The San Jose (Calif.) Sharks may not have won many games in their first season of National Hockey League play, but they're way out front in marketing savvy.

They lead the NHL in merchandise sales, accounting for 25 to 30 percent of all hockey souvenir items sold, says Matt Levine, the club's executive vice president of marketing and broadcasting. "We're up there with [basketball's] Chicago Bulls, probably right behind them as the No. 1 best-selling line of [sports] merchandise across North America," he claimed while being interviewed via his car phone.

By June 30, the first-year gross income on items bearing the team's trademarks is expected to reach between $100 million to $120 million, he says.

From the start, the idea was to create an appealing, nationally salable identity. While other hockey clubs were compiling scouting reports, the Sharks were scouting color trends. They found that retailers like L. L. Bean and Macy's were making long-term commitments to teal, a color selected for the team's uniforms.

Altogether, the franchise spent 13 months developing its name, family of logos, colors, and uniform design - an unusually long period. This allowed the club to conduct extensive market research at every step in the process.

"Sharks" ran second to "Blades" in a name-the-team contest but was selected because it is distinctive and fits the region (seven shark species inhabit nearby waters). A black shark (an imaginary species) biting a hockey stick was created as the team's logo when research showed that men were more enthused by teal when combined with black.

Picking up on the Sharks' success, four NHL teams are redesigning their uniforms and logos for next season, and three more will follow suit the season after that.

League officials have visited the Sharks to learn more about their marketing success. Of particular interest is a "Sharks in Parks" street-hockey program for sneaker-wearing boys and girls of 6 to 16. In-line skates such as Rollerblades are used in about 20 percent of the program, helping to build a fan base in a nontraditional hockey area. Participation is expected to reach 12,500 by this summer.

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