Older players corner the NHL's sweater market

As if the threat of a work stoppage weren't bad enough, the National Hockey League might have to start worrying about the age of its most marketable players.

The average age of the top 10 players on the NHL's best selling sweater list is 34.3 years old. That's more than five years older than the players on National Football League's top selling list (28.6) and almost eight years older than the players on the National Basketball Association's list (26.6).

"There's nothing alarming about the popularity of our older players," said Brian Jennings, the NHL's group vice president of consumer products marketing. "The players that are selling well are still getting it done and they've consistently been top performers in the spotlight."

Steve Yzerman (38), Peter Forsberg (30) and Martin Brodeur (31) are the NHL's top-three best sellers, respectively, according to purchases on the league's Web site, NHL.com, throughout the season. Seven of the top 10 best sellers in the league are team captains, eight have won the Stanley Cup during the past decade and nine qualified for the playoffs this season.

The Colorado Avalanche (Forsberg and Joe Sakic), New Jersey Devils (Brodeur and Scott Stevens) and New York Rangers (Mark Messier and Brian Leetch, who was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs) are the three teams that have multiple players on the list.

While seven of the 10 players on NBA's list are in their 20s, only one player on the NHL's current top 10, Boston Bruins captain Joe Thornton (24), was born after 1973. Two of the top three players on the NFL's list, Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and New York Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey, are 23.

Last season, the average age of the players on the NHL's list was 33 years old. The increase can be partially attributed to 37-year-old Mario Lemieux being replaced by 43-year-old Mark Messier.

"We're very comfortable with our future, as there is clearly no shortage of NHL stars," said Jennings, citing Calgary's Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, Columbus' Rick Nash and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk as examples of up-and-comers. "The game is constantly being replenished by new talent."

While the average age of the players in the NHL and NBA is similar -- between 27 and 28 years old -- the gap between the age of the popular players is partly due to the exposure of players, especially young ones, in a game. A high-profile NBA rookie, such as LeBron James, might play all 48 minutes of a regulation game. A high-profile NHL rookie likely will play less than half as many minutes as James, and that's in a 60-minute game, Jennings said.

Montreal Canadiens forward Michael Ryder led NHL rookies with 63 points this season but averaged only 16 minutes a game.

The age of the players whose jerseys are being purchased also may be related to the age of the buyer. It is believed that the NBA has a younger consumer base and that, in part, contributed to the fact that two 19-year-olds, James and Carmelo Anthony, led the league's jersey sale list this year.

"The age of the most popular players is something that the NHL should look at," said Jim Root, vice president of Gerry Cosby & Co., a sporting goods retailer located near Madison Square Garden that sells thousands of hockey jerseys each year. "At the same time, it's important to understand that the NHL audience is more conservative. They love their heroes."

That's why the NHL list is more indicative of player popularity than the jersey sale list of the NBA and the NFL. Because NHL jersey licensees are more flexible than the other leagues in allowing fans to customize to their favorite players, there is a broader range of choices, which ensures the list isn't the product of what players' names and numbers are available.

Market size is believed to be a contributing factor in NHL sales. The NBA and the NFL have been able to overcome the obstacle -- evident from the fact that a jersey of a player from Cleveland (James) outsold the rest of the NBA by a wide margin, and that Brett Favre is on the NFL's list every year (Green Bay's population hovers at 100,000) -- but it's not clear that the same is true with the NHL. The majority of the players on the list are from the top 10 television markets. The young players Jennings cited play in cities with smaller populations and that are non-traditional hockey markets -- two factors that could influence sales since hockey fan support is more regionally focused than the other two leagues.

If a lockout does occur, many of the players on the list could retire, which likely would force the younger players to the forefront. However, if a work stoppage occurs, overall jersey sales revenues for the league would likely drop.

The NHL ranked fifth in licensed merchandise sales among sports properties in 2003, according to License! Magazine. The publication lists the league, which had an estimated $1.5 billion in licensed merchandise sales, behind the NFL ($3.2 billion), NBA ($3 billion), Major League Baseball ($3 billion) and NASCAR ($2 billion).

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com