In the days before billion-dollar national TV contracts, interleague play and social media, there really were only two ways to see your favorite baseball players. You could either buy a pack of baseball cards, or you could sit in the stands and see them in person. Those are still viable options, of course, but there have never been as many ways for baseball fans to get as close as possible to their favorite players as there are now.

The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) is known primarily as the collective bargaining agent for all current Major League players, but it also has the responsibility of exploring group licensing opportunities for them. “We have a logo, but that’s not really our brand,” explains Senior Category Director, Apparel and Retail Development, Nancy Willis. “Our brand is the players.”

Working with nearly 100 licensees on everything from baseball cards and video games to bobbleheads and T-shirts, the MLBPA develops products that keep fans connected to the players and the game. In the process, it has embraced new trends such as social media and created new forms of partnerships with licensees. To put it in baseball terms, the MLBPA already has a winning team on the field, but it never stops scouting for the next great up-and-coming player in the world of licensed products.

With a number of new product categories inspired by recent trends and full access to the best players in the game, the MLBPA has a great lineup.

Heart of the Order

The MLBPA’s lineup includes a number of successful programs aimed at promoting player-specific merchandise at retail. Although team-based products have always been big seller, Willis spends her time working with retailers to expand the breadth of their player merchandise.

Through integrated retail programs, such as gift-with-purchase programs, the MLBPA provides shoppers with an opportunity to receive incentives when purchasing player merchandise. These items range from one-of-a-kind posters to autographed baseballs, and have been a significant driver in getting more player products on store shelves and in the hands of fans. “The bottom line is that we are really aggressive when it comes to promoting players in the retail space,” Willis says. “The fans have shown they want it, and we do everything we can to deliver.”

At the same time, the association works with licensees to develop new opportunities. One of the most prominent examples of this is the “The Players Clubhouse” store at Citi Field, home to the New York Mets, which the MLBPA has supported since 2010. This store came about through the association’s partnership with foodservice and facilities management firm Aramark. The store features a huge selection of player products and affords the MLBPA an opportunity to test new products and host promotional events.

One new opportunity that the Association and the players have seized upon is social media, according to Evan Kaplan, Director, Licensing and Business Development. “As players interact directly with fans through platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Tumblr, the opportunity for more profitable initiatives becomes even greater,” Kaplan says. “It’s obviously a new business opportunity and we’re excited to introduce a plan to maximize the players’ involvement,” he says.

Apparel producer Majestic has developed a series of T-shirts featuring players and their Twitter handles, and Kaplan says the MLBPA is pursuing other ways to use social media to promote the players. “We know fans want access to the players, and we’re leveraging social media to make that easier than ever before,” he says.

Another initiative the MLBPA instituted recently is “The Player Choice Collection,” a photo library which was launched through a partnership with Getty Images. The photo library already has been used widely in retail promotions, advertisements and a range of licensed products. Kaplan says the project contains images otherwise unavailable anywhere in the marketplace, and provides a great way to highlight the players’ personalities on and off the field.

Veteran Presence

Kaplan says the MLBPA values the strong relationships it has with all of its licensees, including such long-time partners as Topps, Majestic, Nike and Sony. “The majority of our key partners have been in place for a long time,” he says. “And that speaks highly of our business, as well as the value players bring to our licensees’ bottom lines.”

The MLBPA’s business affairs department is lean, Kaplan says, which means it has to work hard to be successful.  But he says the working environment encourages employees to be creative, and this in turn leads to new ideas.

“I think our staff is driven by their enjoyment of the work, as well as working both with and for the players,” Kaplan says, adding that the department always is open to trying out new concepts.

Willis agrees, saying working on a relatively small team gives her a greater sense of responsibility and ownership when it comes to the success of the MLBPA. “I do have a sense of personal responsibility to the players and making what I do a success. I want to do the best I can for them, and I think that’s true of everyone in the group,” she says.

Extra Innings

As far as the future is concerned, Kaplan says the return of the World Baseball Classic will keep the MLBPA busy licensing and promoting products featuring MLB players participating in the event. He says one of the MLBPA’s goals is to promote baseball around the world, and the premier international tournament for the sport provides a tremendous platform for that.

Willis says the MLBPA is always actively identifying new opportunities to highlight baseball players and connect them with fans. One such initiative is the Signature Series produced by Majestic and Twins 47. This line of caps, jerseys and t-shirts are designed by the players themselves, and last year Willis says players including Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera participated.

“That was a really fun program; the guys loved it,” Willis says. “There are very few limits on our business; it’s really just how creative we can be.”

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