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Sports Up 4.3% in 2016 to Reach $15.4 Billion in Sales

For the third year in a row, sports is the second-strongest property type with 4.3% growth in 2016, according to TLL’s Annual Licensing Business Survey. Retail sales of licensed sports-based merchandise reached $15.4 billion in 2016, up from $14.79 in 2015. Collegiate is also enjoying strong traction at 2.5% growth, reaching $3.5 billion in sales.

The 4.3% increase surpassed the overall increase in U.S./Canadian licensed sales for 2016 (3.2%) as well as the U.S. GDP (1.6%) and Canadian GDP (1.2%). Sports accounts for 14.5% of all licensed retail sales in the U.S./Canada, trailing only corporate trademarks (26.7%) and fashion (20.1%) in market share.

Retail Sales of Licensed Sports Merchandise, U.S & Canada, 2015–2016
Note: Numbers may not add up exactly due to rounding.
(Figures in Millions)
Property TypeRetail Sales, 2016Retail Sales, 2015Change, 2015–2016Share, 2016

Retail Sales by League

The major American sports leagues, such as the NFL, MBA, and up-and-comer MLS (which enjoyed double-digit growth), enjoyed an impressive year as their retail strategies in developing physical locations, ecommerce partners, and event-based merchandising continued to pay off.

NFL sales were up 3.7% in 2016, as compared to 3.4% in 2015. These growth rates are considerably lower than the 5.2% growth observed in 2014—the last two years were good, but not extraordinary. Note that sales of products based on licensed player properties (NFLPA) account for about one-third of total NFL sales.

For the second year in a row, MLB topped the ranking of licensed retail sales by league, growing 6.3% in 2016 to reach $3.74 billion. As in 2015, apparel was a strong growth point for baseball. Although a smaller share of total sales, the strong performance of novelties and accessories was a boost.

The NBA grew 8.3% in 2016, following an astonishing 9.1% boost in 2015. With sales topping $2.75 billion, the NBA now makes up 17.8% of all sports-based licensed sales.

NASCAR saw tepid growth of 0.9% in 2016 after growing the most of any league other than MLS in 2015 (10.1%). It was one of the only leagues to decline in 2014 with -7.3% growth. The turnaround began in 2015 with a “walk in” set-up for licensed merchandise, and the strategy is paying off with steady sales.

While the NHL is one of the smaller leagues, note that the steady 3.4% growth in 2016 followed a year of dramatic change in the league’s licensing program. In 2016, the NHL has a stronger presence in e-commerce and greater involvement in its own merchandise.

The PGA Tour sales contracted 0.5% in 2016, following years of steady but modest growth—sales were up 2.8% in 2015.

MLS sales were up 11.7% in 2016, the highest growth rate amongst the five major leagues. The growing popularity of soccer meant that European and Latin American teams, in addition to MLS, are seeing a rise in retail sales within the U.S. and Canada.

Retail Sales of Licensed Sports Merchandise, Share of Total, By League, U.S & Canada, 2015–2016
Note: Numbers may not add up exactly due to rounding.
(Figures in Billions)
LeagueRetail Sales, 2016Retail Sales, 2015Change, 2015–2016Share, 2016
National Football League$3.53$3.403.7%22.9%
Major League Baseball$3.74$3.526.3%24.2%
National Basketball Association$2.75$2.548.3%17.8%
NASCAR (teams & drivers)$0.84$0.840.9%5.5%
National Hockey League$1.06$1.033.2%6.9%
PGA Tour$0.34$0.34-0.5%2.2%
Major League Soccer$0.72$0.6511.7%4.7%

Retail Sales by Product Category

The biggest areas in sports licensing are the product category “tripod”—soft lines, hard lines, and digital/multimedia.

Apparel, accessories, and other soft lines accounted for roughly 50% of sales. As usual, traditional authentic and replica jerseys were the workhorse of the soft lines, chugging along at a steady rate. The biggest growth trends for 2016 in apparel (up 3.7%) were athleisure and sportswear; in accessories (6.6%) trends included headwear (caps, both fitted and not, remain a fashion staple) and socks (which have grown year-on-year at a triple-digit rates since 2014).

Growth in hard lines like trading cards, figures, sporting goods, home furnishings, and paper goods was up from 2015, which was a relatively flat year. In particular, novelty goods performed quite well, growing 8.8% to reach $924 million in retail sales in 2016.

Digital and multimedia, which includes video games/software (up 4.8%), is one of the fastest-growing prongs. While console video games remain king, growth of licensed mobile games remains strong and is eventually expected to surpass the former.

Retail Sales of Sports-licensed Merchandise, by Product Category, 2015–2016
Note: Numbers may not add up exactly due to rounding.
(Figures in Millions)
Product CategoryRetail Sales, 2016Retail Sales, 2015Change, 2015–2016Share of Market, 2016
Consumer Electronics$348$349-0.3%2.3%
Furniture/Home Furnishings$242$2324.2%1.6%
Infant Products$303$2923.7%2.0%
Sporting Goods$571$5592.1%3.7%
Video games/Software$1,728$1,6494.8%11.2%

Retail Sales by Distribution Channel

Although e-commerce is the fastest-growing distribution channel at 11.2% (up by two-tenths of a percent since 2015), brick-and-mortar still makes up the majority of retail sales.

Mirroring industry-wide patterns, mass/discount is the largest channel, accounting for 36.9% of all sales, followed by specialty at 32.9%. The roughly 37/33 split between these two channels has remained constant since 2012. Both saw a slight decline (one-tenths of a percent) since 2015.

Historically, specialty stores, including big box sporting goods retailers like Dick’s and Modell’s have been the mainstay of the industry providing a steady and reliable outlet for jerseys, caps and other licensed merchandise. But over the last two years, leagues have increasingly relied on their own stores, both of the “pop-up” and permenant varieties. The leagues are increasingly casting themselves as “lifestyle” and “destination” brands and are pushing out liminited-edition merchandise in connection with special events.

Institutional/venue sales, which includes stadium sales and merchandise sold at events, were also up by two-tenths of a percent to reach 8.2% of all sports-licensed retail sales.


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