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Thursday, February 6, 2003
Old-school is new again

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The small store on 1229 Walnut Street looks like your average mom and pop sports apparel shop, situated between a collection of specialty stores and professional offices.

But inside a group of Japanese businessmen are plunking down $15,000 for armloads of merchandise they plan to take back to Japan. And Philadelphia 76ers guard Allen Iverson, New Jersey Nets forward Kenyon Martin and Sheek of the rap group Lox drop in looking for the "new" color combination.

Will it be Buccaneers' cremesicle orange, the Cavaliers' wine and gold, or maybe the Astros' rainbow of orange, yellow and blue?

Connie Hawkins shows off his new, old jersey.

Old-school is new again at Mitchell & Ness, a sports specialty retailer that peddles authentic replicas of uniform tops that were once cast aside as passé, and deep-pocketed customers are plunking down hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to sport the latest retro stylings of Joe Namath and Gale Sayers, Nolan Ryan and Magic Johnson.

It's been this way for Peter Capolino, owner of jersey-maker Mitchell & Ness, for almost two years now. He began making retro jerseys in the mid-'80s, but since he placed them on the backs of hip-hop artists and big-name athletes, revenues have grown from $2.8 million in sales in 2000 to $23 million last year. The company is on pace to double that in 2003.

Hip-hopper Fabolous resurrected NBA great Alex English's popularity 10 years after he retired with an authentic replica of his 1987-88 Denver Nuggets jersey in one of hip-hopper Bow Wow's videos. Sammy Baugh's 1947 Washington Redskins jersey became a tough find after Jay-Z wore it in his video, "Girls, Girls, Girls." And once P. Diddy wore Wes Unseld's 1977-78 Washington Bullets jersey on "The Carson Daly Show," it became a must-have -- yes, even for LeBron James.

James, of course, made headlines a week ago when the Ohio High School Athletic Association ruled him ineligible after he received two throwback jerseys as a gift from a Cleveland specialty shop. The prep phenom is said to have a closet full of retro jerseys that he has collected in recent years.

Capolino's throwbacks -- there are more than 1,000 designs among the four major sports -- are also popular in the locker rooms of NBA and NFL teams. Fashion-conscious players like Tampa Bay Buccaneers Dwight Smith and Warren Sapp like to show off their jerseys to teammates before games. "I sometimes make a late appearance on purpose," Smith said. Fashionably late.

During the Nets' most recent five-game road swing, Martin -- who spent $1,852 at the Mitchell & Ness store on Wednesday -- came to the game every day with a different jersey, including a 1964 Jim Brown Cleveland Browns and 1993 Warren Moon Houston Oilers.

Fabolous sports a replica of Bob McAdoo's Buffalo Braves road jersey.
"Everyone was looking to see what I was going to wear," said Martin, who has accumulated about 40 jerseys since he paid $4,000 when he began his collection during last year's All-Star Game in Philadelphia. And to think Martin is still far behind Fabolous, who has more than 1,000 jerseys, Sapp, who has more than 120 jerseys -- including the 1980 Ron Jaworski Eagles jersey he wore during the week leading up to the Super Bowl -- and Iverson, who says he's reached the century mark.

"I wear them for the guys that paved the way before me," said Iverson, who stopped by Mitchell & Ness on Wednesday to pick up three throwbacks -- a 1969 Joe Namath New York Jets, a 1971-1972 Oscar Robertson Milwaukee Bucks and a 1979-1980 Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers. The jerseys retailed between $250 and $320 apiece.

Despite Iverson's props, some NBA old-timers whose jerseys have given them a renewed popularity, are looking for the ultimate sign of respect: a cut of the profits.

Several former NBA players whose retro jerseys are top-sellers are concerned they aren't compensated for the use of their name on the back of the shirts.

"I'm trying to look into it," said Austin Carr, whose 1975-76 Cleveland Cavaliers jersey has become a hot seller since LL Cool J sported it during his appearance on a late-night talk show. "It's only natural that if they go from zero dollars to how many they are selling now that somebody's making money off it. But I don't know where it's going."

Other players, including Unseld, now the Washington Wizards' general manager, say they have not received their fair share of the revenue. Unseld's jersey is the most popular throwback, according to the NBA.

"I keep hearing I'm among the best-selling jerseys," said Rick Barry, whose 1966-67 San Francisco Warriors jersey is the fourth-most popular NBA retro jersey. "How in the world do all of these people use my name without me knowing about it?"

Barry, an NBA Retired Players Association board member, said he will bring up the issue at the board's next meeting Saturday in Atlanta. Mel Davis, executive director of the NBA Retired Players Association, supports the idea of players receiving individual contracts from the sale of their jerseys and said he "looks forward to pursuing it on behalf of the membership."

