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Who Gives a Puck About Sports Merch?

How to build a brand from scratch, when that brand is a hockey team in the desert.

Woman in holds up shirt that reads “Sin City Hockey” in the Vegas Golden Knights’ team store
A fan shops at the Arsenal, the Vegas Golden Knights’ team store at City National Arena.

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It was a typical morning on the outskirts of Las Vegas, the temperature approaching 90 degrees in the shade, and adults and children alike were buying ice hockey merch. They scoured the shelves of the Arsenal, a new store at City National Arena, for jerseys, shirts, hats, and hockey pucks in steel gray, gold, red, and black.

The assembled group was celebrating the opening of the practice facility for the Vegas Golden Knights, the first National Hockey League expansion team since 2000. The $24 million, two-rink complex that doubles as a community skating location sits in South Summerlin, 12 miles due west of the Las Vegas Strip. On the ride from downtown, along the highway, there's a billboard from Findlay Chevrolet with an encouraging Go Knights Go. The dusty mountains of Red Rock Canyon National Park rise just past the arena.

The Knights — who will play their first regular season game against the Dallas Stars on October 6th, and host the Phoenix Coyotes in their home opener at T-Mobile Arena four days later, where they’ll pay tribute to the victims of and first responders to Sunday night’s shooting — had been practicing at the complex for two weeks, but team officials waited to christen the space until a late morning in late August.

Men in suits with little Golden Knights logo pins on their lapels meandered about, shaking hands with assorted local dignitaries and eyeing stacks of Krispy Kreme donut boxes set out on folding tables. "We just had one big thing missing," Nevada lieutenant governor Mark Hutchison said during the opening ceremony at center ice. “That was major league, big-time professional sports.”

Clark County Commissioner Steve Sisolak followed up, saying the arena was "going to be a lynchpin for the rest of downtown Summerlin" and promising 4,000 urban dwelling units in the surrounding area. Bill Foley, the billionaire owner of the Knights and by far the biggest reason why a city known for sports betting (but not team sports) and triple-digit temperatures has professional hockey, stressed the new team's connection to the area. "The Vegas Golden Knights are homegrown," the 72-year-old businessman said. "We are the Vegas team, and we are proud of it."

A Vegas Golden Knights goalie blocks a shot during practice

Each speaker who walked up to the podium to give a few prepared remarks wore a team jersey with his or her own last name and the number 17 on the back. In the cool expanse of the open ice, the baggy jerseys made sense. Foley hopes the Golden Knights merch catches on, enticing both local residents and millions of tourists to buy, buy, buy. The idea is to combine the cachet of Vegas with the excitement of the city's first professional sports team to produce a serious revenue-generating operation that goes beyond the typical hockey franchise. "We are going to kill it on merchandising on opening night," I overheard one suit-wearing gentleman say to another at City National. "12,000 people will be woefully underdressed."

The plan goes beyond cold fans. Following the speeches, the Arsenal — the rinkside team store — opened for business. (Continuing the military theme, the team store at T-Mobile is called the Armory.) The Golden Knights logo, a gold helmet with a stylized V for Vegas serving as the opening for the face, was everywhere. For the first time, fans could buy official jerseys made by new league partner Adidas for $180 and slightly more tailored replicas targeted to fans for $130. An Adidas hoodie went for $100, while a gray low-cut shirt speckled with black dots sold for $45. Decorative wooden blocks were available for $25 (small) and $50 (less small). There were options for men, women, and kids. Though merchandise didn't exactly fly off the shelves, business was brisk.

It felt like the beginning of something. But what, exactly, was unclear. Hockey could succeed in Vegas or it could become just another option in a city built on the idea of unlimited entertainment. And whether or not the team can parlay its logo and uniform into a successful, money-making brand is another difficult question. Foley’s business sense has earned him ownership stakes in everything from wineries and restaurants to golf courses and cattle ranches, but there’s no model for bringing professional sports of this level to America’s Playground. If anyone can make it work, it's probably the confident, self-made man with an eye for an opportunity and the cash reserves to stay in it for the long term. Still, the Golden Knights remain a gamble.

