Strong enough to be your band
Lance Armstrong was standing in line at a rural convenience store recently, waiting to buy a map to navigate the country backroads of southeast Missouri, when he noticed something familiar about the customer standing in front of him.
"I just thought to myself, what are the odds that this guy has one, here?" said Armstrong, who needed a map to plot out biking routes through the Mark Twain National Forest and the Ozark Trail while visiting his girlfriend Sheryl Crow's family home near Lake Wappapello.
It has been nearly two months since Armstrong took his victory lap in front of the Arc de Triomphe after capturing his sixth straight Tour de France, an amazing feat made more improbable since he had overcome testicular cancer. Perhaps in anticipation of the accomplishment Nike and Armstrong's foundation created the LIVESTRONG bands. Send the foundation a dollar, get the wristband.
They have become the nation's "got-to-have-it" summer accessory. More than 12 million of them have been sold, generating millions of dollars for cancer research.
And it hit home again when he opened his hometown paper, The Austin American-Statesman, and saw two players on opposing high school football teams, down on the ground following the end of a play. Both had one thing in common -- the bracelet.
"I thought, at best, we'd sell maybe 500,000 of them, since that sounded like a lot," Armstrong said.
"We feel really lucky that this caught on in the way it did," Armstrong Foundation spokesperson Michelle Milford said. "We thought the height of this was going to be during the Tour De France."
The bracelets did sell well in July as Armstrong pulled ahead of the Tour de France pack in the Alps, but sales records were set during the Olympics a month later, likely a result of viewers across the world seeing the athletes from many countries wearing them. On Aug. 24 and 25, the Armstrong Foundation sold 410,000 bands.
At one point, Armstrong bands were so in demand that backorders reached three weeks and profiteers were selling them for as much as $15 apiece on eBay.
All the commotion has caused sports team executives to figure out what their team can do to get in on the craze.
The first copycat of the post-Armstrong bracelet era was the Virginia Tech football team. The team made orange wristbands with "TEAM * UNITED" written on them. The message is meant to signify the unity of the team and its support of its charity of choice -- United Way -- which receives proceeds from sales of their $1 bracelets.
Mark Fields, the Carolina Panthers linebacker who missed last season due to Hodgkin's disease, created a similar band with the phrase "Keep Pounding" on it. The bracelets are available on the Panthers' Web site for $1, with proceeds going toward cancer research.
"It's an easy accessory and it's very visible," said John McDonough, senior vice president of marketing and broadcasting for the Chicago Cubs. "But the message behind the band has to be as important as the symbol itself."
"For me, this is not a competition," Armstrong said. "It wasn't a fashion statement for me, but I of course don't regret that it turned into what it did."
The popularity of the bands even can be found in the entertainment industry. Sony is offering a "free wristband," similar to Armstrong's in size and color, with the purchase of rapper Lil' Flip's CD, "U Gotta Feel Me." Armstrong said he had seen the CD and the wristband promotion and would "obviously prefer that people wear "LIVESTRONG" instead of the attempted knockoffs. Sony deferred comment to Lil' Flip's management team but repeated calls were not returned.
Milford said the foundation is not concerned about other sports teams, athletes or entertainers copying the idea, as long as they don't infringe on the foundation's trademarks. In July, the foundation trademarked the phrase "LIVESTRONG" for use on clothing, accessories and the organization's educational outreach.
While many have credited Nike with the idea, phrases on rubber bands have existed in the sports world since 1998, when an entrepreneur from Minnesota, Ave Green, started doing it. Thanks to striking up a friendship with Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett, who had been wearing regular rubber bands throughout his high school career, Green's company, Wordstretch, sold more than 10 million rubber bands with phrases over a four-year period.
She secured an NBA license in 2000 and struck a deal with Major League Baseball in 2001. She even made bands for the Cleveland Cavaliers on draft night. An imitation of Green's "King James" bands are now being marketed by Nike.
Green said that the Armstrong bands are a better evolution of her original idea. They are made of thicker material and the words are stamped into the rubber so the words won't rub off.
The jewelry/charity connection isn't original either. Until There's A Cure, an HIV/AIDS prevention and education organization, started raising money 11 years ago by selling high-end jewelry with the familiar red ribbon on it. The San Francisco Giants helped the organization raise $1 million through the sale of their jewelry, which ranges from $75 to $400. Giants slugger Barry Bonds wore one in a recent issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Green, who sold off her company last year, said she believes the rubber band business can generate revenues of as much as $50 million per year. "It has the potential to become part of the necessary fan gear," Green said. "Players could do their own, artists can sell packs of them at concerts."
But if Lance Armstrong's latest prediction on the band's future success are accurate, Green's industry estimate doesn't leave too much room for others.
"I suspect that we're going to sell 20 or 25 million of these," Armstrong said. "Like most things that become fashion statements, I don't expect it to be as strong in five years. But hopefully, in five years time, somebody who is diagnosed with cancer will be able to put it on and remember to live strong."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org