Somewhere in sweltering Zambia, a man wears a shirt that says the Chicago Bears won Super Bowl XLI. Somebody is trudging through a Nicaraguan rain forest wearing a cap that says the Vancouver Canucks won the 2011 Stanley Cup.
And soon somebody in Haiti or Armenia or Indonesia or Botswana will slip on a shirt or cap that declares the Texas Rangers winners of the 2011 World Series.
Yes, we know the St. Louis Cardinals actually won.
As the Series unfolded, sports gear entrepreneur Steve Sodell ordered boxes of caps and T-shirts declaring the Rangers the champs. He also ordered boxes of caps and T-shirts declaring the Cardinals the champs. He knew one would be right and one would be wrong.
He and his Sports Fan Marketing Inc. crew set up tents on street corners, in temporary retail locations and in hotel lobbies near Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas. He says he will sell all his championship merchandise -- which also includes autographed bats and balls, pins, ski caps, jackets and more -- to jubilant Cardinals fans.
Gear that proclaims the Rangers champions are now obsolete, a waste of money and a potential embarrassment to the leagues, as wrong as the Chicago Tribune headline Nov. 3, 1948, that declared "Dewey Defeats Truman."
For Sodell, who is approved and contracted by Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NCAA and other sports organizations to sell gear on the street and in hotel lobbies at major events, it's a price of doing business.
But for World Vision International and a small number of other nonprofit groups, the gear that proclaims the wrong team champion is a windfall. The leagues can't very well destroy thousands of perfectly good caps and shirts, sizes ranging from petite to double extra large. So they donate it to humanitarian organizations to hand out in developing nations.
"The clothing has been distributed in about 20 countries, all over Africa, to Asian nations, to Latin America and Europe," said Dean Owen, a World Vision executive. "It goes to places of the greatest need, definitely not to Sweden, but definitely to Zimbabwe."
Owen's organization takes as much merchandise as is available. Sodell's company, with all due respect to the globally disadvantaged, doesn't really care where the gear goes. MLB will allow Sodell and other licensees to return gear that proclaims the wrong team champion as part of its agreement with them -- as long as the boxes remain sealed.
"If I kept the stuff, I'd lose my agreements with the leagues," Sodell said. "I've been offered $500 for a T-shirt for a team that didn't win the Super Bowl, and I just don't do it."
Sodell, an Arizona State graduate, started selling gear when the Arizona Diamondbacks reached the World Series in 2001. MLB didn't have approved temporary vendors until 2009, so Sodell stocked up on officially licensed merchandise any way he could.
"I did what any hustler would do," he said. "I made sure what I sold was official merchandise. When they won, I stood on the corner and sold gear.
"The only difference between then and now is that I went to the games in 2001. I was a Diamondbacks fan. I watched them celebrate on the field for two minutes, ran to my car, grabbed my merchandise and sold everything I had."
Now it's a full-time business. Sodell scouted out the ballparks of every team that made the 2011 playoffs for the optimum street corners to set up shop. He gained permission from landlords. He worked with MLB to get exclusive rights to the lobbies of several hotels.
If the Rangers had won Game 7, he and his small crew would have hightailed it back to Texas for the parade there. He kept one store open in Arlington even after the series moved back to St. Louis and would opened two more within 24 hours. Instead, he and his crew will linger in St. Louis for the parade.
"We've got a perfect location, right where the parade route will end," he said.
Sodell's employees are paid by the hour but work up to 20 hours a day. The gig lasts from a few days in the case of the BCS championship football game to nearly two weeks for the World Series. They live all over the country and most have other full-time jobs. But when they travel with Sodell, it's like a modern-day gypsy troupe. They even affectionately call each other "carneys."
"It's always a festive atmosphere and the people you meet are the best part of the job," said Dana Welling, who has sold merchandise at sporting events since she was 16 in 1994. "It's for people who hate 9 to 5 jobs and don't mind working 100 hours in five days."
Working alongside Welling was Patti Hailey, who has sold merchandise for 12 years and for Sodell since 2005. She said the job's drawbacks are getting nothing to eat all day and having nowhere to go to the bathroom. Hailey recalls a Final Four in San Antonio where she stood leaning against the hotel room wall for the one hour between shifts while other workers slept around her.
Yet she wouldn't trade the gig for anything.
"Our only downtime is when the game is being played," Hailey said. "It's go, go, go. We work until 2 a.m. then are back at it at 6 or 7 the next morning. But the money is good and we love the people. Steve is a great boss."
Sodell orders his gear based on a set of factors that includes the Las Vegas odds, prevailing economic conditions and how many fans are expected to travel to neutral sites such as the Super Bowl and Final Four. When the Pittsburgh Steelers faced the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, 95 percent of Sodell's gear was of the Steelers.
"I knew nobody would travel from Phoenix to Florida," he said. "The Steelers always have a ton of fans no matter where they play."
Two years earlier the Chicago Bears played the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI. Several licensed vendors, figuring lots of folks would escape frigid Chicago for Miami, printed about 100,000 shirts and caps before kickoff that proclaimed the Bears the champions.
The record shows the Colts won, but another winner was World Vision, which collected shirts and caps worth more than $2 million and doled them out in several African nations.
The windfall won't be as great from this World Series. But someday soon, somewhere in a developing country, someone who needs clothing will cherish a shirt that declares the Rangers the 2011 World Series champions.
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