In the Red, but Hoping for the Black (and Gold)
Football season starts slow for sports retailers.
Chris Price is an award-winning journalist and public relations principal. When he’s not writing, he’s avid about music, the outdoors, and Saints, Ole Miss and Chelsea football. Price also authors the Friday Sports Column at BizNewOrleans.com.
From top to bottom, the 2020 New Orleans Saints may have the most talented roster in team history. Experts are high on the Saints and the diehards are yelling, “Black and Gold to the Super Bowl.”
But there’s a feeling in the air unlike previous football seasons.
Blame it on COVID-19-related restrictions — including the elimination of preseason games and limited attendance at regular season games, the current political environment, or frustration with three straight seasons ending in devastating playoff losses, but excitement for the season has been lagging according to local retailers.
“We missed our numbers in August,” said Fleurty Girl owner Lauren Haydel, who launched the business in 2009, the year the Saints won the Super Bowl. “We can’t compete without football.”
For more than a decade, Fleurty Girl’s six retail stores and online shop have been a haven for Saints fans to get outfitted with unique styles and accessories, but this year has been different.
“Saints football is at the core of Fleurty Girl,” she said. “This is the first fall, the first football season, that we are not head to toe in Saints gear at Fleurty Girl. The customer demand isn’t there. It’s very unusual.”
In previous years, Haydel would offer customers a number of new products and shirt designs to capitalize on the excitement of Saints football. She said fans would flock to the store for face glitter, T-shirts, earrings, hair flair and see-through purses.
“I’m not selling that. I mean, they don’t need that right now. Even our front table isn’t black and gold right now,” Haydel said. “It’s masks and mask chains and hand sanitizers. Usually we’ve got baskets of different clear purse styles, and they’re in the back corner of the store right now.”
With the current health environment, one would think a Saints-themed mask might be a hot item, but that’s not the case.
“It’s not even in our top 10,” she said.
This year, Fleurty Girl introduced only one new shirt, which features people sitting on a couch and it says, “Holla From Home.”
“I just don’t see people decking out like they would if they were tailgating or going inside the game. I don’t want to be sitting on lots of products. We have nothing like our normal spread.”
With conventions canceled, bars closed and restaurants at limited capacity, the French Quarter is not attracting the crowds it normally does as temperatures cool and fans gear up for gameday.
“It’s like a whole different world,” said Marguerite Schlesinger of N’awlins Sports on Decatur Street.
“During the week I get no traffic,” Schlesinger said. “On the weekend, we might get a few people. There’s no comparison to the numbers we usually see at this time of year when the football season is kicking off.”
While the Saints’ home opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was played without fans in attendance, state officials allowed the Superdome to open at 25% capacity for the second of eight home games against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 27.
“It is imperative that our fans know that the health and safety of all those attending our games is the highest priority of not only the New Orleans Saints, but also state and local officials,” the team said in a release last month about allowing fans into games.
While it is encouraging that a limited number of fans will be allowed inside the Superdome, it won’t have even close to the economic impact of the stadium’s capacity of 73,000 fans per game and the typical tens of thousands of tailgaters who would usually fill downtown shops, bars and restaurants on game days.
For business to return to normal, Schlesinger said people need to “stop believing that the corona’s going to kill everybody, and the mayor (needs to) open everything up.”
Against the backdrop of the presidential election and protests against police brutality against African-Americans, including players kneeling during the national anthem to draw attention to the issue, some fans — led by President Donald Trump condemning the action as un-American and insulting to U.S. soldiers and veterans — have turned their back on the game, team and players they previously loved.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racism in 2016. His protest has been adopted by players in leagues worldwide over the past four years, and interest in the movement has increased as police-related deaths have gripped the nation this year.
The NFL — a league where approximately 70% of players are Black — has now committed to address social justice issues alongside the NFL Players’ Association. “End racism” and “It takes all of us” will be painted in each stadium’s end zones for the upcoming season.
For now, retailers are hoping consumer attitudes shift once the season begins. If the Saints play as advertised, the hope is that sales will pick up and continue through the holiday season and the playoffs.
“I think when games start,” said Haydel, “we’ll see a turnaround.”