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Sports-based Licensing Stumbles with 1.4% Growth in the U.S. & Canada

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Licensed retail sales of sports-based merchandise grew 1.4% to reach $16.1 billion in the U.S. & Canada in 2018.

At just $222 in dollar gowth, 2018 marked the slowest year of growth since 2010, when sales dipped -2.8% from the previous year. Since then, growth has averaged about 3.9% each year (or almost $540 million a year, with the slowest growth in 2012 at 2.2% and the fastest in 2011 with 5.3%).

Most of the major American sports leagues are cultivating licensed dollar growth overseas in emerging, fast-growing markets like China (and to a lesser extent, Southeast Asia and South Korea), Mexico (as well as Brazil and other selected LATAM countries), Europe (France and Spain are surprisingly strong areas of growth, but the biggest gains are coming from CEE), and the Middle East (the UAE and Saudi Arabia are especially popular targets).

That makes for a somewhat bleak picture back home (in comparison), but sports properties are continuing to innovate and invest in their biggest market for licensed retail sales. Most of the notable investments for leagues domestically this last year are in licensing steaming rights for viewing games, and, to a lower extent, virtual gambling and gaming licensing.

Ecommerce and innovative location-based merchandising, specifically, are driving most of the gains in licensed retail sales in the U.S. & Canada.

Licensed retail sales of MLB-based goods narrowly edged out the NFL for share in the U.S. & Canada, with 24.0% share versus 23.0% share, respectively.

MLB sales grew 1.1% in 2018 to reach $3.9 billion in licensed retail sales, a new record. The league’s continued dominance can largely be attributed to the strength of its collectibles and apparel programs.

The NFL jumped 2.1% in 2018 to reach an estimated $3.7 billion in licensed retail sales. While slow compared to 3.2% growth in 2017 and 3.7% in 2016, the league still outpaces most of the top five sports leagues TLL tracks in the U.S. & Canada in spite of its large dollar share.

Note that sales of products based on licensed player properties (under the purview of the NFLPA) account for roughly one-third of total NFL-based sales as calculated by TLL, or $1.4 billion. NFL league-based sales slightly outpaced the growth of NFLPA-based sales, with 2.2% growth versus 1.9% growth in 2018, respectively.

While the two sports leagues fight for the top spot every year, the NBA consistently rounds out the top three list by share. In 2018, NBA-based sales jumped 1.6% to reach $2.9 billion in licensed retail sales. Since experiencing a 8.3% boost in 2016 and 9.1% in 2015, the league has not experienced any significant gains, but continues to perform steadily.

NHL sales gained 0.9% from the previous year to reach $1.1 billion in licensed retail sales in 2018. TLL expects sales to jump in the coming years as the league continues to expand in growing its number of teams and, hopefully, viewership.

NASCAR-based licensed retail sales dipped slightly in 2018 to fall 0.5% in 2018 after leaping forward 2.2% in 2017. The league counts just under $860 million in licensed retail sales.

For the purposes of this list, TLL is explicitly including licensed retail sales associated with all United States Soccer Federation teams, such as those in the National Women’s Soccer League, under the broader MLS banner. Historically, the men’s soccer was one of the only such organizations to generate licensing revenue, but that landscape is shifting quickly.

For example, the U.S. Women’s National Team players’ collective licensing revenue was $0 in 2015, but it is expected to top $1 million in 2019. Most of the licensing gains realized in the MLS category, which grew 8.0% in 2017 and 2.8% in 2018, can be attributed to the women’s professional league as well as some minor league teams gaining traction within the U.S.

Sales tied to foreign soccer clubs, such as Manchester United and FC Barcelona, are included in the “other” category.

PGA Tour sales grew 1.4% in 2018 to reach just over $350 million. Note that data are based on sales of merchandise bearing the celebrated PGA Tour logo featuring the silhouetted golfer in a box logo; individual players’ licensing revenues are counted in the “other” category.

Other sports leagues and properties include organizations such as esports, extreme sports, tennis, the Olympics, mixed martial arts, minor league teams, outdoors-related properties, and amateur sports associations.

Retail Sales of Licensed Merchandise Based on Sports Properties, by League, U.S. & Canada, 2017–2018
Note: Numbers may not add up exactly due to rounding.
(Figures in Millions)
League Retail Sales, 2018 Retail Sales, 2017 Change, 2017–2018 Share, 2018
National Football League (NFL) $3,718 $3,642 2.1% 23.0%
Major League Baseball (MLB) $3,877 $3,835 1.1% 24.0%
National Basketball Association (NBA) $2,874 $2,829 1.6% 17.8%
NASCAR (teams & drivers) $859 $863 -0.5% 5.3%
National Hockey League (NHL) $1,103 $1,093 0.9% 6.8%
PGA Tour $354 $349 1.4% 2.2%
U.S. Soccer/Major League Soccer (MLS) $802 $781 2.8% 5.0%
Other $2,551 $2,524 1.1% 15.8%
Total $16,138 $15,915 1.4% 100.0%

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