It's that time of the year again. The National Football League has kicked off the 2002 season, and investors are looking beyond the gridiron. No, we're not talking about what to do with your fantasy football league now that the Redskins are packing some offensive firepower.

Football is big business. Sure, you might know that Disney's(NYSE: DIS) struggling ABC unit is banking heavily on its proven Monday Night Football franchise, and that Aramark(NYSE: RMK) is yet again a force to reckon with in terms of stadium food concessions. But did you know that merchandising should be a big winner this season, too?

That's right. Last night, pro football returned to Houston, as the Texans took on in-state rival the Dallas Cowboys. That's a brand new line of team gear waiting to be scooped up, even beyond the Lone Star State. You also had a few marquee players such as Drew Bledsoe and Ricky Williams change teams in the off-season. That means new jerseys for fans to stock up on. The divisions were reconfigured, which might not appear to mean much on the surface, until you consider that the contrarian at the office who always roots against the home team by showing up with rival merchandise may have a new shopping list this season.

In other words, it might be a good time to be a sporting goods retailer. With the baseball strike woe lifted and the new basketball season on the horizon, it's not as if football needs to carry the ball alone. So for the country's leading retailers such as The Sports Authority(NYSE: TSA) and Gart Sports(Nasdaq: GRTS), the field is wide open right now. Gart's net profits have nearly doubled so far this year, and the stock is fetching just 10 times next year's income estimates.

The Sports Authority hasn't been as fortunate. It had to put off a secondary stock offering after it widened its loss estimate for the current quarter. While that's usually a bad omen, releasing the demons for future guidance markdowns, the stock has fallen to the point of trading at just seven times next year's consensus profit targets.

Growth or value, the opportunities in the sporting goods sector are there. If the discretionary dollar bounces back sooner than expected, guess who will be doing the happy celebratory dance in the end zone?