There is little doubt that the era of big time sports has been upon us for quite a while. Nothing stirs passions amongst North Americans like a great inter-state rivalry or an intra-divisional clash of teams from different (or even similar) geographic regions and/or cities. I acknowledge that there may be more passionate fans globally when it comes to the “beautiful game” of football (or soccer as it is called in North America), but I want to focus on the retailing efforts of a couple of the big name, major sports leagues that North American fans tend to revere. I also acknowledge North America’s efforts surrounding Major League Soccer (MLS) and the merchandising and marketing muscle of professional wrestling and NASCAR.

Because of the passion and the amount of money now involved in today’s big league sports (Major League Baseball (MLB), National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL)), marketing these leagues is very big business and there is no expense spared in order to position or “brand” their league and logo to the general population. Admittedly, hockey ranks behind the “Big 3” but this means they are required to create even more buzz and energy surrounding their product because of their standing.

That is why I find the stores that two of these leagues have built and operate within blocks of each other, fascinating (I have yet to see an NFL or MLB store).

The NBA store, which is on very tony and very expensive 5th Avenue has been around for a while and is certainly a full expression of the game it serves. It is noisy, packed with merchandise and offers a variety of activities which provides just enough entertainment. Anything related to the selling of NBA logo merchandise is pretty well available somewhere in this store. It takes a while to meander the entire place on two floors and there are interesting little rooms to explore. I have never been disappointed with respect to being in stock in any type of player or team jersey I have asked for or even in an obscure NBA logo item like a Timberwolves lunch box. They had it.

The contrast is evident when you then head a block west to Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue) into the shiny new NHL store “Powered by Reebok”. I am not sure what the arrangement was between these two titans but the store is not a good reflection on either brand, especially when you compare it to the NBA store. You would think these guys would have gone to school on that basketball emporium.

The NHL store is a stark, white room with an exceedingly high ceiling, with very little merchandise available. There are the requisite large screen televisions blasting the NHL Network feed to anyone who cared (mainly the staff). The mezzanine in the back of the store (almost like a balcony) houses the studio for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s XM Satellite Radio show.

The merchandise assortment was pathetic, but then again, hockey is not the most popular sport in the U.S., so why carry much merchandise if you aren’t going to sell it. Correct me if I am wrong, but the goal of these types of stores is not necessarily to become cash cows, but to be brand beacons. Am I mistaken? This is an incredible opportunity to show Americans from all over the U.S. and tourists from all over the world (as Manhattan surely is a magnet for all of those) what the NHL is, where it has been and where it is going through their merchandising. Yes, all leagues have internet presences (and a dictatorial attitude surrounding the look and feel for some of the leagues – hence the importance of branding online at least), but the one place with the league name on the door, where customers can physically interact with the brand and the product is their very own store. The NHL flat out blew it.

My cousins visited both stores in Manhattan recently. Their sons are huge hockey fans from “Hockeytown”, U.S.A. (Detroit, reigning Stanley Cup Champions). All one of the sons wanted was a particular player’s sweater from an “Original Six” team. No stock was available and they couldn’t even make one up for him. What is the purpose of the NHL store, if they cannot satisfy the fans desire for basic merchandise? Not to mention, there was no breadth or depth to the assortment and the visuals were lousy. This should be a hockey fan’s nirvana. All my cousin’s son wanted to do in Manhattan was visit the NHL store. They walked out empty handed. But they walked over to the NBA store and loaded up with stuff. Does that tell you anything?

The NHL have clearly missed another opportunity to brand themselves as belonging in the big leagues when it comes to marketing and reaching out to their fans. Maybe instead of Reebok’s money, they should spend some of their own so that hockey fans can get a similar retail experience to basketball fans.

TheRetailTherapist 🙂