• Caroline Kennedy

Selling School Spirit

Say hurrah for collegiate licensed product, a growing category that taps team loyalty and alumni pride

Rah, rah, rah! Campus pride is alive and well in the gift industry, with fans and alums eager to show school spirit with their school colors. Yet while T-shirts, mugs, caps and notebooks bearing a university logo, team mascot and/or colors have been around for a long time, until fairly recently it was hard to find such items outside the campus bookstore. That's no longer the case. These days, school branded products ranging from caps and apparel to home furnishings, tabletop, giftware and even jewelry are being sold at a wide variety of off-campus retail outlets, including gift and home decor stores.


The change began in the 1990s, when colleges recognized that licensing their “brand” could open a viable revenue stream. College bookstores started broadening their merchandise mix, expanding beyond just books and school supplies, and introducing new opportunities for gift and decorative accessories manufacturers. Since then, licensing momentum has been building — and shows no sign of tapering off.

“Licensing became a big deal in colleges; it became a fashionable thing,” remarks Dave Kirkpatrick, vice president of non-apparel marketing for The Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), Atlanta, which represents approximately 75 percent of Division I schools. “[Licensing agents] became more active in marketing, and as the royalties became more compelling, the athletic departments and [university administrators] took notice. It was probably the mid-90s when everything started to take off.”

At about the same time, giftware vendors and manufacturers started taking notice of the potential in the collegiate market. Although the market was still concentrated on campuses in the Southeast and Midwest, companies such as The Memory Company (currently celebrating its 10th anniversary) introduced collegiate licensed giftware at gift shows to reach retailers outside the realm of college bookstores. Everyone from sports stores to Hallmark stores to mom-and-pop and even hospital gift shops have responded.

According to Kirkpatrick, the licensed collegiate market is estimated at around $3 billion in retail sales annually, including both apparel and non-apparel sales. Within that figure, sales of licensed collegiate gifts and decorative accessories represent a small but growing portion. The growth in this segment of the market can be attributed to several factors, including the rising profile of college sports, alumni pride and a wider range of quality merchandise (especially in home decor) being highlighted at gift shows.


With networks and cable channels vying for programming, televised college sports are reaching a greater audience than ever before. By tapping into college athletics, television gives teams the exposure that drives licensing.

“When Notre Dame inked the deal with NBC to televise all their football games (in 1991), other colleges and universities realized they wanted the same exposure,” explains Kevin Draws, vice president of sales and marketing for The Memory Company, Phenix City, AL. “The networks realized that large [school] or small, people will tune in. Now you've got people all over the country watching their teams on the weekend; they couldn't have [done that] before.”

During the same period, professional sports went through some rough periods, including strikes and other types of negative publicity. “People turned to the college ranks as a kind of safe, healthy alternative,” remarks Lisa Galavin, head of the collegiate sales group for OneCoast.

In areas where there aren't pro teams, communities tend to get behind their local college team. “We have found that the fans are not only [students and] alums of the campuses, but also people who are kind of 'subway' fans, or underground fans who don't go to the school but have always followed it,” observes Galavin.

“People are filling the stadiums and taking ownership of their teams,” remarks retailer Libby Mabry, owner of Fanatic Fanz, Atlanta. Mabry currently has four retail locations that sell only licensed collegiate merchandise.


But it's not just sports fans driving the collegiate market. Passion for the school — school spirit and alumni pride — are feeding the trend as well. And it's not just the colleges with highly ranked sports teams that are getting in on the licensing; other schools have developed huge followings because of broad ranging interest in the institutions themselves.

“It's the spirit of the average kid at the school,” comments Chris Herrington, president of Herrington Teddy Bears, Irvine, CA. “For example, USC and Florida have top-rated teams, and Ohio State does too. However, [the University of] Georgia probably has a bigger and better following than Ohio State, because Georgia appeals to Atlanta and the whole state; they have a grassroots interest in the school. The Florida Gators are huge because Florida has a great base of enthusiastic students regardless of whether or not the team is doing well.”

This enthusiasm actually extends beyond alumni, to the parents of students and the community at large, creating a regional market for collegiate licenses.


