The NBA and NHL finals were historic for their sports, and e-commerce

Fanatics gear on the ice with the Blues.
Fanatics gear on the ice with the Blues.
Image: AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
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In the last 48 hours, two of the US’s major sporting trophies have been handed out. In both cases, with the St. Louis Blues in hockey and the Toronto Raptors in basketball, two cities won their first championship in that sport. But it wasn’t just a historic night for the first Canadian team to conquer the NBA and for a team that had waited 52 years to win the Stanley Cup. It also represented another instance of the massive shift happening in the way consumers buy products.

Fanatics, the sports merchandise retailer, has contracts with just about every major sports league to sell their products online and in stadiums. It also recently moved into producing licensed apparel for teams, including the gear the Blues wore as they lifted the Stanley Cup, and the jerseys English soccer team Aston Villa wore last season. It’s turned itself into a multibillion-dollar business by building reliable websites that can handle the strain of massive spikes in traffic when a team wins a championship, and being able to produce and deliver gear impressively quickly.

That was perhaps most clearly on show over the last two days. Jack Boyle, co-president of the company’s direct-to-consumer businesses, told Quartz that within one minute of both the Blues and the Raptors winning, Fanatics had championship-themed merchandise from the winners up on its sites, the NBA and NHL’s sites, and every other relevant site it runs. While the company had previously proven its ability to manage traffic and sales spikes during what it calls “hot market” events, it had never had to manage this sort of demand for two different sports on back-to-back days. Nor has it seen the quantity of customers buying on their mobiles before.

The company wouldn’t share specific figures, but it said that the Blues’ win sparked the largest “hot market” night ever for the NHL, and the Raptors’ victory trailed only the Cleveland Cavaliers’ miraculous comeback victory in 2016. (Surprisingly, only 60% of the sales for Raptors gear came from Canada, Fanatics added.)

The company was prepared for the big days: “We really don’t get surprised,” Boyle said. But what did intrigue him and his colleagues was the amount of traffic coming from mobile devices. For the evening of the Blues’ win, 79% of traffic came from mobile devices, and for the Raptors, it was 81%. The company had never seen an event hit more than 80% before.

With consumers increasingly relying on mobile devices as their primary means of connecting to the internet, perhaps these numbers shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Fanatics has even tailored its business to capitalize on moments like these. “Capturing demand right as the game ends, those are our peak hours, when fans’ emotions are highest,” Boyle said.

But in the past, retailers wouldn’t really have had much to sell these elated fans happy to part with their money as their team lifts the trophy, because merchandise from the major manufacturers, like Nike, Under Armor, or New Era, takes time to produce and ship out. Fanatics, however, operates on a different model: It takes blank jerseys, stored across the country, and customizes them as each order comes in. It even contracted third-party companies in local markets (in this case, St. Louis and Toronto) to make sure it had enough capacity to make products for fans. In the case of the NHL, Fanatics also makes the championship apparel players wear as soon as their team wins, and they can have that ready for customizing the instant the game is over.

In a time when companies like Amazon have spoiled the US consumer into wanting their online orders as soon as humanly possible, long shipping times and a lack of available inventory can see consumers losing interest before a sale is made. Fanatics also has exclusive memorabilia deals with many of the Blues players, allowing it to create mock-ups of signed pucks and other products before they’re even made. Boyle said the company has even been collecting ice from the Blues’ and Bruins’ ice rinks during the series to turn into a commemorative crystal puck. They’re already up on the NHL’s shop for $49.99—with free shipping.