] at the start is not necessarily a bad thing because it makes it exciting,” a licensing executive said. “You could not have had the timing better for demand since the NCAA final was two weeks ahead of the WNBA draft. Had the draft been in three months, people might not have cared as much.”

But several recent deals make it clear that consumers do care about women’s sports merchandise.

Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) star Nelly Korda, who won her fifth straight tournament this past weekend, launched her first-ever apparel collection with Scandinavian clothing brand J. Lindeberg in November. Korda also signed a sponsorship deal with Nike, becoming the first female golfer to sign such an agreement and joining five male pro golfers. And the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) signed a representation deal with NFL Players Inc. and REP Worldwide, which handled licensing for the 2019 USWNT team that won the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

In order to fully capitalize on the popularity of female athletes, however, change is needed.

The WNBA, which launched in 1996, remains under the NBA for licensing. It brings in about $200 million in annual revenue, against the NBA’s $10 billion. The WNBA’s profitability hinges on media rights and its $60-million annual agreement (up for renewal in 2025) will benefit from the arrival of athletes like Clark and Reese. Clark was partly responsible for the recent NCAA women’s basketball final drawing 18.7 million viewers, four million more than the men’s final. The renewal of the WNBA’s annual agreement will also come at a time when streaming services are competing to collect broadcast rights for live sports.

To prioritize female athletes and their fans moving forward, many organizations are inking new partnerships.

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) signed a fan apparel agreement with print-on-demand supplier BreakingT in 2022 and a representation deal with OneTeam Partners. It also partnered with Amazon earlier this year to set up an online fan shop. The Professional Women’s Hockey League, which started play in January, has the backing of the Mark Walker Group and Billie Jean King Enterprises and signed a contract with the Professional Women’s Hockey League Players Association that gives it the licensing rights for players.

“With women’s sports, this is a great time to be an investor and be involved with it,” a licensing executive said.

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