Selling Merchandise in MLS: Interview With Stu Crystal

We have repeatedly posted about the MLS shopping experience. From a shortage of gear at brick and mortar retailers, to the absence of infant sized Galaxy items to the improved online experience, we have repeatedly written about procuring MLS items.  Today we are pleased to present some thoughts from Stu Crystal, Major League Soccer’s Vice President of Consumer Products, about shopping for league merchandise.  Mr. Crystal is a graduate of SUNY Stony Brook and has been with the league for more than 10 years.  Thanks to Mr. Crystal.  Please drop a line in the comments section telling us about your MLS shopping experience.

Footiebusiness.com:  On MLSSoccer.com, the primary “shop” link brings fans to MLS Gear rather than individual team stores. Is MLS Gear the league’s preferred online shopping destination?  Does the league have relationships with third party vendors that sell official merchandise online?  Certain teams (e.g. DC and NY) appear to have individual team stores that carry a wide variety of team merchandise and apparel, while others seem to rely on MLS Gear.  Why do some teams have individual stores and others do not?  For those that have team stores, do those outlets typically carry more variety than the MLS Gear Shop?  Does the league encourage teams to operate their own shops online?

Stu Crystal: MLS Gear is the official online store for Major League Soccer. We’re testing some online team stores and exploring the option to allow all teams to have official club stores. At this time, we are not encouraging teams to operate their own shops online. We have a centralized option in MLS Gear but are open to team shops if we determine that fans prefer to shop at team branded stores. We hope to have a definitive direction by the start of the 2013 season. We do have relationships with other online retailers, including World Soccer Shop, Fan’s Edge, Amazon, etc.

FB: What types of merchandise (e.g. jerseys, youth gear, etc…) are typically the best sellers?  What items are the least popular? What individual player jerseys are the top sellers this year?  Are there items that aren’t currently available that fans should expect to see soon?

SC:  Jerseys and other core fan items, such as scarves and t-shirts, are the best sellers. We’re currently coordinating with our licensees to add higher end items, such as foosball tables and Dream Seats, for the holiday season.

FB: How has the online MLS shopping experience improved over the years?  What changes should shoppers expect in the coming months?

SC:  Last year, we shifted to working with Sports Endeavors, the dominant online soccer retailer in this country. This partnership allows us to provide fans with the highest level of customer service and an increased variety in what we can offer – footwear, international club items, etc.

FB: One commonly heard complaint from fans is that league merchandise is hard to find at brick and mortar retailers, including those operated by league partners. What efforts are made to increase the presence of league items at these locations?

SC:  We’ve hired someone to focus on retail development, and we’re working closely with Dick’s Sporting Goods to increase the selection of MLS merchandise in our markets. As the league grows and the demand for MLS merchandise grows, we will see an increase in merchandise in brick and mortar retailers.

The Business of Selling Online: MLS & WPS

Merchandise sales are an enormous component of revenue for professional sports leagues.  At the same time, apparel provides an outstanding free source of league exposure and advertising. Over the next few weeks, we thought we would take  a look at how various domestic soccer leagues and franchises sell their clothes and gear.  Today, we will start with a l0ok at how MLS and WPS sell material via their websites, http://www.mlsnet.com and womensprosoccer.com.  Other posts will look at licensed retailers online and the advertising of MLS and WPS merchandise.

The MLS website offers two obvious gateways to apparel sells on the home page.  There is a “shop” tab at the top of the page and a larger logo for “MLS Gear”.  Clicking on MLS Gear brings you to a sales homepage offering links to each team and a number of other links to various forms of merchandise grouped in a number of different ways. Items are also sorted by gender and by type.   The “shop” tab provides many of the same options in a dropdown format, while clicking on the tab sends an user to same location as the “gear” page.  The page also provides a box dedicated to RSL championship apparel and other items.  Further clicks through the page provide featured items.  Prices team by team are essentially the same for equal items.

The WPS site also offers a tab titled “shop” that brings you into a “shopwsp.com” where items are categorized by team and type in a fairy easy to follow arrangement.  Seemingly all WPS items are deeply discounted with prices of around 50% for most.  Interestingly, almost every page on the WPS site is filled with full price Puma gear.  While Puma is the primary sponsor of the League it is somewhat distressing that the bulk of items sold on the WPS are generic Puma items.

Both sites allow users to proceed to checkout in a fairly simply fashion and provide typically shopping cart and wish list items.  We know that there have historically been complaints about MLSGear and the ability to timely deliver goods, however those problems have dramatically improved over the last couple of years.