After I watched fans and assorted others buy gear, I walked over to the team’s practice. The players were skating on the rink where Foley and co. had given their speeches less than an hour before. As they flew up and down the ice, I peered into the crowd. A handful of newly purchased Golden Knights jerseys and a dozen team tees were sprinkled among the couple hundred supporters who looked on. One man boasted a Golden Knights fleece/hat combo. Roughly a quarter of the fans in the stands wore something featuring the logo.

Cold and ready to go, I turned around and left the facility. As I exited, I passed a man in a David Carr jersey; Carr is the quarterback of the Oakland Raiders, a team scheduled to make its move to Las Vegas in 2020. When they arrive, they'll provide even more competition for the Golden Knights. I emerged from the cool building. The heat was intense and the sun blinding. Inside, practice continued.

I came to this story in a roundabout manner. About a year ago, I interviewed Foley for a profile. This was before the team had a name or a logo or a single player. All they had was a $500-million expansion fee — a price more than six times what the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Minnesota Wild paid to join the league 17 years ago — and the ideas of a businessman successful enough to have earned $100 million in 2016 alone as chairman of Fidelity National Financial, Inc. (In 2015, he moved the headquarters of Fidelity, the company he’d purchased in the mid-1980s and turned into a multi-billion-dollar insurance-selling behemoth, to Summerlin.)

Foley wasn't getting into big-time professional sports to win a dick-swinging contest with his rich buddies; he was doing it to realize a return on a massive investment (and maybe also to win a dick-swinging contest). While merchandise might not be a traditionally huge revenue driver — he told me that the average team sells about $2.5 million worth per year — the opportunity in Vegas could be significantly larger.

Team owner Bill Foley speaks to a man in a suit at the opening of the Golden Knights’ practice facility.
Team owner Bill Foley (left) at the opening of the Golden Knights’ practice facility.

With over 630,000 residents, Las Vegas is the 28th largest city in the United States; its population grew more than 8 percent from 2010 to 2016. Many of those residents are expats from hockey-loving cities, and the city has supported the sport, albeit on a smaller scale, in the recent past. The minor league Las Vegas Wranglers hockey team drew about 4,500 fans per game between 2003 and 2014, before they disbanded after their home arena closed and they were unable to find a new one.

A market study Foley conducted before winning his expansion bid showed that 200,000 people in the Vegas area consider themselves avid hockey fans. That's a decent base, and the team sold 5,000 season tickets during the first two days of the ticket drive; that number now sits at 16,000. (Some of these season tickets are partial plans and some were undoubtedly purchased with the idea of reselling them on the secondary market, the hottest one in the league, according to StubHub.)

But the real opportunity for an unending source of customers exists in tourism. Every year, 42 million people visit Sin City. "If there are 42 million people coming through and I can’t sell 100,000 jerseys a year, I’m a failure," Foley told me last year. That would amount to $18 million in jersey sales alone. That’s not pure profit, and the Golden Knights wouldn't take it all home themselves — it's also split between the league and the other 30 teams in a proportion the NHL refuses to divulge — but it's a fair bet that a significant percentage of the profit goes directly into the Knights' coffers.

It's a strategy that makes sense in Vegas. "He has a distinctive worldview that's appropriate for a very unique sports market," Jason Cieslak says of Foley. Cieslak is a division president at the branding firm Siegel+Gale and is familiar with Foley because he's a member of one of the billionaire's wineries. "The fact that he's talking about this from the outset is very different from what you hear from other teams."

When I spoke with Foley at the practice facility opening, he was pleased with the early returns. "We're the number-one-selling paraphernalia out of the NHL Store in New York," he told me. (NHL officials confirmed that Golden Knights merchandise was “a top seller” in the store.) "We're selling merchandise like crazy out of the team store down here and in downtown. We budgeted about $4 million the first year. I'm very confident that we'll greatly exceed that. It's not like TV or sponsorship or game-day sales, but it's important. It's how the team makes money."