CLC's Kirkpatrick agrees that college licenses are also being driven by the “passion and affinity that the fans and alumni have for the university.” It's that passion that giftware vendors are tapping into and retailers are cashing in on. According to Kirkpatrick, home decor and home furnishings are some of the top growth areas in the college market, as licensees marry collegiate branding with current decorating trends. It's that good design and high quality that gives the products sell-through appeal beyond the logo.

“Whereas years ago you had mostly novelty gifts [in the collegiate market], now you have classic product that customers feel comfortable putting in a bedroom, kitchen or office,” remarks Kirkpatrick. And it's the alumni who are going to spend $200 for a quality home decor item and display it in their home year-round, not just put it out on game day.

The same holds true for the other giftwares, as creative vendors are following the trend and “collegiatizing” items by adding a logo or letters related to a university. Jewelry is a growing category in collegiate gifts as well, with pieces done in sterling silver and semi-precious stones. A collegiate charm or an engraved logo “collegiatizes” the piece.

“We specialize in doing plush mascots,” says Chris Herrington. “But we also make a teddy bear version where we have our classic bear dressed up in a costume like the mascot. This gives double value. We also put high quality garments — like a hooded team sweatshirt — on the bears.”

In fact, that's how Herrington got its start in collegiate products; the company created a uniformed bear for Notre Dame based on Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, the football player whose story about getting to play in the final game of his senior year was made into the movie Rudy.


The gift trade shows have also been influential in the growth of the collegiate market, particularly in Atlanta and Dallas. Both market centers, located in the heart of traditional collegiate sports fan bases, have been highlighting collegiate licensed products and vendors more in the past few years.

“We're working closely with AmericasMart and the Dallas Market Center,” notes Kirkpatrick, “We see the advantages of the trade shows in reaching gift retailers, as well as reps.”

A concentrated exhibit area is a good place for both buyers and sales reps to start prospecting for product lines. A few years ago, there were maybe a handful of collegiate licensors exhibiting at the shows. Nowadays, the Collegiate Pavilion at AmericasMart has close to 140 vendors — and that doesn't include the growing number of vendors exhibiting products in the showrooms.


For retailers, there are plenty of compelling reasons to sell collegiate merchandise. “It crosses all demographics and all levels of retail as well,” remarks Kirkpatrick. “You've got a new set of alums every year, and a new freshman class, too.” And those freshmen come with a whole new audience of parents; alumni and parents are key customers for the collegiate gift and home decor market.

But collegiate sales are not tied to the school year or to a sports season — collegiate licenses sell strongly year-round. As with traditional gift sales, the bulk of sales in licensed collegiate gifts are made in the fourth quarter, notes Byron Brashear, owner of the Forget Me Not Shop, a Hallmark Gold Crown store in Austin, TX. Of course, fall is not only the key holiday selling season, but also the football season, and tail-gating has become a “varsity sport,” while “home-gating” (entertaining while watching the big game at home) is getting even bigger. Mother's Day, Father's Day and Graduation are other big collegiate sales occasions, also paralleling regular gifting patterns.

And predictably, with growing popularity has come more competition. “When we got into the business 10 years ago, it was a lot harder to find college merchandise,” notes Fantastic Fanz retailer Libby Mabry. “When we came along, [our store] was a novelty; you could find anything you wanted. If you were from Atlanta and you had gone to Notre Dame, you could find merchandise [only in our store]. Now, about 30 other stores have opened up around us.”

But there is still opportunity for retailers, as long as they do their homework, evaluate their area and choose product categories that are not already oversaturated. “Concentrate on the schools that are in close proximity to you, and focus on good, giftable items at a range of prices,” advises Byron Brashear.

“Ask for exclusives,” adds Libby Mabry. That will set your store and your product offerings apart.

Observes Kevin Draws: “Gift retailers have realized that licensed collegiate product is an evergreen market. You know the old saying: 'There's a fan born everyday.' So if you're in doubt about what to give someone, they're probably a fan of something.”

Caroline KennedyCaroline Kennedy | Editor in Chief, Gifts and Decorative Accessories

Editor-in-chief Caroline Kennedy has been with Gifts & Decorative Accessories magazine for more than 23 years. Her long association with the gift industry gives her a broad perspective on its trends and the ever-changing landscape of gift retailing. She brings her veteran's-eye view to the highlights and sidelights of our everyday world. When asked why she has stayed on the job for so long, her answer is, "It's like going shopping every day!"

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