Sports stores feed fans' dreams
Amid hard times, businesses grow, fueled by Americans' obsession
Even if other industries have been hobbled by the recession, some can still rely on sports fans' love for their teams.
For many Americans, "sports are still an escape mechanism" in hard times, said Jessica Braunstein, assistant professor of sports management at Towson University.
For example, HomeGamers is tapping this market by offering a wide range of sports merchandise, from team apparel to all the proper furnishings for a fan's "man cave."
HomeGamers opened its main location at the Town Mall of Westminster in March 2007 and opened a franchise location in the St. Charles Town Center in Waldorf in September, said vice president Jeff Hinton. A large portion of the original merchandise sold at the Westminster store originated in the basement of company president Marc Heyman.
In addition to clothing such as jerseys, shirts and hats that bear the logos of local pro teams such as the Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens and Baltimore Orioles, HomeGamers also offers merchandise with the logos of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the University of Maryland and NASCAR.
The company also sells pool tables, air hockey tables, arcade-style video games and tables for card games, plus home entertainment amenities, including several autographed posters from movies and television shows, including "E.T." and "The Sopranos."
Name-brand products from companies such as Harley-Davidson, Jack Daniel's, Coors Light and Budweiser are also available, Heyman said.
One athlete's jersey in demand these days is that of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre, according to Target spokeswoman Michaela Gleason. It's among the most popular sellers for the nationwide retailer, she said, as is sports apparel in general for women, such as jerseys and shirts.
Americans spend about $4 billion a year on sports collectibles, according to FranChoice Inc., which provides franchising information and services.
Meanwhile, data from the National Sporting Goods Association show sales of sports clothing and equipment not memorabilia- or team-themed merchandise dipped from 2007 to 2008 and are expected to dip further this year. Clothing sales in 2007 totaled $10.83 billion, falling to $10.56 billion last year. Equipment sales fell to $24.88 billion last year from $25.06 billion in 2007.
Products and service
HomeGamers offers "both the product and the service," Heyman said, as his company will deliver and install larger products, such as a pool table or bar.
"You can go buy an arcade game on the Internet, but who wants a 300-pound paperweight when it stops working?" he said.
Although the products at HomeGamers would appear to cater to only those with a lot of disposable income, Heyman pointed out that the store also offers less expensive products.
"People say you have to be a millionaire to shop in here," Heyman said. "We have $3 key chains here."
Heyman and Hinton declined to disclose specific figures, but sales of their licensed sports apparel and memorabilia have increased about 20 percent over the last year while sales of their larger items, including home entertainment products, have "held steady," according to Hinton.
For those wanting to open their own HomeGamers, the franchise fee is $28,500 for the first store, then reduced by 25 percent for each store, according to franchise spokeswoman Amy Bannon. The initial investment cost for opening a HomeGamers is estimated at $244,500 to $456,000.
Fans still seeking out the game's best
Sales of apparel and memorabilia also help attendance at attractions such as the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Sports Legend Museum in Baltimore, which, despite the recession, has seen its attendance increase 1.5 percent from fiscal 2008, said executive director Michael Gibbons.
The museum, behind Oriole Park at Camden Yards, has memorabilia commemorating Ruth as well as Baltimore-area teams past and present such as the old Baltimore Bullets, the Orioles, the Ravens and the Baltimore Colts, who moved to Indianapolis in 1983.
The museum, which hosts up to 70,000 visitors a year, also recognizes athletes from the Baltimore area such as Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and NBA player Carmelo Anthony. Gate receipts at the museum increased 28 percent from fiscal 2008, Gibbons said, and its budget for the current fiscal year is $1.9 million.
"It fluctuates," Gibbons said of the museum's budget. "We have made a little more money than we spent."
The museum, with 25 combined full-time employees and part-time volunteers, reduced its staff four years ago by 40 percent. The museum "keeps expenses to a minimum," according to Gibbons, by holding fewer receptions and offering fewer corporate memberships.
"We can be proactive to prepare for what the economy may bring," he said. "It is tenuous and difficult to prognosticate what will happen, but we try to be lean and mean."
The museum has also seen fewer sponsors for events such as its annual gala featuring former Orioles star Brooks Robinson. However, while seeing an increase in gate receipts, the museum has also seen a slight increase in revenue and an increase in donations.
"People are still helping in tough times," Gibbons said.
There is no recession'
While other businesses have struggled in recent years, HomeGamers follows the mantra, "Licensed sports apparel there is no recession," according to Hinton.
"If you watch the games, the seats are still full," he said.
Opening a store in a mall made things more flexible for HomeGamers as well, Heyman said, because "the mall was more flexible" because of lower rent for businesses that open there.
Vendors are also much more eager to sign up new clients because many other vendors are going out of business, according to Heyman. One of HomeGamers' biggest competitors, Champion Billiards, has cut the number of its stores to two, he said. Champions Billiards' Web site says it has locations in Annapolis and Fairfax, Va.
Some competitors have also suffered because they lack a range of merchandise, Heyman said. "If we were just selling pool tables and game tables, we would be out of business right now, too."
HomeGamers has not laid off any of its 14 employees, but Heyman said the company tries to manage its "inventory better and buy smarter."
Because teams in leagues such as the NFL almost never change their logos, vendors can buy jerseys from the previous year for up to 60 percent less, according to Heyman.
Heyman and Hinton have aspirations to expand HomeGamers along the East Coast, from "New England to Florida and everywhere in between," Hinton said. Heyman's goal is to have HomeGamers locations in areas where multiple sports teams can be found, both professional and collegiate.
An ideal location for a HomeGamers store would be Philadelphia, Heyman said, as the city has four major pro teams, plus college teams.
An innate identification'
A fan's love of a certain team and the yearning to spend money on tickets and merchandise stems from identification with the team, said Braunstein, of Towson University.
"They grew up with that team," she said. "They may have gone to the same university so they have that innate identification."
Some fans may view a sporting event as a social experience, while some may be somewhat reluctant to overindulge in their love of sports, according to Braunstein.
"It is seen as negative in general to spend in that way," she said. However, even though more people on focusing on "wants versus needs" and people are focusing more on needs, the spending is still there.
Changes in technology can help people remain involved in sports, Braunstein said, citing examples such as fantasy football and the fact that more people watch sporting events from home.