Foley talked while standing in the bench area, wearing the team's official gray home jersey, though he prefers the away white. I referenced the 100,000 number he mentioned the previous year, back when the jersey was more idea than reality. Did it still seem like a reasonable figure? "I think I'm an idiot if I can't sell 100,000 jerseys to 42 million people who visit here," he said, smiling.

A team can't sell anything if the brand doesn't exist. In July 2016, just a couple weeks after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the newest franchise, a delegation from the league and Adidas traveled to a ranch outside Whitefish, Montana to begin solving that problem. The group included Adidas design director Jeff Eagles, the company's senior apparel designer Dominique Fillion, NHL executive vice president and chief brand officer Brian Jennings, and Keith Leach, the senior director of NHL for Adidas. They met with Foley, who had the option to work with outside designers but chose to go with the expertise of the Adidas crew, to hear his ideas about the team and walk him through the process of creating a brand from scratch.

While people visiting Vegas might be a major audience for the merchandise, the owner insisted the identity appeal to the city's residents. "We sat down with Bill, and the message was that this team, and the brand that this team was going to become, first and foremost needed to resonate and be of value to local ticket holders," Eagles says during a phone conversation. "This was not a typical Vegas brand that needed to be marketed to tourists. This needed to be grounded in, and the core target customer was, the local people of Las Vegas. Everything that the brand valued needed to be authentic and true to something that had meaning to that core customer. You can come up with cool uniforms and cool logos all day long, but if you don't have something that connects with the team and where it's from, it's not going to be a lasting brand."

Racks of Golden Knights jerseys and pennants in the team store

First step: a name. Foley, who learned to skate during a childhood stint in Ottawa and later attended West Point before becoming a captain in the Air Force, wanted one that embodied the values of sacrifice and valor. He originally thought the Black Knights, a nod to his alma mater West Point and his other businesses, would be ideal, but trademark issues and confusing branding scuttled that idea. Knights, however, stuck, and the design team pivoted to another color. "Nevada is the Silver State, but, quite frankly, the gold rush in Nevada was one of the financial booms for the state that built the infrastructure,” Eagles says. “The golden color reflects the desert landscape, and Vegas is synonymous with the opulence of gold. The descriptor in the name gave ‘Knights’ something that was unique to Vegas."

After settling on a name, the Adidas team went to work on the color scheme and the logo simultaneously. The condensed timeframe meant they needed to work quickly. When Eagles worked on the Florida Panthers 2016 rebrand, they had about 10 months from start to finish. The Vegas team went from conception to Foley's final signoff in four, the work of three apparel designers focusing on the uniform and seven graphic designers who handled the overall identity. The circumstances only added pressure. Adidas, entering the first year of a $500-million, seven-year deal with the NHL, wanted to get the jersey and logo right. "We did close to 90 different uniforms [for different teams] over the last 12 months, but this one was certainly the biggest and highest visibility," Eagles says.

Visibility is the key word for the sporting apparel company. Winning the rights to outfit the NHL isn’t about making money directly. Adidas (along with Nike, who pays millions to the NFL and NBA, and Under Armour, which won the MLB uniform and apparel contract starting in 2020) likely loses millions on league deals. But with revenues in the billions, these companies can afford a loss-leader that gets their logo on television broadcasts constantly and, in theory, builds brand loyalty with fans.

The arrival of the team also presents the National Hockey League with a chance to raise its profile, build excitement about the new uniforms, and highlight the recent success of professional hockey in the US. Hockey is the smallest of the four traditional professional team sports with about $4 billion in yearly revenue compared to the NFL’s $13 billion, MLB’s $9.5 billion, and the NBA’s $4.8, but the NHL attracted more than 21.5 million fans to games during the 2016-2017 season, on par with the NBA, with games at 95 percent capacity. (Also, $4 billion is still a ton of money.) The league boasts more than $6 billion in television contracts and earns another $100 million annually through digital rights. Franchise values are growing. The business of hockey is hot.

