SANTA ANA — Orange County may not be known as a hotbed of ice hockey, but don't tell that to executives of the Los Angeles Kings.
One of every four tickets to Kings games are sold to Orange County residents, even though the team plays its games about 40 miles away from here at the Forum in Inglewood.
And last year, the Kings opened a memorabilia shop near South Coast Plaza that sells nothing but hockey souvenirs, apparel and equipment. The shop has far exceeded expectations, and is outperforming a similar shop in the San Fernando Valley, more traditional Kings territory.
But then the Kings aren't big business just in Southern California either. In the last three years, with the advent of their new owner, Bruce McNall, and perhaps the sport's greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, the Kings' ranking among 21 teams in sales of National Hockey League licensed goods has jumped from the bottom two or three teams straight to the top.
Kings merchandise now constitutes 30% of sales of all NHL-licensed goods in North America, said Fred Scalera, the league's general manager of retail licensing.
"They started to take off last year," Scalera said from the league offices in New York City. "There are three reasons: the new color scheme, silver, white and black, works well--much better than that god-awful purple and gold they used to have. Then there's that guy named Gretzky; and thirdly, the team itself has done a complete turnaround. Nothing sells like success."
This past week, as the Kings prepared for the playoffs in search of their first Stanley Cup crown in their 24-year history, fans flocked to the Kings Slap Shop on Bristol Street, snapping up all 75 newly printed divisional championship T-shirts in a matter of hours--at $14 apiece.
"It's scary," said store manager Bill Yeager of the response to the team's first division title. "We had to order more shirts right away. Since they clinched the division (last weekend), the place has been going absolutely crazy."
Team officials said Orange County was the logical place to expand after marketing research showed that 23% of season ticket holders and 25% of single-game ticket purchasers came from there.
By contrast, just 10% of Los Angeles Lakers season tickets and 21% of individual game tickets are bought in Orange County.
"I think we're pleased with those (Kings) numbers, especially considering that fans face a commute of at least an hour," said Scott Carmichael, Kings executive director of public relations. "The demographics of the area are very conducive to what our demographics are: upper-scale, higher-income, higher-educated people."
Said Kings merchandising director Harvey Boles: "We knew we had a great following down there. We figured, 'Let's bring ourselves to the fans.' "
What they brought to Santa Ana is a store chock-full of hockey paraphernalia: Kings players' sticks, pucks, caps, T-shirts, sweats, shorts and jackets. Kings ties and boxer shorts. Kings posters, Kings baby clothes, Kings clocks, license frames and figurines.
"This here," said Yeager, pulling down an authentic Kings jersey from a wall rack, "is the bread and butter of the business."
The 100% polyester, oversized jerseys cost $110, and come in both home (white with silver and black letters) and road (black with silver and white letters) versions. But most customers spend another $20 to $45 and have their own names or the names and numbers of their favorite players put on the back.
"Our No. 1 seller? The Marty McSorley home jersey," said Yeager, referring to the pugilistically inclined defenseman and perennial fan favorite. "We always get lots of Gretzkys, but Marty's No. 1."
A less-expensive jersey is available for $53, Yeager explained, but it is made of a cheaper material and lacks a crucial detail available only on the authentic model: a "fight strap" that slips through a player's hip pads and makes it harder for opponents to pull the jersey up over his head during a brawl.
"Most people don't know about that," said Yeager, lifting up the front of a jersey to reveal the Velcro strap.
Other big sellers are the black satin or black leather Kings jackets. One model, a leather bomber jacket, sells for $1,000 and must be special-ordered, but Yeager said he knows of only four or five people who own them--including Kings owner McNall and star Gretzky.
Some Kings jackets were obtained more cheaply, however. A few months after the store opened, the windows were smashed and several jackets were stolen, Yeager said, prompting the Kings to buy protective sliding metal grates.
The culprits were never caught. But the Kings apparel has become popular among youth gang members, probably because the silver and black colors are the same as those of the Los Angeles Raiders football team, long a gang favorite. "We have no control over that," said merchandising director Boles. "A lot of that merchandise that youth groups tend to wear is purchased at flea markets, or it's bootleg merchandise. . . . It's not the bulk of our business."