Before 1984, manufacturers of professional athletic apparel couldn't give away the authentic jerseys, shiny team jackets or fitted wool baseball caps pros wear.
"I couldn't get local businesses to take those jackets on consignment. They were very resistant," says Andy Anderson, who has represented professional sports equipment and apparel manufacturers in the Mountain West since the mid-1970s."Retailers didn't think the market was there."
And how wrong they were.
And how fortunate for Kevin and Chad Olsen those retailers were wrong. Had traditional sporting goods stores tapped the billion dollar market of avid sports fans searching for an official, league-licensed jersey, jacket or hat bearing the logo of their favorite team, the Olsens wouldn't be enjoying their rapid rise to success as founders and top executives of The Pro Image Inc.
Since opening a small booth at ZCMI Center in 1985, The Pro Image has grown into a chain of 165 franchises across the country. Gross revenues that first year were $70,000 and reached $1.7 million last year. Corporate earnings are expected to top $1 million this year on gross revenues of $5 million from franchising fees, royalties and sales at a distribution center.
"They aren't the only ones in the business now, but they are a leader," Anderson said, noting that without The Pro Image, he and other sales reps for authentic professional gear wouldn't have many places to peddle their wares.
The lack of an outlet for the "real thing" in professional sports apparel was precisely how Kevin Olsen came up with the idea of selling the stuff himself. He had promised his sons he would return from Southern California in 1985 with authentic L.A. Dodger baseball caps the fitted wool hat without the plastic adjuster in the back but he came home empty handed.
"My wife and I thought, `There has got to be others out there who want the same thing,' " the 38-year-old Olsen said.
Although some manufacturer reps, including Anderson, were skeptical of Olsen's success as a retailer they had seen other small operations come and go they supplied the enthusiastic entrepreneur, nonetheless, with official jerseys, hats and other memorabilia.
Within two months, business was brisk enough that Olsen wanted to expand. He recruited his younger brother Chad, an accountant by training, to help him incorporate and put together a franchising program.
The Pro Image wasn't the only retailer of specialty sports items in the country, so their strategy was to expand rapidly and lease as many high traffic locations in shopping malls across the country as possible.
It has worked so far, with Pro Image franchises sold individually at various locations in more than 30 states. Not all the franchise agreements have gone into operation and the 100th Pro Image store, out of 165 franchises, will open in Buffalo, N.Y., next month.
Chad says a competitive franchising fee and royalty $16,000 and 4 percent of sales makes the venture attractive. But the Olsens are also aware of the allure of working with sports for even the most conservative businessman or humblest homemaker.
Some franchise owners are as crazed about their favorite teams as the clientele.
"Sometimes you get people a little too enthusiastic about sports, and you have to get them back on the ground and tell them this is a business and you are here to make a profit," Chad said.
One franchisee the Olsens are especially proud to have is the Utah Jazz, which owns six Pro Image outlets in the state and has rights to open another.
"It fits into our five-year business plan to have some kind of team shop" to help with the NBA team's advertising and promotion, Jazz vice president of marketing Jay Francis said. He explained that the team couldn't get sporting good stores to stock enough Jazz souvenirs, and The Pro Image's franchising program made it easier to tackle the task.
Francis said he hopes to receive a return on the investment by next year.
The initial capital outlay to open up shop ranges from $85,000 to $125,000, Chad said, and annual sales for an established unit bring in between $200,000 to $800,000.
Chad and Kevin also want a larger piece of the profits and plan to open 10 company-owned stores this year. "The real money is in operating the store not in the franchise fee and royalties," Chad said.
From the beginning, sales have constantly increased, and the Olsens expect them to reach a franchise-chain total of $34 million this year.
It's not difficult to believe sports fans crave memorabilia of their favorite teams. But the sudden explosion of sports gift shops like The Pro Image around the country is another story.
Some observers attribute it to the explosion of sports information that has taken place in the 1980s, sparked by cable television broadcasting sports around the clock.
"There's a ton of information out there now. Five years ago, no one would know who the Runnin' Rebels were," said Frank Vuono of NFL (National Football League) Properties, referring to the University of Las Vegas' top-ranked basketball program.
Based on royalty revenues, he said interest in professional football paraphernalia has never been higher. Professional leagues and college athletic programs receive a 7-10 percent royalty on sales of every item licensed to carry team and league logos.
It's going farther, however, than just jerseys, jackets and hats, Olsen said. "I started out with about 50 items and a couple pages of vendors. Now we have about 7,000 items and about 100 pages of vendors."
Inventory has expanded to toothbrushes, mugs, underwear and telephone-football helmets, all bearing a team logo.
"When the Denver Broncos are in the playoffs you can paint a stick orange and probably sell it at
a store in Colorado," Kevin said.
Home team items always sell well as do souvenirs of winning teams no matter where they are located. To keep track of who is winning, who is not and what to keep in stock, the home office in Bountiful has software tracking those facts, and each store has a computer to access the information. TPI Distributing Inc. was also formed by the Olsens to give franchisees quick access to inventory that manufacturers may not have on demand.
Clean cut and beaming with pride, The Pro Image's president, Kevin, and 29-year-old chairman and chief executive, Chad who was recently selected Chivas Regal's Young Entrepreneur of the Year admit everything has gone their way. And they are confident it will continue to do so.
But is the hunger for sports apparel and gifts, along with retailers like The Pro Image, longstanding or just another passing fad?
Only if professional sports suddenly die out, Anderson said.
"The interest just keeps getting stronger and stronger," he said, noting a baseball fan in Denver was reported to have purchased the warm up jacket of every Major League Baseball team. "That's $3,200 in jackets."
Even sporting goods stores are starting to see the light, Anderson said, but their stock is limited, which only helps specialty shops like The Pro Image.
"If they don't have it, they just tell the customer to go to The Pro Image."