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The bizarre economy of Super Bowl merchandise: What happens to the losing team’s ‘champion’ apparel?

A computer screen with a photo of a T-shirt for sale.
A used T-shirt showing an alternate reality in which the Bengals beat the 49ers in 1989 is priced at $10,000 on EBay.
(Jerome Adamstein / Los Angeles Times)
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Call it the Schrödinger’s Hat paradox.

Right now, thousands of caps, T-shirts, sweatshirts and face masks proclaiming the Los Angeles Rams the next Super Bowl champion are sitting in boxes. A parallel pile of merchandise celebrates the victory of the Cincinnati Bengals.

If the Rams take home the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday, all that Bengals gear will instantly become unsellable, at least in the eyes of the NFL. If the Bengals manage to best the Rams in their own house, the Rams kit will transform into wearable lies as soon as the whistle blows. A cat’s life might not be at stake, as in the quantum mechanics thought experiment, but it does present a conundrum to L.A.’s sports retailers.

Either way, a nonprofit called Good360 is expecting a shipment next week.

Since 2015, the Virginia-based organization has been handling the losing team’s Super Bowl swag, doing the same for the NFC and AFC championship games and the World Series.

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Shari Rudolph, chief marketing officer at Good360, said the process is pretty simple: The NFL sends retailers the address of a Good360 warehouse where they can ship the losing team’s merch; Good360 employees bundle it together, and once they have enough to fill a shipping container they send it overseas in collaboration with nonprofits that distribute it to people who could use free clothes.

For the record:

3:27 p.m. Feb. 11, 2022An earlier version of this story misspelled Shari Rudolph’s last name as Randolph.

Where in the world does it all end up? Rudolph won’t say. “With this donation it’s a bit sensitive, so we don’t disclose the exact locations they go,” Rudolph said. “What I can say is they end up in countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America.”

The rarity of these artifacts increases their value to collectors; a T-shirt celebrating the Bengals as the champions of 1989’s Super Bowl XXIII, which they lost to the San Francisco 49ers, is currently listed on EBay for $10,000.

A stack of sweatshirts from BreakingT celebrating Rams stars Cooper Kupp and Matthew Stafford.
(Jamie Mottram)

Rudolph said the total amount of bizarro championship gear is relatively small on the scale of Good360’s total operation, which handled $1.3 billion in donations in 2021. “It tends to be only a few thousand items for each event that are produced ahead of time,” Rudolph said.

Still, enough fans are willing to shell out on site that it makes sense to print a pile of surplus shirts even if half, inevitably, become charitable donations.

Up and down the rest of the Super Bowl merch economy, smaller sellers have found ways around the problem.

BreakingT has built a business out of quick-twitch T-shirt printing, jumping on memes, trends and moments that would be too niche for the big players to capitalize on.

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A new shirt might commemorate a game-winning play, said Jamie Mottram, president of BreakingT, but “it could just as easily be Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods having a really emotional moment on the field afterwards that’s going viral.”

The company uses an in-house software tool to track what’s happening on social media with every major pro and college-level team to figure out what’s capturing fans’ attention, then calls on artists to whip up a new design within hours, and goes to the league in question for licensing approval. Then the design goes up online. It’s only once the orders start coming in that printing begins.

The company typically relies on its in-house printing facility in Virginia to produce its wares, but in the case of a true merch emergency across the country, Mottram said he can call on local printers to meet demand. When the Padres hit their “Slam Diego” streak in 2020, “that took off overnight, and we were working with printers in San Diego to get products into the stadium and into the players’ hands, so they all had the shirts at batting practice,” Mottram said.

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In the lead-up to the Super Bowl, Mottram said that Bengals gear has been outselling the Rams 4 to 1 — “If you’re a Bengals fan, you’re losing your money and your mind right now,” he said — but the company has a number of “if win” orders in place with retailers across the country.

“If the Rams win they take X amount of this design and Y amount of that one, and if the Rams don’t win we just never release that product and tear up the order,” Mottram said. He anticipates that the BreakingT factory will start printing first thing Monday morning and ship out the correct gear to stores overnight so they can capitalize on the moment.

And despite the temptation, he said that the company has never taken the step of printing some product in advance and putting company money on a sportsbook to hedge its investment. “We have definitely talked about doing that exact thing, but we’ve never actually done it.”

BreakingT brings in revenue in the tens of millions, he said, which gives it the ability to ride out some uncertainty. But the small vendors of Los Angeles have a different set of Super Bowl issues to contend with.

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U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers open boxes of counterfeit goods.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers open boxes of counterfeit goods the agency has recovered during a news conference Feb. 4 near LAX ahead of the Super Bowl.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

A number of federal agencies — Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and Homeland Security Investigations — have said that they are actively pursuing counterfeit vendors “as part of a crackdown on intellectual property rights violation” in Inglewood and the broader Los Angeles area, according to a Wednesday news release. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security told the media that it had confiscated approximately $44 million in bootleg merchandise ahead of the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla.

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On a sunny Tuesday five days before the big game, finding Rams gear, bootleg or otherwise, proved challenging in the dense retail zone surrounding Santee Alley in the Fashion District. Dodgers, Lakers and Raiders merchandise was on display at dozens of small stores, but only one outlet in the alley itself had something for Rams fans.

Celia, a clerk at the store Route 110 who did not want to share her last name, said that demand for Rams gear had been low all year, so an uptick in interest after their NFC championship win caught the store off guard. The store only sells official licensed merchandise, which the owner has to order months in advance, Celia said, so there wasn’t much left in stock. Prior to the conference championship win, however, “we had way more people coming in looking for 49ers shirts” than Rams gear, she said, adding that Raiders gear is the perennial top seller.

A few miles away, on the eastern edge of MacArthur Park, only one vendor had any Rams merchandise for sale.

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The man, who goes by the nickname “Walt,” said that he planned on heading to SoFi Stadium on Sunday with a pile of shirts to sell. He wouldn’t reveal his supplier but said he gets his shirts for $7 each, sells them for $15, and plans to bring an inventory of 60 shirts down to Inglewood on game day.

Walt had his own elegant solution to the uncertainty of the championship gear market: His shirts will commemorate the Super Bowl as a whole, with the Rams and Bengals in the logo, rather than trying to pick a winner or loser in advance.

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