As Foley said, merchandise sales will never compare to television rights money, but they don’t have to. An additional $2.5 million, or $5 million, or $10 million, can turn a net loss into a net profit for a club, and so Eagles and the rest of the Adidas crew needed to get to work. Following a minor technical difficulty, the Vegas Golden Knights debuted the name and logo in November, then released the uniform design in June.

While reviews of the name were mixed, the jerseys found an audience. “The Vegas Golden Knights' Uniforms Are Pretty OK,” Deadspin offered, which counts as effusive praise from the critical site. Steven Heller, a critic and co-founder of the design criticism program at New York City's School of Visual Arts, agrees. "It's a clever brand, if also a tad menacing in a Game of Thrones sort of way," he says. "When you realize it's Vegas — a V — it has a militancy, a kind of fascist quality to it, but at the same time, it's a clever use of the icon. I can see it appealing to many people in and of itself, just on the strength of the image."

A strong first impression is key when attempting to sell merchandise to tourists and other non-fans. "For an audience that's not a part of the fanbase, the logo has to have a graphic je ne sais quoi, and that's why I think this one works,” Heller continues. “If I were to ask what is the most interesting sports logo that I've seen in the last five years, I'd say this is one of them, even though it uses a lot of cliches. It uses the shield. It uses the helmet. It uses the V in an old-fashioned typographic type of way. But it all comes together, which makes it striking."

A Golden Knights sweatshirt hanging in the team store

For his part, Foley was pleased with the result of the team brand identity crash course and the resulting jerseys. "I had a big hand in them, so I'm very proud of how they came out," the owner said at the rink. "They indicate strength, perseverance, never give up, never give in, which is the Knights culture."

Now that the brand exists, the goal is to sell its wares. The plan is to flood the market, according to Brian Killingsworth, who was hired in July as the team's chief marketing officer after gigs with the Tampa Bay Rays, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and St. Louis Rams. (He replaced CMO Nehme Abouzeid, who left the team in June.) In addition to the Golden Knights stores at the practice facility and T-Mobile, they'll have retail shops in many MGM properties, as well as the airport, areas around Summerlin, and possibly in the Fremont Street Experience downtown. The goal, he says, is simple: to flood the Vegas area with retail opportunities. If a tourist doesn’t run across at least one chance to buy Golden Knights gear, though preferably more, Killingsworth won’t have done his job.

There's also a conscious effort to offer a wide variety of choice. "We spent a lot of time looking at the female merchandise line," Killingsworth says. "We didn't want to 'pink it and shrink it.' It's about making fashion-forward choices." To that end, the Armory features no fewer than a dozen women's shirts, at least two different handbags, and a wall with all sorts of athleisure. Much of this looked rather generic — gray sweats with a logo on the hip or a simple black hoodie pullover — but at least only a few items were pink or bedazzled. Elsewhere, there are men's shirts with the Vegas-appropriate What Happens On The Ice Stays On The Ice slogan, Little Golden Knights Fan baby bibs, and a black child-sized shirt with a hockey-puck and Golden Knights logo necktie graphic. (This last one is hard to explain.)

It's a start, with more coming. While the NHL has league-wide contracts for apparel categories like official and replica jerseys and outerwear, they let teams work with local vendors on printables such as T-shirts and hoodies. "The intention of local licensing is to complement what we're doing on the national level," says Jennings, the NHL's chief brand officer. Killingsworth says the team will work with local partners to maintain flexibility; if a player goes on a hot streak or a nickname gains popularity, the plan is to license items that fans can buy. He also wants to incorporate higher-end items, like a limited edition New Era hat made with actual gold, with a run of just 12: "That's an opportunity to really capture the tourist market.”

When it comes to building a sustainable brand, items that go beyond the typical fare are vital. "I think they can do a lot with that particular logo," Heller says. "It really comes down to what are they going to make. They can make the standard crap that everybody has. The foam thing that goes on your hand. A rubber Knight mask. But are they going to do something that makes it really distinctive?"

