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Return of CFL Games Good for Retail After Missing Last Season: Interviews

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The return of the Canadian Football League after missing last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic will be a boon for teams selling their merchandise through their own stores and online as well as retail outlets throughout the country.

And one team, in particular, has been experiencing the sales boom – the newly-named Edmonton Elks, who this season changed their name from the long-standing Eskimos.

“There’s a rhythm to managing sports teams and it has to do from going season to season. You play a season and then there’s an off season and you have to put together all of your sponsorship, your tickets, all that kind of stuff. It’s the same in hockey . . . You get into a real rhythm. Everybody does but the pandemic blew that up big time,” said Allan Watt, Executive Director, Marketing for the CFL team in Edmonton.

“We’re starting a season, and really starting a league, for the first time in two years.”

Watt said the football club has been “unbelievably pleased” with the response to the brand change right from the beginning.

Image: Edmonton Elks

“We had merchandise on day one and it turned out to be a beautiful day. It really captivated everybody. It looks good on hats. It looks good on T-shirts. It looks good on hoodies and that’s our business. It looks good on golf-shirts and all down the line,” he said.

“There are at least 15 people all the time in our team store and of course online sales are more than mirroring that. As rebrands go for a sports team in Edmonton, maybe even in Canada, it’s been very successful.”

Watt said the retail aspect of the business is very important to the football club.

“The beautiful thing about the Canadian Football League is that it’s reliant on people to buy tickets and then when they buy tickets if they like your hats, your T-shirts, the uniform that you wear, then they’ll buy merchandise,” he said.

“And we’ve been very fortunate that way. There’s a lot of green and gold around Edmonton and our fans all over the place. So the merchandise component to what the Edmonton Elks do is very important and when we do our end-of-the-year locker room sale –  just like any other retail location at the end of the season we have stuff that we can mark down – it’s so big we have to have it at the stadium.”

Like many CFL clubs, the Elks have a retail store at the stadium but on game day there are stores, and kiosks, throughout the stadium as well as mobile units outside the stadium.

“People are hungry for our product,” said Watt, explaining the demand in the market due primarily to the brand change.

“For us, the January to July period was more than we could have expected and in July to August numbers are very good. We’re very pleased with the way things have turned out and we haven’t played a game yet. When people see it, when they get here and some of them will not have been to a sporting event for two years, and I’m sure this is the same in Calgary, Winnipeg, Regina and elsewhere I think there will be a thirst that needs to be quenched and we’ve got the product to do it.”

The Saskatchewan Roughriders have a long history of retail success with fans across the country purchasing all sorts of things with the Rider colours and logo.

Image: Saskatchewan Roughriders

Mark Habicht, Director of Retail Operations and Licensing for the Riders, said game day is such a big component of the club’s retail operations.

“That was really the piece that hurt so much last year,” he said. “Quite easily it can be a fifth of our sales and sometimes even a quarter of our sales on game days alone especially when you lead in and come out of the game. We’re finding especially over the years that on a Friday game the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday lead up can be really, really strong and really important to that game.

“And of course if you win or have a really good showing, the next couple of days afterwards can be really important. So you really have that peak that is the game day where kind of the doors get blown off in terms of sales. But the lead in and lead out are so important and I think more so than ever. People are getting more organized, they’re getting more savvy and they’re doing their shopping a couple of days in advance. That was what was really missing last year.”

Because of the pandemic, the online store became so important in the past year, with more than half of the business online.

“It was an all-time record for us online and we’re certainly looking to keep that momentum going,” said Habicht.

The football team has its main store which is about 5,000 square feet at the stadium. But it also has a game day store in the south end zone and four kiosks around the stadium. There’s also a trailer used out front of the stadium for fans to walk up and buy. In the past, it’s also had a pre-game party in the park next to the stadium that houses an outdoor kiosk.

“Certainly we try and make it as easy as possible to knock down all the barriers on game day so people have opportunity to get what they need in time for the game or during the game,” he added.

Lawrence Berger, Co-Founder and Partner at Ames Watson and Chairman of FanzzLids Holdings which is the owner of sports retailer, Lids, said sales have been strong for the North American retailer as professional sports opens up with fans in attendance.

Lids at Avalon Mall – January 2021 (Photo Crombie REIT)

“We are hopeful that they will continue to be strong . . . People are just super excited to get out whether it’s to a concert or to a game or as we’ve been (used to) in the fall to tailgates and all that kind of stuff. That is going to drive a lot,” said Berger.

“If you’re returning to a hockey game or an NFL game and it’s been two years, and a college football game, people have real pent up demand. They want to buy new stuff. They want to buy new hats. They want to buy new jerseys. They want to buy sweatshirts and all that kind of stuff.

“The other part of what’s going on is I think our society has just become much more casual because of COVID. When I talk to my lawyer, or when I meet my lawyer, now he’s often wearing a hoodie with his favourite sports team on it. That didn’t happen before COVID. He was always wearing a suit. That general casualness with people wearing a hat on a Zoom call or just wearing jeans and a hoodie or T-shirt that also plays into the increased demand.”

While people have been engaged and sales have been strong, Berger said he doesn’t believe the retailer yet has a good sense of it. For the North American retailer, that important gauge of sales, will come when the National Football League starts up again.

“Football is the biggest sport in North America in terms of dollars. People go to stadiums. People tailgate. All that kind of stuff. That will be really interesting,” added Berger.

“I think we’re just at the very front end of fans rushing back into the arenas . . . I think the NFL as a league and anyone who is selling NFL stuff is anticipating it being very, very strong.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He now works on his own as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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