Sports Biz: Despite stigma, Michael Vick jerseys sell well at Modell's

Ever since the Philadelphia Eagles signed notorious quarterback Michael Vick this week, some NFL fans have vowed never to root for the team as long as it employed the convicted felon. But a sizable contingent will evidently still be cheering for the convicted dog-fighter this season, wearing his No. 7 jersey.

Mitchell Modell, CEO of Modell's Sporting Goods, says demand for Vick's jersey, which retails for $80 and $110, is strong. Ironically, No. 7 was also worn by Ron Jaworski, a beloved quarterback who lead the Eagles to Super Bowl XV against the Oakland Raiders in 1981. Jaworski, now an analyst on ESPN's Monday Night Football, does not think signing Vick was a good idea.
For now, Vick's hire has created the most buzz around the Eagles in years, and the jerseys are moving rapidly. "They are selling very strong," Modell says. "It's steady. You have a lot of people who are die hard Eagles fans."

The Modell's sporting-goods chain has 140 East Coast stores, 25 in the Philadelphia area. Mitchell Modell declined to provide any financial details about the sales of Vick's jersey.

But his statement is at odds with rival Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. (DKS), the largest publicly traded sporting goods chain, which is holding off on stocking Vick's jersey. "We have not seen enough demand from Eagles fans to stock the jersey," Jeff Hennion, chief marketing officer of the 400-store chain, told Bloomberg News. "We have no problem stocking the jersey if the demand is there."

Pittsburgh-based Dick's did not disclose the criteria it would use to determine if it will carry the jerseys in the future. Pundits suggest that Eagles fans will embrace Vick if he performs well. But performance is far from a sure bet after 18 months in prison -- an eternity on the gridiron.

Still, some fans hold jerseys of their favorite NFL players as high fashion, wearing them at home or in packed stadiums. Players earn a royalty for sales of replica jerseys, amounting to about $18 million for NFL players last year, by one estimate. Reebok, a unit of Adidas AG (ADDYY), is the official provider of jerseys to the NFL; executives have not returned messages.

Vick's signing has divided Eagles fans as few issues ever have, says Merrill Reese, the Eagles' longtime radio announcer. Some fans feel Vick's animal-cruelty crimes were so heinous that he shouldn't be allowed back on the field. Others, including Eagles head coach Andy Reid, say that Vick has paid his debt to society and deserves a second chance -- a viewpoint shared by Dick Vermeil, Jaworski's former head coach.

And Vick recently got a boost from an unlikely source: Princeton University professor Peter Singer, a provocative voice of the animal-rights movement, who questions the motives of those who believe Vick should be denied the right to play football. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Singer said, "People who are very quick to jump on Michael Vick maybe could spend some time thinking about how they participate in the cruelty to animals just by walking into the supermarket, spend some time thinking about what happened to that animal before it was turned into meat."

For Modell's, the question is more practical than ethical. "We always follow the rules and regulations of league," Mitchell Modell says. "The customers expect us to carry these kinds of goods." I asked Modell if his chain would consider donating proceeds from the sale of Vick jerseys to charity. Modell said he hasn't ruled anything out.

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