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T-Shirts Are Stars of Two NBA Teams

May 1, 1995

Among the 29 National Basketball Association teams, the Toronto Raptors rank seventh and the Vancouver Grizzlies are 12th.

In merchandise sales, that is.

The two NBA expansion teams still don’t have any players, and they won’t get any until a special draft is held late next month. Nonetheless, the teams have already sold millions of dollars of T-shirts, caps and backpacks featuring the Raptors’ purple-and-red dinosaur logo and the Grizzlies’ teal-and-brown snarling bear.

History suggests that once reality intrudes and the Raptors and Grizzlies begin playing, their merchandise sales will slide. ``Every expansion team has this early frenzy,″ says Greg Pesky, managing editor of Sporting Goods Business, a trade magazine. ``If it’s not an extra strong logo, the sales start to level off.″

But the two Canadian teams _ Canada’s only NBA franchises _ may be a special case. After all, the game of basketball was invented by Canadian James Naismith in the 19th century. And nearly 50 years ago, when the NBA was called the Basketball Association of America, its first game was played at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens between the Toronto Huskies and the New York Knickerbockers. (The Knicks won, 68-66, and the Huskies folded within the year.)

Canadians aren’t the only market, either. Ben Freedman, a partner in the Toronto T-Shirt Co., believes Canada’s popularity as a tourist destination will keep sales high. ``Kids love dinosaurs. Even people outside of Toronto will bring back a Raptors hat if they just want a souvenir of the city,″ he says.

The NBA won’t release sales figures for individual teams, but it estimates that total licensed product sales will hit $3 billion world-wide this year, with $75 million to $100 million of that coming from Canada.

Since Toronto was awarded its franchise in November 1993, team president John Bitove Jr., scion of a family catering company with food concessions at Toronto’s SkyDome stadium, has maintained a steady drumroll of hype. A name-the-team contest, for example, generated about 100,000 responses from across Canada.

Mr. Bitove also went for pure-gold hoop-star quality _ but little executive experience _ when he chose former Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas as his general manager, offering him an option to buy a piece of the team. As he awaits the arrival of his players, Mr. Thomas has been highly visible at public functions and schools.

Vancouver organizers stumbled out of the gate when they chose Mounties as their initial name. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s copyright restrictions proved too limiting, and Mounties rode off into the sunset.

Team staff looked at mythical animals (dragons) and species native to British Columbia (orcas and cougars) before settling on grizzlies, which are indigenous to the area and easy to animate, says Larry Donen, vice president of properties and licensing.

Both teams relied on designers with NBA Properties, the league’s licensing arm, in Secaucus, N.J. Creative director Tom O’Grady and his staffers visited the cities and worked with team owners.

To keep their images fresh, the teams have developed ``secondary″ logos. In one, the Raptors’ dinosaur bites a stylized ``TR″; in another, the dinosaur mauls a basketball; and in a third, the basketball forms part of a dinosaur claw print.

``It’s not necessary to be a winner on the court to be a winner in merchandising,″ says Jon Stern, manager of marketing communications at the NBA’s New York headquarters. The Golden State Warriors, who failed to make it to the NBA playoffs, were nonetheless No. 8 in merchandise sales in the first quarter.

But it isn’t easy. In the last expansion round, the Minnesota Timberwolves ranked No. 7 on the NBA’s list of the top 10 teams in product sales before their first game in 1989. Today, mired in last place in the Midwest division, the team ranks ``toward the bottom third″ in merchandise sales, says Jim Bastyr, the Timberwolves merchandise manager. There’s even talk that the team’s management will change its logo, a blue and white wolf superimposed on a silver basketball.

The expansion draft for the Canadian teams will be held after the NBA finals, which could end as late as June 21. Established teams can protect eight of their 12 players, and Toronto and Vancouver will pick from the rest. Instead of marquee players like Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, they’re likely to get journeymen like Philadelphia guard Greg Graham and Detroit guard Mark Macon.

The Canadian teams will also get to pick in each of the two rounds of the NBA college draft, which will be held on June 28 in Toronto.

For now, though, the teams are basking in their success at getting fans to ``cheer for laundry,″ as comedian Jerry Seinfeld puts it.

A visitor from Manchester, England, Gloria Mike, interviewed at Nicholby’s Sports & Souvenirs near the SkyDome, says she is buying a $10.95 Raptors cap for her 11-year-old son, Christopher, who sees NBA games via satellite. The team’s lack of players doesn’t matter to him, she says. ``They’ve become fashion items for the kids.″

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