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Nationals Lead Orioles In Merchandise Game

"That's what licensing is all about -- renting the emotion associated with the team."

But in the end, how long the craze for Nats merchandise lasts will boil down to how well the team performs on the field. One bad season and the honeymoon between the fans and the new franchise could end abruptly, said sports marketing experts.

At area stores like City Sports at Gallery Place in the District, Nationals merchandise is hot. The team's novelty is driving sales of most anything bearing its logo. "Newness sells," said Marty Brochstein, executive editor in New York of the Licensing Letter. (Photos Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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And Orioles fans need not worry. Sales of Orioles headwear are up 35.9 percent at Lids and Hat World stores over the past year, said Jon Glesing, spokesman for Hat World Corp. of Indianapolis, which owns both chains.

While the team won-lost record of 78-84 was not the stuff of champions, the offseason signing of Sosa and the introduction of a new secondary logo -- a scripted "O's" -- has boosted sales of Orioles licensed gear, said Major League Baseball's Smith.

But in the 15 Lids and Hat World stores in the Washington area, sales of Nationals headwear are outpacing Orioles gear 8 to 1, Glesing said.

A couple of retailers, including Hecht's department store, have chosen to go parochial all the way, selling Nationals merchandise exclusively. "It's the franchise here. It's truly in our back yard," said Nancy Chistolini, a Hecht's spokeswoman.

At Champs in Wheaton, the Nationals jerseys are even outselling the new Sammy Sosa Orioles jerseys, said assistant manager William Wilkes.

In 2004, team licensed apparel for all sports generated $12.6 billion sales in the United States and Canada, according to the Licensing Letter. Licensing is the second-largest source of revenue for Major League Baseball after television broadcast rights, league officials said.

But don't look at sales of Nats hats to significantly help with the estimated $581 million cost of the new stadium in Southwest. With the exception of team stores, such as the Orioles store in downtown Washington, the revenue from licensed merchandise is divided evenly among the major league teams, Smith said.

The initial popularity of Nationals merchandise is likely to last a little longer than it does for the typical expansion team, said Peter Stern, president of Strategic Sports Group, a sports marketing consultancy in New York.

"Unlike a lot of other franchises, there was not a lot of lead time to the start of season. In the past where you've seen leagues expand, there is a buildup of two years," he said. "Having a new ballpark on line will generate additional interest in the market."

The stadium planned for the Nationals is scheduled to open in March 2008.

New-team fever has definitely set in. How else to explain Hecht's plan to sell several hundred 18-inch Pez dispensers shaped like Snoopy, wearing -- what else? -- a Nationals cap? When you open the cap, it plays "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Or if that's not enough, the department store is also offering a commemorative Waterford crystal baseball. Each ball, which is three inches in diameter, is "hand-cut by skilled Waterford artisans and individually numbered from 1 to 2005" and comes with a certificate of authenticity, according to the Hecht's Web site.

All yours for a mere $155.

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