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Classic & Retro Toys Could Be Sports’ Next Big Licensing Opportunity

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Credit Adam Grossman for penning story below.

Classic & Retro Toys Could Be Sports’ Next Big Licensing Opportunity

Sports business leaders are persistently on the hunt for technologies, products, services, and processes capable of catalyzing revenue growth–or as Michael Lewis called it, “the new, new thing.”

But toy industry trends suggest ‘the new, new thing”, at least from a sports licensing perspective, may be to embrace some older products. Classic and retro toys, like Care Bears, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Furbys, still generate tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue and manufacturers are paying more than ever for the rights to produce them.

That may be, in part, because of who is purchasing these items. Circana, the market research firm formerly known as NPD Group, found that 25% of all toy sales are now driven by adult collectors.

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The adult toy buying trend has picked up steam in recent years.

“During the pandemic, when adults had extra cash in their wallets and were stuck at home, [an increasing number] of them turned to the toy industry to fulfill their entertainment needs,” Juli Lennett (vice president and toys industry advisor, Circana).

And a portion have apparently stuck with it since (see: growing demand for Lego products).

Sports licensing is a mature business. ResearchAndMarkets estimates that $5.5 billion worth of team and league branded apparel, video games, and trading cards are sold in the U.S. each year.

Toys, however, have historically been a under monetized category. Starting Lineup action figures and gumball football helmets are among the few memorable licensed products that have been sold over the last four decades.

Bobbleheads, which appeal to collectors young and old, have largely been used as promotional giveaways to increase ticket sales and in-stadium attendance.

But it now appears that the opportunity exists to grow category revenues.

"Given the current surge in demand, there's a more sensible approach to marketing toys to older demographics," Eric Winston (president, Winners Alliance) said.

Prior to joining Winners Alliance, Winston served as the chief licensing officer for OneTeam Partners.

Rather than looking for the next ‘new product’ to market, rights owners would be wise to consider slapping marks and logos on legacy items.

"If people are shelling out big bucks for [Care Bears and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles], it only makes business sense to tap into that collectors’ market with other [vintage] products," Winston said.


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Partnering with manufacturers on classic toys is a substantial opportunity on its own.

However, sports IP owners should consider introducing new products for this new class of adult collectors too. Modern marketing channels can quickly turn unknown items into must-have sensations.

“Some of this toy buying behavior [is being] driven by social media,” Lenett said, “where consumers [can] feel more connected to like-minded collectors.”

Sports collectors span the globe. So, revenue benefits aside, toy licensing can be another means facilitating international fan development for rights owners.

“Whether you're in New York or Tokyo, the love for classics like retro action figures and vintage helmets unites us,” Winston said. It forges “a worldwide community rooted in those cherished sports memories."

While potential within the category certainly exists, sports properties ought to treat the adult toy buying phenomenon with caution. Some grown-ups have re-embraced the entertainment options and activities they enjoyed prior to being locked down. Others find themselves with less disposable income to spend as inflation has risen.

“Adults will continue to engage with toys as they have for decades,” Lennett said. “However, my expectation is that some adult toy buyers will be forced to pull back from buying toys in the future. Manufacturers will need to be creative to maintain interest among [the demographic].”

Being creative may mean turning to sports rights holders that maintain decades long connections with their fans.

"If your organization's got a wide range of IP, it's the perfect time to jump into licensing sports IP,” Winston said. “Everything's falling into place, and it just makes sense to be part of this growing market."

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About The Author: Adam Grossman founded Block Six Analytics. He is also a professor at Northwestern University Master’s In Sports Administration program and the co-author of The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders for a High-Performance Industry. You can find him at [email protected].