No other sports team understands the value of distinctive branding and merchandising quite like the Brooklyn Nets. When the team moved from New Jersey to the New York City borough before the start of the 2012-2013 season, the team went through a rebrand overseen by minority owner Jay-Z. The slick logo gained a following, assisted by the rapper's support and influence. Hats with a capital B atop a black-and-white basketball started showing up on the heads' of celebrities inside and outside the Barclays Center. "We knew we made it when the artists who were coming here to perform were asking us for gear that they could wear onstage to perform in," says Tyrel Kirkham, the vice president of global merchandising for Nets parent company Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment. "We weren't leaving a hat in their locker room. They were coming to us."

Man in backwards Golden Knights baseball hat looks onto the ice

The Nets have also succeeded in going beyond the typical team-gear offerings. "Fan gear is essential," Kirkham says. "But we had a lifestyle mindset from the brand, especially on the merchandising side." During the first year, the Nets only dedicated a small portion of the team store to so-called lifestyle options, pieces that are not particularly athletic and are meant to be worn outside of games. (Think of it as the sports equivalent of elevated tour merch.) They proved so popular that the team opened an entirely separate store for fans to peruse items like black-and-white Adidas sneakers designed with streetwear brand The Hundreds. This season, the team's fifth in Brooklyn, they are going even further, partnering with custom merchandise development company Rank + Rally on Brooklyn Cool, a collection that features stylish apparel and accessories from five local retailers: Antler & Woods (crewnecks and rugby shirts), Extra Butter, Kinfolk, IGWT, and Pintrill. It's a way to involve the community and, of course, extend the brand. (Rank + Rally is also working with the Golden Knights.)

All this has made the Nets a lot of money. Brooklyn is one of the top-selling teams internationally, despite the lack of a marquee player. Around the world, it's LeBron jerseys, Curry jerseys, and black-and-white Nets jerseys. "The new territory brings new exposure," Kirkham says.

I ask him what advice he'd give to the Golden Knights merch team. "First and foremost, it starts with consistency," he says. Brooklyn is woven into the fabric of all the Nets apparel — metaphorically and frequently literally. The team exploited the cool factor of Brooklyn the place to help launch the team as a brand, rather than relying on the Nets name. Travel anywhere in the world, Kirkham says, and people understand the black-and-white symbol with the word Brooklyn stands for the NBA team. He'd try to do the same with Vegas, another American city with an international reputation.

But therein lies a potential problem for the Golden Knights: the connection to their home city gets lost in some of the branding. "The logo doesn't say Vegas," Heller says. "The team could be Vegas, or it could be anywhere in the world." While the wordmark "Vegas" appears on the inside of the jersey, it's not visible to the casual observer. The V for Vegas in the logo is obvious once one knows it's there, but it's easy to miss at first glance. “Golden Knights” doesn't exactly scream Vegas. (One person I talked to suggested the team be called "The Vegas Nights." I understand why this was an untenable option, but damn that's a great name.)

Even the name of the city could prove divisive. While NHL rules and regulations mandate that the official name of the team be the Las Vegas Golden Knights, all of the branding is for the Vegas Golden Knights. Killingsworth, the chief marketing officer, argued this would appeal to the local residents who consider themselves from Vegas rather than Las Vegas. But neither Heller nor Cieslak are convinced. "The ‘Vegas’ part, to me, appeals more to the transient dynamic of Vegas than it does the local homegrown population," the latter expert says. It’s a push and pull. The local population is significantly smaller than the tourist one, and yet tourists aren’t going to go to 41 home games a year.

The community outreach could also be stronger. Ken Boehlke launched Sin Bin, a news site dedicated to the team, almost a year before the official expansion announcement. He's one of the Golden Knights’ biggest supporters, someone who wants nothing more than to see the team succeed. (Boehlke proudly purchased the first item bought at both the Armory and the Arsenal.) The team's efforts, or lack thereof, to build inroads in the community have disappointed him thus far. The players aren't making appearances at malls, store openings, or other events in an attempt to build a fanbase. For Boehlke, there's too much of an “if you build it and brand it, they will buy it” attitude.