The NBA is the only one of the four major professional sports leagues that does not require the licensee to form a separate partnership with the retired player if it wants to use his name and likeness. The NBA Retired Players Association does receive a cut of licensing revenue from those who are not individually compensated, but NBA spokesman Matt Bourne said compensation would be very small if distributed among hundreds of members. The money collected now goes toward academic scholarships, medical care benefits and organizational functions. Bourne said all retired players must sign a consent form to allow their name to be used on a league-licensed product.

In late January, the NBA Players Association inquired with the league about the status of licensing royalties for former players whose names were being used on retro jerseys. "League officials told us that in order for players' names to be used, they had to have a separate agreement," NBPA spokesman Dan Wasserman said.

While Capolino does not directly pay NBA players, the league does individually compensate select players such as Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Larry Bird and the estate of Wilt Chamberlain. Capolino said he pays 47 NFL players (he claims he has paid $18,000 to former Chicago running back Gail Sayers, for example), 30 MLB players and 15 NHL players for the use of their names.

NBA retro jersey sales have tripled over the past 24 months, according to Sal LaRocca, the NBA's senior vice president for global merchandising, and given that retro jerseys make up 15 percent of the total gross merchandising revenue, brisk sales are one of many factors why the NBA expects to generate more money this year. An industry source said the NBA will generate $2.1 billion this year in merchandising, up 30 percent from $1.8 billion last year.

It's ironic that the 58-year-old Capolino's success has been driven by the music world, since Capolino admits to being clueless about the music industry.

"One guy came in and I said to him, 'Are you a rock star?' and he said, 'Yes, I'm Eric Clapton,' " recalled Capolino, who watches BET and MTV with the volume down just to see his garments. "And I said, 'Oh really, well what do you do? Do you play a musical instrument or do you sing?' "

I'm a young cat that liked their music and they started trusting me when I gave them a hot product they knew nothing about. Now, I call Mitchell & Ness the sleeping giant because we're basically obscure and small but everybody in the free land knows about us.
Reuben "Big Rube" Harley, who pairs the latest retro jerseys with high-profile musicians
Capolino knows he owes much of his success to Reuben Harley, a 28-year-old longtime customer better known as "Big Rube." Harley became Mitchell & Ness' connection to the music stars, pairing new retro jerseys with high-profile entertainers.

"I'm a young cat that liked their music and they started trusting me when I gave them a hot product they knew nothing about," said Harley, who thumbs through his Rolodex of more than 200 athletes, hip-hop artists and comedians to decide who gets to be the first to wear a new jersey. "Now, I call Mitchell & Ness the sleeping giant because we're basically obscure and small but everybody in the free land knows about us." That includes Nike and Reebok, which can't make accurate old-school authentics like Capolino can, although the two companies are making an effort to chip away at his market share. On Sunday, Nike debuted NBARewind, which includes a collection of old-school style twill jerseys with current player names on them that sell for $70. Cheaper materials and higher volume -- Capolino's runs are usually no more than 400, while Nike can make 20,000 at a time -- keep prices low.

While Chris McClure, creative director of Nike Team Sports, said he believes there's plenty of room in the market and that the fad shows no signs of slowing down, others aren't so sure.

"This is probably the last year of this highlight run," said David Baxter, president of the on-field division at Reebok, which will sell jerseys from seven NBA teams when they play in their retro uniforms later this year and will unveil an ABA collection in May. "Everyone getting in will muddy the market a bit and apparel trends just don't last as long as they used to."

Other companies are trying to corner the college and high school retro jersey market.

Headmaster Campus Wear has signed almost 20 athletes and has been granted the rights by their colleges to produce their old-school jersey. The company sold 14,000 Ohio State retro jerseys of Archie Griffin, Eddie George and Chris Spielman this past year, and will unveil its high-end vintage line May 1, Headmaster executive vice president Joe Yoon said. Included will be jerseys featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (UCLA), George Gervin (Eastern Michigan), Magic Johnson (Michigan State) and Jerry Rice (Mississippi Valley State).

Headmaster also is working on developing a high school retro line, which will include Darryl Dawkins' Maynard Evans High School (Orlando, Fla.) jersey. Unauthorized reproductions of Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Tracy McGrady, Darius Miles and Kevin Garnett high school jerseys already have drawn high bids on eBay.

Capolino says he's too busy with his own projects to worry about competitors. This week, his focus will be in Atlanta where Andy Hyman, owner of Distant Replays, hopes to match the $400,000 generated in sales of Mitchell & Ness jerseys during the four-day NBA All-Star Weekend last year in Philadelphia. This year's All-Stars will be wearing retro jerseys circa 1988 during the game.

"Being a small-business man there's a part of me that gets a little bit angry at the big guys because what they do is follow me around to see what I do and then make it in a less expensive jersey," Capolino said. "But I'm going to keep making new history, making it special and make the big guys keep following me."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.