The NFL Makes a Play for Fashionistas

The New York area might not be the perfect place for a February football game, but the conditions are ideal for a league bent on burnishing its brand among trendsetters, specifically fashion-forward women.

It’s not news that the country’s most successful professional sport is pretty gender-balanced in popularity. But as the big game moved to one of the world’s fashion capitals, the NFL and its licensees were emboldened to try some riskier apparel plays. The goal: getting ladies and casual fans to wear league apparel on the other six days of the week—or even in May.

“This was the year we moved away from the shrink-it-and-pink-it approach,” says Andrei Najjar, vice president for marketing at Junk Food Clothing, an NFL apparel licensee. Junk Food’s recent line of NFL apparel featured flowing ankle-length gowns, petite sweaters, and ultrashort shifts shaped like oversize jerseys.

As the Super Bowl approaches, the Los Angeles company says it is selling about 20 percent more NFL products this year, and it expects a commensurate increase in sales. “It’s all very girly, very sexy, and it’s doing very well,” Najjair says.

The League is upping its fashion game as well. This year, it hired celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch as creative style director for women’s apparel. Bloch, best known for outfitting such starlets as Halle Barry and Lindsey Lohan, has built a career on runways and red carpet.

Martin Brochstein, senior vice president for industry relations at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association, notes that the NFL even has an “official beauty sponsor”—Procter & Gamble’s CoverGirl brand. “Expanding the reach to the women’s market is a major reason why sports licensing has reached its highest levels since 2008,” he explains.

Meanwhile, Macy’s cleared out an unprecedented 36,000 square feet of its flagship Manhattan store for Super Bowl merchandise, capitalizing on a five-year deal it signed in August with Lids, a longtime NFL licensee.

The company made a similar push at Bloomingdale’s, its higher-end department store. Along with the NFL, it enlisted dozens of couture all-stars, including Donna Karan and Kenneth Cole, to design 48 helmets for its display windows and an auction to benefit the league’s foundation. Junk Food’s belly-baring crop-tops have been particularly popular at Bloomingdale’s, according to Najjar. They’re also selling well at Urban Outfitters.

Meanwhile, Nike is selling a black Super Bowl jersey for women with numbers in a slightly different shade of black. It’s Super Bowl apparel for the fan who wouldn’t be caught dead in soda-pop orange or teal, and it has the price tag to match ($145).

Will the waifish boys and girls of SoHo snap up the occasional Seahawks jersey this week? Of course—for the ironic value, if nothing else. So too will the crowds of European tourists passing through Manhattan with no intention of watching Sunday’s big game.

But is the retail world at some sort of inflection point where the NFL logo is a covetable apparel brand in its own right—à la Nike or Michael Kors? That’s a bit more doubtful.

Despite the publicity blitz, most of those in the Super Bowl merchandise game weren’t willing to talk numbers, including Natara Holloway, the NFL’s vice president for brand marketing and retail, and Shawn Outler, vice president for vendor relations at Macy’s.

“I can only say we’ll be doing significantly more business,” Outler says. “We’ve been in the team apparel business in a small way for years, but this is a much bigger opportunity for us.”

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