The easiest way to show love for your team is to buy its official logo T-shirt. Or baby bib. Or key chain, chips bowl, coffee cup or athletic sock, or one of the thousands of other products plastered with pro team logos. Sports licensing is a multibillion-dollar business that grows bigger every year. But it wasn't always so. Go back 40 years, to the first effort, by the National Football League, to sell a team image on a national scale. There, smiling and squinting and patting the side of his trusty palomino, is the unexpected figure of Roy Rogers.
Yes, Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys, who died on July 6 at the age of 86, was the midwife of national sports team marketing. When the original NFL Enterprises—now called NFL Properties, the division of the NFL that licenses team logos-was created in 1959, it was a division of Roy Rogers Enterprises. Happy trails, indeed. Before Rogers rode into town, each of the 12 NFL teams took care of its own licensing, what little there was. Some teams even gave away their rights, thinking the team was getting free publicity.
In 1958 the Los Angeles Rams, the first team to put its logo on the side of its helmets, started selling a bobble-head doll of a Rams player. The doll was a hit. "This is the first we can identify of team logos being applied to a product," says Roger Atkin, who recently retired as vice president of retail sales at NFL Properties.
That success did not go unnoticed by Rogers, a genius marketer. His TV show, which aired from 1951 to '57, was one of the most popular of the decade. At the peak of his fame, 400 Roy Rogers products were on sale. The 1955 Sears catalogue offered 13 pages of Roy Rogers gear—cowboy outfits, lunch boxes, flashlights, hats, slippers, watches, even an inflatable Trigger.
Rogers's earnings from his licensing agreements dwarfed his salary as a cowboy star, and after his show went off the air, he couldn't see himself returning to the grind of making movies. "He just decided he didn't want to make any more films," says 'Larry Kent, 85, who was general manager of Roy Rogers Enterprises. With the notion that pro teams could tap into the same market as cowboy stars, Rogers approached Major League Baseball, which took a pass. The NFL didn't. Talks began, spearheaded by Pete Rozelle, then the dynamic young general manager of the Rams.
In March 1959, Rogers offered to build a national licensing program for the league, and late that year the NFL signed a two-year contract with him to do all its marketing and licensing. Rogers got half the royalties, and the 12 team owners got the other half.
The first team memorabilia sold nationally was a set of glassware carrying team logos. Standard Oil bought it to give away with fill-ups at its gas stations. "Up to that point nobody had done anything nationally," says Kent. "From then on the thing took off. When adults started identifying with teams, it grew into a gigantic business. They bought everything."
Within a year Rogers had lined up 45 manufacturers, churning out about 300 NFL products—cigarette lighters, dolls, vacuum bottles, ties, blankets, coats, pajamas and more. The strange marriage between branding iron and gridiron, however, didn't last. When the contract came up for renewal in 1962, Kent leaped from Roy Rogers Enterprises to the burgeoning NFL.
"The business got stolen away from him," Roy Rogers Jr. says of his father. "It was always a sore issue with him. Larry Kent took the program with him."
Kent, who ran NFL Properties until 1971, says today that Rogers quickly lost interest in the football business, though he credits the cowboy star as the dynamo who got the ball rolling. "He was a force," says Kent. Still, the question remains as to who first thought to market sports merchandise nationwide. "It was my idea," Kent says.