NASCAR plans esports league, Walmart makes another acquisition, Fanatics teams with Overwatch League, MLB partners for gaming initiative, the fate of Shopko and Sears, plus other licensing and retail news.

Licensing, marketing and retail expert/opinion leader Tony Lisanti, provides insight and perspective for the top headlines of the week. “Licensing and Merchandising Report” is a must read for top execs who want objective, straightforward and authoritative analysis.

Walmart Invests in the Wall

Walmart will acquire Art.com, the largest online retailer in the art and wall décor category. Founded in 1998, Art.com’s vision is “to make life better with art” and Walmart’s vision is to grow the décor category.

This represents the eighth online retailer that Walmart has acquired since it purchased Jet.com in August 2016, once again reflecting the retailer’s major commitment to expand its on line presence as well as strengthen its position in key merchandise categories. Art.com gives Walmart additional synergistic opportunities in the home décor category.

‘’We plan to operate the assets of Art.com as a standalone and complementary site—and then add their wide-ranging assortment to Walmart.com, Jet.com, and Hayneedle.com. This announcement is just another example of how we’re establishing Walmart.com as a specialty retail destination for the home—giving customers the inspiration and confidence to make a beautiful home possible for everyone,” said Anthony Soohoo, senior vice president and group general manager, home, Walmart U.S. eCommerce.

According to Walmart, Art.com offers best-in-class on-demand and customization capabilities with the majority of their inventory being printed on demand at the time of the customer ordering, and all servicing is hand-crafted on site – from custom framing to mounting on canvas and wood.

Walmart said that the “wall” is critical to completing the home and “sees art and wall décor as fundamental to winning the home.”

NASCAR Plans Esports League

NASCAR, along with Race Team Alliance and 704Games, announced plans to create the first-ever NASCAR esports league on consoles. Called eNASCAR Heat Pro League, it will feature up to 16 race teams and 32 drivers, each owned and operated by prominent NASCAR race teams.

This represents a strong move by NASCAR to get involved in esport, strengthen and expand its fan base, and at some point, create new merchandising and sponsorship opportunities.

The first eNASCAR Heat Pro League Draft is scheduled to take place early next year. Following the Draft, the esports league will feature a 16-race season beginning in spring 2019 and culminating during the 2019 NASCAR Playoffs. All eNASCAR Heat Pro League races will be live streamed online at NASCAR.com and Motorsport.com.

“We look forward to taking this first step with our teams to introduce NASCAR-style racing to the massive esports audience on consoles,” said Craig Neeb, executive vice president, Innovation and Development, NASCAR. “Our partners at 704Games have delivered an incredible product and we are enthusiastic about engaging gamers to create new fans and grow our sport.”

Many of NASCAR’s most successful teams are participating in the new esports venture, including Chip Ganassi Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, JR Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske.

Fanatics Becomes Exclusive Partner for Overwatch League

The Overwatch League and Fanatics have signed a multi-year licensing and merchandising deal that is the first of its kind between a major retailer and an official esports league.

Fanatics will produce Overwatch League jerseys, fan gear, headwear, and hard goods sold across all retail and wholesale channels. In addition, Fanatics will establish a new global ecommerce and mobile shopping platform and operate on-site retail for all league events.

“Our collaboration with Fanatics—the first between a major esports league and a global sports merchandising company—allows us to reach even more fans and to provide them with high-quality merchandise and a best-in-class retail experience where they can shop for all our great Overwatch League gear,” said Brandon Snow, chief revenue officer of Activision Blizzard Esports Leagues. “Fanatics has a proven track record of success with major sports brands and we’re excited to work with them in expanding this part of our business.”

“The demand for team gear during our inaugural season was very strong,” said Daniel Siegel, head of esports licensing for Blizzard Entertainment. “A significant number of fans—for regular-season matches at Blizzard Arena Los Angeles and at the Grand Finals in Brooklyn—showed up in jerseys to support their teams, and we’re thrilled to make it even easier for them to represent their favorite teams and players.”

“Esports has been on our radar for some time now and we are incredibly excited to mark our first deal with the best in the world in Activision Blizzard around their incredibly successful Overwatch League,” said Ross Tannenbaum, head of special projects for Fanatics. “Our omnichannel retail capabilities and real-time vertical manufacturing model will ensure that Overwatch League fans across the globe have unprecedented access to a wide assortment of merchandise to be able to show their passion and pride for the teams and players they love, whether shopping online, on their phone, or at one of many league events.”

The agreement between the Overwatch League and Fanatics will begin before the start of the 2019 Overwatch League season, which begins in February.

The Fate of Shopko and Sears

ShopKo Stores, once considered the darling of discount retailers, is facing possible bankruptcy, according to various reports. The venerable retailer, which operates more than 350 stores in the Midwest, has not been able to find a buyer. Shopko was founded in 1962, the same year as the Big Three discount retailers-Walmart, Target and Kmart. The company went public in 1991 and was acquired by current owner Sun Capital Partners in 2005.

Meanwhile, the fate of Sears continues to evolve this Holiday season as Eddie Lampert has bid $4.6 billion to acquire 500 stores. If the offer by ESL Investments, the retailer’s largest shareholder and creditor, is approved by the bankruptcy court, Sears will avoid liquidation and remain in business.

Several other major retailers have recently announced they are closing stores. Gap reported that it will close “hundreds” of underperforming stores from its total base of 775 stores; Lowes is closing 20 underperforming stores, and Victoria Secret reported it is closing 20 stores.

