Sales of `rip-off' football shirts slump

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THE LATEST in a long line of England football strips was unveiled yesterday amid growing evidence that fans' appetite for expensive replica kits is shrinking rapidly.

With football league teams changing their kits repeatedly, football strips have become a pounds 200m-a-year industry, adding large sums to club coffers, particularly in the Premiership.

But the appeal of having the most up-to-date kit appears to be diminishing as football shirts lose their fashion status and fans become increasingly disillusioned at their cost.

A report to be published by the Government's Football Task Force this summer will reveal that nearly all supporters believe that they are being charged too much for shirts. Fans also believe that strips are changed far too regularly.

John Williams, director of the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research at Leicester University, said: "The research we did suggests that the cost is certainly a factor ... It may also be that although people are still interested in having new strips, there are a lot of strips already in circulation, which will slow down purchase. Strips are overlapping and there is not an awful lot of difference between them. People seem willing to live longer with older strips."

The clubs are starting to feel the effects of this change. Manchester United announced last week that its merchandising profits - largely from the sale of replica tops - have tumbled by 20 per cent to pounds 12.4m in six months. Newcastle United, Spurs and Nottingham Forest have also said they are making considerably less money from shirt sales and other merchandise (see panel).

At Newcastle, the decline may have ben compounded by newspaper revelations about two of its directors, Freddie Shepherd and Douglas Hall, who boasted - among other things - that fans were paying pounds 40 for shirts that cost only pounds 5 to produce.

England's new home kit, manufactured by Umbro, was launched by some of the team's stars yesterday afternoon at the BBC Match of the Day Live exhibition at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.

Despite the high-profile launch, Umbro representatives were unwilling to comment on the new strip or the downturn in sales of replica kits in general. Asked if regular kit relaunches were simply a way of boosting sales, a marketing department spokesman said: "I wouldn't be able to answer that."

There a clue, however, in the official press release that accompanied the launch. The final line said: "As with all Umbro kits, it [the new strip] has a lifespan of two years and will be worn until 2001."

David Conn, author of The Football Business, a book examining the transformation of the game in the 1990s, said declining shirt sales were indicative of widespread disillusionment with commercialism among supporters.

He said: "However loyal supporters are, they have only got a certain amount of money. Fans are starting to think that paying pounds 80 every season is a bit too much. People who were really into the shirts when they first started to take off now think it is a bit rip-off. Fans are becoming a lot wiser.

"Perhaps this decline in shirt sales is the first sign of supporters becoming jaded by the commercialism of the game. It could be a sign that the bubble is bursting as people wonder how wholesome the state of the game really is."

Clubs' Drop

In Profits

Newcastle United

pounds 3.3m branded-product sales over the past six months - down 40 per cent on pounds 5.5m figure for the same period last year.

Manchester United

In the past six months, replica kit and merchandising profits have fallen by 20 per cent to pounds 12.4m.

Tottenham Hotspur

pounds 2m income from shirt sales over the first half of this season - 13 per cent down on the same period last season.

Nottingham Forest

Sales of replica kits 30 per cent down on 1996. The club has sold less than half of what it budgeted for.