Bananas in pyjamas and other stories

Years ago I went on the Paris-Dakar Rally, across the Sahara Desert, and somewhere in the middle of Mali I bumped into an African kid wearing a T-shirt from the Hard Rock Cafe in Bangkok. This seemed a little odd as the price of a ticket from Mali to Bangkok is about as much money as the gross national product of the country.

As he was asking me for food at the time, I came to the conclusion that he had acquired the shirt from a passing Thai on his way to set up a restaurant in Bamako - rather than being a wealthy African prince, disguised as a small boy.

Merchandising has reached the ends of the world. I expect that if you trekked to the south pole these days, you would be met by a man selling T-shirts. I must admit when I visited the charming little town of Hell in Norway, I was most disappointed not to be able to find a T-shirt. Pennsylvania is full of little towns which could make fortunes from their names if they were marketed properly: Locust, Gipsy, Echo, Climax and even Panic. I guess people won't actually believe me, but they do all exist - Panic is just off Highway 80...

Everyone wants you to wear something with their message on it. New York did it with the "I love New York" campaign, the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood are at it, the LA Raiders do it, No Fear is booming because of it, the Lion King, Gucci, the Rolling Stones, Thomas the Tank Engine. The list goes on forever. Australia even has a wonderful brand of toys called Bananas in Pyjamas.

Don't ask me why going to Hockenheim reminds me of Bananas in Pyjamas. The German idea of fashion look to me like pyjamas that Marks & Spencer used to sell in the mid-1970s and when I see these being worn by the wildly drunken fans at Hockenheim I cannot help but think of Bananas in Pyjamas...

In addition to track suits with strange patterns, most of the Hockenheim race fans feel the need to wear things associated with their hero Michael Schumacher. If you stand for a few minutes at the entrance to Hockenheim and watch the waves of Schumacher fans pouring into the circuit, you quickly realize that here is a man who does not obviously appeal to the usual brand-buying middle classes. Perhaps they like him, but they are not the people who fill the grandstands. The Hockenheim crowd features a surprisingly large number of loud beer-swilling yobs with short blond hair and the silly whispy moustaches.

It is no different to the Mansell fans at their worst. These are not race fans as much as people who love to wallow in national pride.

"Schumacher fans?" said a German colleague at Hockenheim. "They are like football hooligans in England."

Celebrities do not get to choose who will support them. While he would probably like to be considered as a member of the international jet set, Schumacher is very much a working class hero, the son of a bricklayer who has done well thanks to his talent and commitment. Fame and fortune over the years have given Michael a certain flamboyance. He favors gold chains and cowboy boots. Big throbbing Harley Davidsons and showy sportscars. He has learned a lot from his manager Willy Weber, who likes to strut around the paddock wearing gold chains, loud clothes and an immaculate hairdo. He is permanently attached to a mobile telephone. He is the first F1 driver manager to have been able to fly around in his own private jet.

In F1 the Seven Deadly Sins are the regarded as a code of conduct and so jealousy is something which everyone seems to have.

"All the money in the world will not buy you class," muttered someone bitchily at Hockenheim when Weber strutted past us, looking like a peacock after a respray.

The F1 argument is that if you have got it, you should flaunt it. A private jet is so much better than "going commercial".

Having the right jet is only a slightly advanced version of wearing a chic T-shirt with the right name on it. Only a few can play in that league but in the F1 paddock everyone else is frantically busy buying the latest gadgets: carbonfiber briefcases (well you never know when someone will shoot your briefcase, do you?) or the right sunglasses.

This urge to buy toys for the boys extends deeply into the absurd. Everyone wants a better motorhome. People actually lust after McLaren's silly new $1m bus - which is the ultimate monument to bad taste - not because it is pretty or useful but simply because they do not have it. Conversely, everyone wants the ultimately tiny mobile phone. In fact, this absurd contest to have a smaller phone than everyone else has been won by an Italian, who has an tiny earpiece and a microphone which is pinned to his jacket. He walks about, chatting in demented Italian to nobody - or at least that is what it looks like when you first encounter the poor man. Yet he has achieved the ultimate - the invisible mobile phone. When there is a demand for such status symbols so they become valuable things to manufacture. Where there is a demand there is always someone to meet it.

Schumacher has tamed the demand for produce with his name on it. In fact he has become an industry. The so-called Schumacher Collection includes 220 items of Schumi-branded merchandise. It is a hugely successful business.

"I want every fan to be able to afford something from my collection," says Schumacher, "even if it is just a pencil case."

What he means is that he wants every fan to give him money - and why not - if people want to buy Schumacher pencil cases, video games, sun glasses, clothes, toy cars, energy drinks, telephone card and pyjamas, why not? If one can sell Schumacher-badged puppy leads, why not sell them if there is someone out there who wants to buy?

The man behind the Schumacher Industry is Weber - and he predicts that this year Schumacher will make around $6m from The Schumacher Collection. On top of this, of course, he will make around $60m from Ferrari, Marlboro, Shell, Aspreys and the other Ferrari sponsors, plus more millions from personal sponsors such as Nike, German automotive company Dekra, the Omega watch company, German TV station RTL and so on.

The Schumacher Collection will, undoubtedly, generate more money in the future as more people try to associate themselves with Schumacher's success. Weber stands to gain vast sums because, back in 1989, he had the foresight to sign Michael on a 10-year management deal, in which he takes 20% of Schumacher's earnings. Twenty percent of $70m is a tidy sum.

Controlling the whole business is not easy but Weber has all the produce manufactured under licence and policed by licensing specialist Michael Spatz. Some of the produce is sold by mail order, but most is sold at race tracks and motor racing shows. Spatz and a lawyer protect the trademark by wandering around throwing injunctions at bootleggers.

It is the first time that F1 has been merchandised on a professional basis and other driver managers are sitting up and taking notice. Jacques Villeneuve and Damon Hill have similar ideas, even Martin Brundle and Eddie Irvine are hoping to get in on the act.

The merchandising potential of the racing teams is much in focus at the moment as The Walt Disney Company becomes increasingly involved. Licensing produce, selling to middle men and stamping on any copyright abuse.

Merchandising in sport is not new with American sport - even to college level - leading the way in what is now a multi-billion dollar industry in the US alone. In Britain soccer teams - and other sports will quickly follow - are pulling in millions.

The Walt Disney deal shows that F1 is serious about selling itself to the world. There are long-term plans for F1 shops in major cities around the world and anyone who doubts the power of the Disney merchandising operations should take note that Disney recently opened its 500th Disney Store - just 10 years after the first. In the last year there have been 100 new openings and Disney films now earn more from merchandising than they do in the cinemas...

Where will it all lead?

There are times when one gets fed up with F1 - normally in the silly season in midsummer - and there are times when you wonder if there is not an easier way to earn a zillion dollars and retire. Why not be the man to invent something which everyone in the world needs and can afford? Bernie Ecclestone is doing that with F1 and television; Michael Schumacher is doing it with pencil cases and key rings; Willi Weber will soon be doing with knickers and perfumes from Claudia Schiffer as well...

I have pondered whether or not I could make a fortune selling Globetrotter T-shirts and key rings but I came top the conclusion in the press room at Hockenheim that the best idea was to found the Left Nipple clothing company. Everyone wants to wear a natty little badge on their left breast, so why not a nice rosy pink circular logo strategically positioned to draw attention to itself.

I'm off to the register the brand... Now, I wonder where Schumacher gets those big cowboy boots. Hell, if you're gonna get it, you might as well flaunt it!

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