INDIANAPOLIS – Minnesota Vikings president Mark Wilf figures if you can get a soda out of a vending machine, you might as well be able to get a team T-shirt or a set of trading cards, too.
Wilf took that concept to MainGate Inc., his team's apparel partner. When the Indianapolis-based company agreed that Wilf's idea had merit, MainGate installed a vending machine with Vikings merchandise at Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., with hopes that it will be profitable and the idea will catch on with its six other NFL clients.
And MainGate's effort might just be the beginning. Reebok, the NFL's official outfitter, is considering putting some of its products in vending machines by the end of the season.
Leo Kane, the NFL's vice president of consumer products, said the league and Reebok have been discussing the possible use of vending machines for more than a year. A Reebok spokeswoman acknowledged the talks with the NFL but declined to give details.
The machine at the Mall of America was installed on Sept. 23.
"It's innovative, and something different to the consumer," MainGate CEO Dave Moroknek said. "Consumers have become used to self service. People use the self-service lines at Kroger and Marsh (grocery stores) all the time."
The machine includes shirts, footballs, trading cards, customized rubber bands, bobbleheads and more. Prices range from $5 for the rubber bands to $25 for a shirt or hat. No player jerseys, though — too big and expensive for a vending machine.
MainGate's NFL clients are the Vikings, Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs and St. Louis Rams. Minnesota ranked sixth among the league's 32 teams in merchandise sales on NFLShop.com from April 1 to Sept. 15 this season, making the Vikings an ideal partner to start with.
"We believe that this is a viable method of selling licensed products, and an economical way to increase the number of outlets we have to service the core fans," Moroknek said. "Growing merchandise sales and building the Vikings brand are our goals and we feel this program allows us to do both."
The Mall of America is one of the largest tourist attractions in the United States and has naming rights for the field at the Metrodome. MainGate already has a retail store inside the sprawling mall.
The NFL is excited about the unrelated if similar efforts from MainGate and Reebok.
"I think they are mutually exclusive, and are operating on parallel paths," Kane said. "We've approved Reebok, we've told Reebok what product we're comfortable with them putting in, it's product that we've already licensed and approved. We're very excited that the Vikings and MainGate also wanted to test this concept, and test it at a high-traffic area like the Mall of America with a very popular team like the Vikings."
Steve LaCroix, vice president of sales and marketing for the Vikings, said the machines could someday be put inside the Metrodome.
"We're open to having more, or eventually having them at certain parts of the stadium," he said. "I don't think it's going to replace the standard merchandise stand, but it could add a layer to the accessibility of items. We'll see where it goes. Maybe a year from now, we'll have a great success story."
LaCroix said the vending machine is low risk because it costs less than $5,000.
"It's not a huge up front investment," he said. "If it works, it's something that has long-term high reward."
The NFL is watching.
"If MainGate has success with this, we'll make sure the other 31 clubs know all about it, we'll share it with our other licensees and we'll start trying to see what's the best strategy to roll this out in more places," Kane said.