When Sacramento Republic FC squares off against SoCal rival LA Galaxy II at Saturday’s home opener at the newly expanded Bonney Field, the game itself will be up for grabs, but the evening will offer all kinds of certainties.
The place will be packed, the chanting will be deafening, and fans will be decked out in all kinds of Republic gear. Women in form-fitting “Blood, sweat and beers” T-shirts. Men in polo shirts emblazoned with the team crest. Babies in Republic monogrammed onesies. Some supporters will show allegiance by wearing multiple pieces of apparel in a stadium packed with more scarves than Sacramento has ever seen at a springtime event.
Which is all a way of saying that while its journey to become a Major League Soccer franchise continues, Sacramento Republic FC (1-2-0) already has made the big leagues when it comes to selling merchandise.
Whether online, at its home games or in its hip midtown retail store, Republic is moving its branded products at three times the rate of its closest competitor in the United Soccer League, team officials say. The team would not disclose exact sales figures, but a look at other comparable teams’ product lines affirms that Sacramento’s offerings are far more expansive and diverse.
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With T-shirts, jerseys, hats, scarves, sweatshirts, jackets and other gear that crosses over from pro-sports garb to lifestyle fashion, the team was doing brisk sales long before it played its first game last year. Now the reigning champs of the USL, the minor-league squad with major-league aspirations continues to ride a lucrative wave of brand enthusiasm in its sophomore season.
“Whether you go to midtown or to a grocery store in Rocklin, you’re going to see people wearing something that we sell because fans are enthusiastic about it,” said Tim Stallings, the team’s director of merchandise. “It’s more popular on game week, but we see it all the time.”
Part of its success comes down to listening to customers and designing new styles quickly. The team uses local talent when possible and is partnering, for instance, with hot manufacturers such as ’47 Brand and Sacramento-based Official to create hoodies and flat-billed caps that appeal to millennials, a major part of its fan base. It designs clothing specifically for women, who make up more than half of its retail consumers. And the apparel employs an overall classic look and color scheme that can be worn to a game, a pub or even at the office.
For those who haven’t been paying attention to sports merchandising trends, Republic’s numbers might seem staggering: 20-plus T-shirts and counting for men, nearly the same number for women; 14 hats; five scarves with more on the way. You want a license plate frame? A keychain? A dog tag? Get out your credit card.
Sales have been steady at the team’s shop (2421 17th St., Sacramento) and lines long at games for those buying T-shirts, which sell in the $22 to $25 range. New designs appear regularly, a merchandising trend that is increasingly common for music acts and sports teams.
“Teams seek timely styles and designs that complement their traditional (marques),” said David M. Carter, executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute, in an email. “For example, shirts noting a team’s anniversary, playoff success or the specific breakout performance of a player often complement those basic shirts featuring the team’s name and logo – and even these have variations. (But) one of the keys for the franchise is to not get caught with excessive inventory. So balancing the product mix is critical.”
Sports teams have long embraced a top-down approach to clothing. However, the Republic polls patrons and monitors social media to gauge tastes and identify trends. “We asked fans what kind of styles they liked, what kind of fit,” Stallings said. “We started moving in the direction of what the fans we were attracted to rather than what we initially wanted to produce.”
The “Battle Ready” scarf, for instance, was inspired by a phrase the team spotted on Twitter. It wasn’t long before the scarf was a big seller and the phrase had become part of the local lingo among die-hard fans. As Saturday’s sold-out game approaches, the notion of being battle ready is back in the spotlight – for the players, the fans and, especially, the team’s merchandise department.
Team officials knew they were on to something on July 18, 2013 – the first Sacramento Soccer Day at Raley Field – when they introduced the team and its mission to the public. The crowds wanted clothing that showed off this new brand and identity. The team had just two T-shirts back then – a black one and a white one with a basic team crest – both of which promptly sold out that day.
“The people who responded to that were the folks who wanted to have the brand on their chest,” Stallings said. “But as we expanded more and more into lifestyle clothing, we quickly had to create a Web store. We had all these fans lining up to buy stuff and we had no retail store and no games to play.”
The Republic’s branding, look and sense of place are no accident. When coming up with the concept, team employees dug into Sacramento’s history. It unearthed a nearly forgotten Latin motto – urbs indominata, or indomitable city – that once appeared on the city crest.
“We felt before we could actually build a brand, we had to brand Sacramento,” said Erika Bjork, the team’s vice president of marketing and communications. “We believe sports teams are so integrated with the cities they represent, and we felt there was something special happening in this region. You can go to other cities and within minutes know what their identity is and what they’re all about. Sacramento has struggled with that. We did a six month deep-dive into ‘What is Sacramento?’
“We realized the branding needed to be done by the fans as well,” she continued. “We had about 4,500 submissions from people about what was important to them.
“One of the things we learned in our studies was there is a transition in the American soccer fan. Many of them base their love of soccer on the European traditions of the sport.”
Using a wealth of research data, the Republic created a name, logo and color scheme that keyed on the city as California’s capital, complete with Old Glory red (looking much like burgundy) as a signature shade. Later came the fan apparel, with more than 100 clothing options available in its online store.
“We wanted to create an MLS-ready brand,” Bjork said. “We wanted to create a brand that would stand up to the best brands in the world.”
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.