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And when it comes to inducing terror, no team mascot beats San Jose's shark. Massive, toothy and jet black, it explodes out of a black triangle to chomp on a hockey stick. The implication is that a hockey player is next in the food chain. "You look at that shark and sense it's not a happy camper," says Shark defenseman Doug Wilson. "It's very menacing, and the black intensifies the menace."
The Shark management wasn't interested in the sort of carefree, well-fed creature you might see swimming about the languid pools of Sea World. "We had in mind a phantasmagorical shark that conveyed speed, danger, relentlessness," says Matt Levine, the Sharks' marketing whiz. "A predator that would remind you of Jaws and attacks on surfers." (But not so fearsome that parents wouldn't buy it.)
In a sport that traditionally lags far behind football, baseball and basketball in merchandising, retail sales of Sharkabilia in 1992 topped $150 million. That's about a third of the NHL's total merchandising sales. Much of it was through mail orders—the team puts out a color catalog featuring 155 items, from stuffed sharks to a toilet-seat-shaped foam hat called Puckhead. "From a marketing standpoint our problem was that we were an expansion team, an unknown commodity with little chance of winning," Levine says. "We had to count on our merchandise to sell the team."
So in the winter of 1990, a full five months before San Jose was officially awarded an NHL franchise, Levine began market research. Over the next 17 months he considered hundreds of ideas, consulted fashion experts and held focus groups. He surveyed 1,400 hockey fans and weighed their responses to artwork, color combinations and lettering.
A contest was run to select the name of the team. Nearly 6,000 entries came in from as far away as Genoa, Italy (the Genoese suggested the Barracudas and the Blade Runners). Other suggestions included Yodeling Yams, Aftershocks, Technopolitans, Screaming Squids and San Jose Cansecos. The most popular name, the Blades, was discarded because it was closely identified with gangs. Ironically, Sharks is the name of one of the gangs in West Side Story. When the Winnipeg Jets are in town, you half expect to see players face off in choreographed violence as the goalies belt out Maria.
Team colors took a year to sort out. The question was never what colors to use in the logo, but what colors to use with black. The Sharks tried black, turquoise, orange and white, but people said the color combination looked too much like that of the Miami Dolphins. Similarly, black, royal blue, silver and white conjured up the Detroit Lions. "Fans were saying, 'Give us our own colors,' " says Levine. "So we decided to use a watercolor to deliver a shark." Pacific teal was appropriated from the Charlotte Hornets, who are second overall in NBA product sales. "Teal appeals strongly to women and doesn't turn off men when combined with black," says Levine. "Grandmothers are buying Shark gear because it's cute, and teenagers buy it because it's tough."
The three young Dutchmen cruising the aisles of the X store, a sporting-goods store in Amsterdam's New Market district, look like outlaw bikers just in from Marin County on their Harleys. They're wearing steel-tipped boots, black leather jackets and elaborate tattoos. The big guy has a belly that reaches far enough out over his belt to qualify him for the presidency of the Hell's Angels.
They shuffle past the rack of Los Angeles Raider jackets. They pass under the huge San Jose Shark pennant hanging from the ceiling. They stop at the wall of black baseball caps. The big guy tries on one with a White Sox insignia.
"Before I buy, there is something I must know," he tells a visitor from America. "What is Sox, and how does it look?"
That all depends on which Sox he means. The White Sox have changed uniform designs 57 times since 1900, five times in the last 15 years. The Bermuda shorts that Sox players donned briefly in 1976 were not one of the fashion industry's sublime achievements. Still, the team's greatest stylistic outrage may have been the retina-scaring red-white-and-blue ensemble it adopted in 1983. Children wept when they saw it. Dogs howled. Sox outfielder Greg Luzinski complained that he felt like a box of cereal.