When the Boston Red Sox square off against the Colorado Rockies on Wednesday night, Jeff Fields is hoping for a nail-biting seven-game World Series. It's not the adrenaline rush that he's after; it's the mislabeled T-shirts.
If the series goes down to the wire, licensed clothing manufactures will prepare T-shirts, hats, and other apparel announcing both the Sox and the Rockies as the 2007 champs. In years past, once the victors were decided, Major League Baseball (MLB) required the destruction of all the clothing declaring the losers as champions.
But this year Mr. Fields and his colleagues at World Vision, an international Christian humanitarian aid group, will save the erroneously labeled clothing from the incinerators and, instead, send them to impoverished Ghanaians affected by recent flooding.
It's an answer to a dilemma of a little-known corner of professional sports: what to do with all the unsalable paraphernalia of near-champs.
Since the mid-1990s, World Vision has worked with MLB to distribute counterfeit or mislabeled clothing to those in need rather than sending it to the big closet in the sky. It does the same with the National Football League (NFL). This year marks the first time that the MLB will contribute their postseason apparel to the group, not just fraudulently manufactured goods. Sporting-goods stores are also getting into the charity act.
"It's great to have the partnership, great to not see these types of things being destroyed and being utilized for good rather than having to end up in a landfill or an incinerator," says Fields, corporate relations officer for World Vision.
In the world of baseball, receiving championship apparel is seen as something of a ritual and thus worth the pre-production risks.
"The moment of a clinch, the teams celebrate. They pile on top of one another, they get all crazy, and part of that celebration is, in fact, them proclaiming their championship clinch with a T-shirt and a cap," explains Steve Armus, MLB's vice president of consumer products. "It's something that's traditional in baseball and some other sports, and for all the teams it's an important moment."
But to be prepared for each team's potential victory ceremony, the MLB prepares hats and T-shirts – 288 of each item for each team – before each playoff series has been decided. This year, when at least 12 teams were in hard-fought competition for eight playoff spots, league organizers printed apparel for every possible scenario. The result: Thousands of articles of clothing announcing the Padres', Mets', and other vanquished teams' seasonal victories are en route to Ghana. And "the clicker continues to click," adds Mr. Armus.
While the MLB is just beginning to expand its relationship with World Vision, the NFL has been working with the group to send its postseason gear to Africa for years.
"It would be a horrible waste of a fine piece of apparel to destroy it," says Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman. "Working with World Vision, we are able to provide those who are less fortunate with very nice pieces of apparel that may not mean that much to them in terms of who won and lost but does make a difference in their quality of life."
As part of its agreement with the NFL and MLB, World Vision must ship all of the clothing overseas, preferably to places where the items won't offend wounded sports fans and defeated players.
"If you were to see someone walking down the street wearing a Cleveland Indians World Series Championship shirt (the Indians lost their spot in the World Series to the Boston Red Sox on Sunday), obviously that would stand out as out of place," says Armus. "It might cause embarrassment to the team, and it might cause problems for our licensees in as much that it's [no longer an] authorized product."
"It's something the leagues don't want to have distributed," says Craig McCormick, buyer of licensed products for Sports Authority, a national sporting- goods store based in Denver. "It dilutes the whole meaning behind the T-shirts."
While the MLB and NFL need to print fewer than 300 shirts and caps for each potential victor, retailers often take bigger risks. Before the 2007 Super Bowl, Mr. McCormick and his colleagues at Sports Authority took a costly gamble. With the Chicago fan base a historically good market and encouraged by sales from the team's NFC Championship win, the outlet printed 15,000 to 20,000 T-shirts proclaiming the Chicago Bears as the Super Bowl champs long before the kickoff.
"The payoff is that you can open your doors right after the game, and you would have had products right there for the fans to come in and buy," says McCormick. "We'll normally sell through all of that product if we do open up right after the game."
Although the wager proved wrong, McCormick made the best of the situation. He had teamed up with World Vision prior to the Super Bowl, so he could donate the clothes rather than destroy them.
They were not the only vendor to bet wrong on the Bears for Super Bowl XLI. World Vision received its largest shipment ever from that game, collecting more than 100,000 shirts and hats worth at least $2.5 million, and distributed them to people in Zambia and other parts of Africa.
Not only does working with World Vision provide corporations like Sports Authority an alternative to destroying the clothes, it also allows them to recoup some of the loss by receiving a tax credit for the charitable donation, which is a major draw for many big companies, says Karen Kartes, media relations director for World Vision. Additionally, World Vision picks up the clothes from the retailers, further reducing the cost companies would have paid to destroy the items.
"For the most part, these folks we're serving really have no idea who the Chicago Bears or the Boston Red Sox are," says Fields. "They're just glad to get a new piece of clothing that has never been worn before and isn't a hand-me-down and doesn't have a hole in it."