Back to the Beginning

A new wrinkle has been added to the well-established technique of sports-related cross-licensing, as today’s professional athletes are co-branded with their youthful selves.

Last summer, NFL Players Inc., which handles licensing for the NFL Players Association, teamed with Pop Warner Little Scholars for a line of merchandise highlighting current players in their Pop Warner youth football uniforms. At about the same time, the Major League Baseball Players Association similarly partnered with Little League Baseball and Softball on a line of mini-figures from OYO Sports featuring pro baseball players in their Little League All-Star uniforms.

And, in December, NFLPI expanded its collegiate cross-licensing program. It retained agency Brandr to handle that part of its licensing and marketing efforts and added Fanatics, an e-commerce retailer of both NFL player and collegiate merchandise, to launch a customized jersey program under the NFLPI-collegiate cross-licensing umbrella. More than 75 current NFL players are portrayed in their collegiate uniforms, from 12 schools, on merchandise from more than a dozen licensees.

Cross-licensing, primarily involving character/entertainment properties along with leagues, teams, and/or players, has long had a presence in the sports sector. Going back at least to the mid-1990s, the four major U.S. leagues were partnering with classic characters such as Peanuts, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, and Looney Tunes.

The trend tends to ebb and flow cyclically, but has been on the upswing lately, with characters from Hello Kitty and Tokidoki to Domo and Betty Boop all being featured with team or athlete imagery on a range of merchandise, in association with the leagues and/or their players associations. The technique also has expanded internationally; examples range from Sesame Street and the Australian Football League to Smeshariki and the Zenit St. Petersburg soccer club in Russia, to name just two.

These sorts of cross-licensing programs generate publicity, give collectors something new, and create child-friendly merchandise to enhance the leagues’, teams’, and players associations’ ongoing licensing efforts. The combination of current players and their past satisfies all three of these goals, and represents a new twist on a proven licensing tactic.

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