BALL CAPS bearing the signature logo of the New York Yankees are prominently displayed at New Era’s store at a Fujairah mall in the United Arab Emirates. The blue star of the Dallas Cowboys and the gruff red bovine visage of the Chicago Bulls can also be found on its shelves. Even the less well-known spotted cat of the Jacksonville Jaguars makes an appearance.

Why people in China are wearing Yankees hats
Japanese baseball fans wear baseball hats while shopping for New York Yankees player Masahiro Tanaka shirts in the Yankee Stadium, New York, in this file photo taken in May 2014. — BLOOMBERG_TIM CLAYTON

Soccer and cricket may be the biggest sports in this Middle East nation, but even here, the big and not-so-big names of American sports are present. From Portugal to Moldova to Korea, it’s difficult to escape the branding of the American professional sports industry.

And to think that this cultural hegemony is being directed from Buffalo, New York.

The UAE is just one of many markets for New Era, the headwear seller that’s spent the past decade doubling down on international expansion. The 95-year-old company gained a foothold in Europe and made strides in various Asian nations, including Japan and Korea, since first going abroad in the early 2000s. Back then, just 2% of its business was overseas. That number has climbed about 30%, and its goods are now sold in 85 countries. The closely held company is nearing $1 billion in annual revenue, according to Chris Koch, New Era’s chief executive officer. While the company is sure to benefit from its logo on Major League Baseball playoff hats this year — a first — Koch said much of New Era’s revenue growth has to come from outside the US.

“We, unlike a lot of brands, don’t take a cookie cutter approach,” said Koch. “We don’t take what we do in the US and try to plant it around the world.”

New Era exports Americana. People in many countries follow US sports directly, creating demand for New Era’s team-branded products. In Japan, for instance, some fans follow MLB clubs, as well as local teams. The National Basketball Association has a burgeoning fan base in China, where such global superstars as LeBron James and Stephen Curry make selling Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors caps a lot easier.

Why people in China are wearing Yankees hats

The Bulls are the top-selling basketball cap for New Era worldwide, thanks to the legacy of Michael Jordan. Football is led by the Cowboys, the New England Patriots, and the Oakland Raiders. Baseball is dominated by the Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, and the almighty king of caps, the Bronx Bombers.

Yes, the 27-time World Series champion Yankees have a devoted international following because of their status as baseball’s most iconic franchise. But the unmistakable logo also boasts (outside of Boston anyway) fashion credibility. Fans all over the world wear the team’s hats, whether they watch baseball or not. New Era knows it and takes full advantage. “Worldwide, the Yankees are always at up at the top of the list” said Koch. “The first thing everyone wants to buy is the Yankee cap.”

But the Yankees can’t drive every sale. Each country has its own sports culture, too, and New Era often has to adapt. Take Australia, where the company hawks the hats of Aussie-rules football, rugby, and cricket teams. In Brazil, it sells licensed headgear of local soccer squads, including Palmeiras and Flamengo. Last year, New Era made a splash by partnering with Manchester United (the Yankees of soccer) to sell the storied club’s headgear around the world. Koch said at the time that getting deeper into soccer was a “natural progression.”

Beyond sports, fashion plays a major role for New Era’s caps. The company has teamed up with designer labels, including Yohji Yamamoto, Kenzo, and Jeremy Scott to help lend more style chops to the brand, keeping it entrenched in sneaker and hip-hop culture. This is essential, because as tough as it is for Americans to fathom, people in some places really don’t care about the New York Giants. A sizable chunk of New Era’s business is in places such as France and Italy, where consumers looking for a hat see the style, not the team, according to Jim Grundtisch, New Era’s chief revenue officer and head of its international initiatives. “In Europe, it’s really fashion-driven,” he said.

Just five of New Era’s hundred or so shops are located in the US — much less than the 40 stores just in South Korea. That’s because retailers such as Lids and sporting goods stores have such a broad base domestically. New Era is in the midst of overhauling its stores, which Koch dubbed too “vanilla.” He plans to take a new approach with flagship locations that make a statement.

Mainland China presents the next challenge. The company has been reluctant to expand there, wary of the business risks encountered by other US companies. But if New Era is going to get to that second billion in sales, it’s going to have to make a move, Koch said.

“We always take the long approach,” he said. “China’s huge.” — Bloomberg