Despite strong retail sales projections this holiday season, the total list of stores closing in 2018 could reach 5,000, equaling the amount of store closings in 2017, according to a Clark research report.

Pantone Reveals Color for 2019

Pantone describes it as “Vibrant, yet mellow; an animating and life-affirming coral hue; a golden undertone that energizes and enlivens with a softer edge.”

The color of the year for 2019 is: PANTONE 16-1546 Living Coral.

Pantone has influenced color for 20 years with its annual selection and you have to appreciate not only the dramatic and esoteric descriptions of the color, but the potential design impact it could have on hundreds of products.

Here’s some additional descriptions from Pantone about the new color: “In reaction to the onslaught of digital technology and social media increasingly embedding into daily life, we are seeking authentic and immersive experiences that enable connection and intimacy. Sociable and spirited, the engaging nature of PANTONE 16-1546 Living Coral welcomes and encourages lighthearted activity. Symbolizing our innate need for optimism and joyful pursuits, PANTONE 16-1546 Living Coral embodies our desire for playful expression. Representing the fusion of modern life, PANTONE Living Coral is a nurturing color that appears in our natural surroundings and at the same time, displays a lively presence within social media.”

Thanksgiving Weekend Shopping is Changing as Retail is Changing

There were numerous pre-Black Friday sales that began about two weeks before Turkey day at major retailers such as Best, Buy, Home Depot, Costco, Kohl’s and Macy’s. There were more ongoing online shopping opportunities led by Amazon. There were fewer reported incidents, crowds, and lines in stores across the U.S. for those incredible bargains on Thanksgiving evening and Black Friday morning,

The Thanksgiving weekend total results were strong across all retail channels living up to the hype and projections for record Holiday sales projections.

RetailNext estimated that brick-and-mortar sales on Thanksgiving and Black Friday dropped by as much as 7% from last year, while traffic was down 5-9%.

According to Adobe analytics, online sales on Black Friday jumped 23.6% from a year ago, to $6.2 billion, while Cyber Monday was the biggest sales day of the year with online sales of $7.9 billion, an increase of 19.3% over 2017. Mobile transactions soared. Over half of visits—54.3%—came from mobile devices, a year-over-year increase of 55.6%.

These are all good signs that the NRF’s holiday forecast of up to a 4.8% increase to $720 Billion in holiday spending over November and December will be achieved.

MLB Partners with MGM

For decades, Major League Baseball has stayed away from any connection to sports betting, but that philosophy has now changed.

MLB and MGM Resorts International signed a multi-year agreement that designates MGM Resorts as the first-ever “Official Gaming Partner of MLB” and “Official Entertainment Partner of MLB.”

The partnership includes data usage in gaming, promotion across MLB-owned media platforms, and domestic and international activations at MLB events.

As an official sponsor of Major League Baseball, MGM Resorts will domestically promote its brand and gaming options across MLB’s digital and broadcast platforms, including MLB Network, MLB.com, the MLB At Bat app and additional fan engagement offerings to be jointly developed.

MGM Resorts will be identified as an MLB-Authorized Gaming Operator and utilize MLB’s official statistics feed, on a non-exclusive basis, throughout its digital and live domestic sports gaming options. MLB will also make enhanced statistics available to MGM on an exclusive basis. In addition, MGM Resorts and MLB will work together on comprehensive responsible gaming measures and work to protect the integrity of the game both on and off the field.

“We are pleased to partner with MGM Resorts International, a clear industry leader in the sports gaming area, to work together on bringing innovative experiences to baseball fans and MGM customers,” said baseball commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr. “Our partnership with MGM will help us navigate this evolving space responsibly, and we look forward to the fan engagement opportunities ahead.”

“We are excited to enter into this historic partnership with MLB. We are thrilled to create a new one-of-a-kind fan experience for baseball fans,” said MGM Resorts chairman and CEO Jim Murren. “Combining MGM Resorts’ world class entertainment and technology with MLB data will continue to transform a rapidly changing industry. This partnership further amplifies the significance of our GVC JV, firmly establishing MGM Resorts and playMGM as the market leader in partnerships with major professional sports leagues.”

NBA Announces First Betting-Data Partnerships

The NBA has partnered with Sportradar and Genius Sports to distribute official NBA betting data to licensed sports betting operators in the U.S. This will include NBA and WNBA games, including the preseason, regular season and playoffs.

“Sportradar and Genius Sports are proven leaders in data distribution and will deliver unparalleled, real-time official NBA betting data,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. “As the sports betting landscape continues to evolve at a rapid pace, these new partnerships will provide robust and reliable data to ensure the best possible gaming experience for our fans in the U.S.”

Licensing Deal of the Week

In its 2019 release calendar, Dogfish Brewery announced it is bringing back the popular Grateful Dead American Beauty pale ale first released in 2013. American Beauty, which is made with granola and succulent wildflower honey, is returning in 6-pack, 12 oz. bottles. In addition, to celebrate the re-release, Dogfish will host a beer dinner with David Lemieux, curator of the Grateful Dead. 

Worth Reading

If you like retro characters, read about King Features’ new initiatives for Popeye and company.

Toy Industry Hall of Fame Inductees

The Toy Association will induct the late Stan Lee, former editor-in-chief, publisher, and chairman of Marvel Comics; Brian Goldner, chairman & CEO of Hasbro, and the late Joe Mendelsohn, president of Kenner Products into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame. The 2019 ceremony will take place at the Annual Toy of the Year (TOTY) Awards on February 15.

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