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Sports store sales hit ice during hockey lockout



Published: Thu, January 27, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Bars in hockey towns see fewer customers.

DENVER (AP) -- Inside a tiny sports apparel store in the 16th Street Mall are racks of jerseys, from the dark blue of the Denver Broncos to the golden tinge of basketball's hometown Nuggets. Tucked in a back corner are the crimson jerseys of the Colorado Avalanche, largely forgotten in a lost National Hockey League season.

Sales have gone cold since the hometown hockey team stopped playing, Sportsfan manager Chastity Cannon said. Overall business is down by one-fourth and holiday sales were off by half.

"Without hockey, it's been just a horrible year," she said. "I've noticed that a lot of the hard-core, die-hard fans continue to look, but when there's no season, we don't get the new merchandise they're looking for."

The dispute that has kept NHL players locked out for 133 days as of Wednesday has meant millions of dollars in losses for stores, restaurants and businesses across North America that rely at least in part on a professional hockey team for their livelihood. Even if the season is saved, few expect a big rebound in business.

Bob Phillips, a salesman for East Side Sporting Goods in suburban Detroit, said sales of Red Wings and other hockey apparel have been "dead."

"I talked to a competitor, and it's the same thing," Phillips said. "Obviously, if they're not playing, they're not selling."

At a Sports Authority store in King of Prussia, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, Flyers fans aren't out looking for hockey jerseys -- not with the 76ers and the Super Bowl-bound Eagles holding everyone's attention.

"I bet we haven't sold a hockey shirt in two months," store manager Joe Tarantino said. "They're not playing. Why are you going to buy a shirt and wear it for nothing?"

Missed games

The lockout has cost fans and businesses more than 700 of 1,230 regular-season games in 30 U.S. and Canadian cities. It has hit people like Troy Johnston, co-owner of Brauns Bar and Grill, a long slapshot from the Pepsi Center, home of the Avalanche. In a typical season, the restaurant is packed with 800 to 1,000 patrons on hockey nights.

Johnson has filled some of those nights with holiday parties and other events, but crowds vary. He expects a six-figure drop in business by the end of what would have been the NHL season.

"We definitely rely on events that happen next door because you've got a large, captive audience," he said. "Hockey is a good draw. It rivals the Broncos. ... Well, not now."

U.S. retail sales of NHL merchandise plunged by about 55 percent last year due to the lockout, said Neil Schwartz of West Palm Beach, Fla.-based SportScanInfo, which tracks weekly sales data from sporting goods stores, excluding team-owned and venue stores. Holiday sales were just a quarter of the same period in 2003.

The four most popular NHL categories -- jerseys, headwear, T-shirts and sweatshirts -- totaled $64.4 million in calendar year 2004 -- a sharp drop from $140 million in 2003, he said.

While individual businesses are suffering, economic studies suggest the overall impact on NHL cities will be minimal.

"When people are not going to the Pepsi arena in Denver, they're spending their money at other entertainment venues, be it a restaurant or a bowling alley or a live theater or movie theater," said economics professor Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College. "The main loss here is in the cultural or social sphere; it's not in the economics sphere."

NHL hockey typically generates about $750,000 in revenue per game, money that won't necessarily be replaced because it is difficult to book major events into arenas on short notice, said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago sports consulting firm SportsCorp.

Winning back fans

Many believe the NHL will face a difficult campaign to win back U.S. fans, who have been fairly quiet during the lockout compared with the outcry during the baseball strike in 1994-95.

"The silence from the fans, at least in the U.S., has been deafening," Ganis said. "That should be the greatest concern. How do we get these fans to feel passionate about the NHL again?"

The longer the work stoppage, the longer it will take sales to recuperate, said Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

"One of the things that's the key to sales of licensed sales products is visibility," he said. "If the team is not visible, it's out of sight, out of mind, out of pocket, out of luck," he said.

Schwartz, of Sport ScanInfo, agreed, noting that the NHL is the least popular of the four major sports.

"I think it's going to hurt the sport in general; there's no question about it," he said. "When and if they do come back to work, I think they're going to have such an uphill battle."

Back at Sportsfan, Cannon is hoping to see a boost next month when the NBA All-Star game is played at the Pepsi Center.

"We're really expecting it to lift our business, but it won't compare to when hockey is also in town," she said.




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