"The idea is not ‘push the brand,’ but 'buy our tickets,'” he said after the practice facility opening. “And now when things open, it's like, 'Go buy jerseys. Go buy shirts. Go buy this.' It's always buy, buy, buy, which comes from the CEO being a ridiculously successful businessman. He knows how to make money. If you're marketing, the goal is to get people to buy things. Whereas in sports, I think that's backwards. You want them to be a diehard fan, and then they'll buy everything without you asking. They'll tattoo your logo on their arm. That's what you really want. They're saying, 'Buy our tickets, you'll become a fan.' Well, no. Make 'em a fan first."

People in line to check out at the Arsenal.
Fans waiting to check out at the Arsenal.

Without any regular season games played, it's hard to know where this goes. Ideally, T-Mobile Arena, of which Foley owns 15 percent, will be a mix of local fans and jersey-buying bachelor parties. The team hopes that even tourists who don't go to a game pick up a shirt or hat as a souvenir from their trip. As Vegas expands as an international tourist hub — McCarran Airport now features a wealth of non-stop flights from China, Japan, and elsewhere around the world — the Golden Knights could own some of the city's cultural zeitgeist. Buying team apparel might become like buying a Chelsea shirt when an American visits London. (There's also, I suppose, some irony potential if you're into that. It's hockey... in the desert!) If even a small fraction of the 42 million tourists who come through buy something, the numbers start adding up to real money.

There is, however, a shot clock on the brand-building experiment. The arrival of the Raiders in 2020 hangs over the Golden Knights’ efforts. "We welcome the Raiders. I think that further legitimizes Las Vegas as a sports market," Killingsworth, whose job it is to say things like this, says. The truth is, when the NFL team arrives, they'll suck up the majority of the sports oxygen in Vegas. If the Golden Knights haven't firmly established themselves by then, they risk irrelevance, on the ice and on store shelves.

Even a few years out, the prospect of the Raiders already looms large. The day before the practice facility opened was a Sunday. The Raiders played a relatively meaningless regular season game; the Golden Knights player their first-ever preseason fixture. Boehlke heard about many more Raiders watch parties than Golden Knights ones, and he would know as the person who’s paying arguably the closest attention to the hockey team. "They should do more to brand themselves as the team that's here now,” Boehlke said. “One team's coming in three years. One team wore Vegas on their jersey yesterday. But not enough people are motivated at this point. I think it's going to hurt."

When I returned from the practice facility, I spent a couple hours wandering around the Strip downtown. Many sports entities were represented on the shorts and T-shirts of the tourist mob: Charlotte Hornets, New York Mets, two different Dallas Cowboys designs, Iowa State, Dallas Mavericks, something called the Louisville Bats, Kobe Bryant, and even the 2011 Rugby World Cup. I didn't see the Golden Knights logo until I walked over to T-Mobile.

The Armory sits on the side of the arena, a small clapboard sign pointing the way. Inside, past a life-sized Golden Knight mannequin, a dozen potential shoppers milled about, checking out the jerseys and shirts, and also fidget spinners ($12), earrings ($10), and flasks ($20). Banners reading Duty, Valor, and Strength flew over a rack of light jackets and plain denim shirts embroidered with a Golden Knights logo above the breast pocket ($65).

I walked out and sat on a nearby rock, sweating from the heat. The T-Mobile Arena plaza, set back from the strip, was quiet. A roller coaster in front of a fake New York skyline dominated in one sightline. The Monte Carlo rose in the other. In less than a month, the puck would drop and the Golden Knights would play their home opener, but as two workers put up posters for Kings of Leon, Miley Cyrus, and Big Sean appearances at the upcoming iHeartRadio festival, the cognitive dissonance was strong. Neither T-Mobile nor the city need the Golden Knights.

I sipped a bottle of water, considering hockey in Vegas. It's crazy, yes, but it's coming, and it just might work. This is, after all, a metropolis in the desert built by dreamers facing long odds. The Armory door opened and a middle-aged couple walked out from the darkness. They were carrying a plastic bag with the Golden Knights logo on it, sides bulging from the merch inside.

Noah Davis is a writer in Brooklyn.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Copy editor: Laura Bullard


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