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Retail giant tackles NFL e-commerce

Ailing Venator Group reaches an agreement in principle to become the NFL's official catalog and e-commerce vendor, a lucrative business.

Venator Group reached an agreement in principle with the National Football League to become the NFL's official catalog and e-commerce vendor, continuing the ailing retail giant's diversification.

Venator's Eastbay direct marketing unit will be responsible for fulfilling e-commerce conducted through the league's official NFL.com site, the company said in a statement. New York-based Venator, which grew to fame as Woolworth, expects to begin operations by this summer.

Sales of NFL-licensed merchandise are among the sporting industry's most lucrative. Currently Stamford, Connecticut's eCommerce Corporation operates the Ultimate Football Shop, presented by Sports Illustrated and the NFL.

"This partnership with the NFL signifies a significant element of our strategy to aggressively grow our catalog and e-commerce business," Eastbay chief executive Harry Colcord said in a statement.

Venator rolled out online sales through its Foot Locker, Lady Foot Locker, and other chains in April 1998. The company says its integrated database offers the world's largest selection of athletic footwear and apparel and ships in-stock orders within 24 hours.

Venator operates nearly 6,000 retail stores on four continents, but the company has been deemphasizing the brick-and-mortar world for catalog and online sales amid a string of poor results and general weakness in its mainstay athletic footwear and apparel business.

Having already closed its Woolworth chain in the United States, Venator sold its German Woolworth business in September 1998 and announced the closing of more than 400 retail shoe stores the same month. The company also canceled plans to merge with retail rival The Sports Authority, which does not have a e-commerce component.

Meanwhile, in November the company struck an agreement with Excite, trading retail promotion at Foot Locker stores for a Web presence at the high-profile portal.

Ironically, in December the company's continued slump caused it to be dropped from Standard & Poor's 500 Index in favor on online giant America Online.