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Colleges Score Merchandising Touchdown : Retail: USC, which has opened a store in Costa Mesa, and other schools are profiting as sales of ‘officially-licensed’ items soar.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Bill Battle coached the University of Tennessee football squad to a Sugar Bowl victory in 1974, avid fans responded by literally painting the town of Knoxville, Tenn., orange.

These days, collegiate football fans can leave the paintbrushes at home and show their alma maters’ colors with “officially licensed” pompons, beer mugs and a growing assortment of shirts, pants, nightgowns, shorts and caps. For those with more spirit--and cash--there are dozens of other items, including wastebaskets, footlockers, boot jacks, mirrors and toilet seats, all emblazoned with the school’s name, mascot or colors.

A handful of colleges have set up outlets in shopping malls. One of those, the University of Southern California, on Saturday opened its first off-campus location, a store at South Coast Plaza’s Crystal Court in Costa Mesa. The store, to remain open through the holidays, is designed to sate even the most rah-rah alums with “every type of merchandise imaginable,” merchandise buyer Dan Stimmlersaid.

Licensed collegiate merchandise has evolved into a big business since Battle’s coaching days, thanks to media exposure that can turn a regional team into a national powerhouse when it comes to sales.

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“Give the Irvine Anteaters the right logo and colors, and they might outsell some of the leaders,” said Paul Much, a Chicago-based sports industry analyst with Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin, a consulting firm. “They could become a fashion.”

Americans will spend about $2 billion this year for merchandise bearing their alma maters’ mascots or colors, up from $250 million in 1984, said Battle, who is now owner and president of an Atlanta company that oversees product licensing for 130 institutions, including the University of Michigan, St. John’s and Arizona.

Analyst Much sets the retail value of college gear sales at closer to $6 billion.

That’s dramatic growth from a decade ago, when most college administrators were “nervous about commercializing anything to do with their schools,” Battle said.

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Would a college president risk the wrath of well-heeled alumni by tinkering with the mascot and school colors in a bid to make them more marketable?

“Absolutely,” Battle said. “Certainly it will happen in the next 10 years. . . . I’d say it’s likely within the next three years.”

In the early 1980s, only a handful of licensed products--T-shirts, bumper stickers and beer mugs--were available. Most merchandise was sold through campus bookstores. Today, by contrast, schools such as Texas A&M; deal with nearly 600 licensees who manufacture everything from candy bars and glassware to golf balls and clocks.

Most college merchandise now is sold through sporting goods, department and retail stores. In 1984, Atlanta-area retailers stocked little in the way of local college items. But now, Battle said, “you can find stuff from 20, 30, even 40 different schools in any mall you go into.”

Upward of 300 institutions of higher learning have licensed manufacturers to make merchandise bearing their “marks,” according to the National Assn. of College Stores.

Besides USC, other Southern California universities are renting mall space:

* UCLA in May opened UCLA Spirit, a university gift shop at Universal Citywalk. The 1,650-square foot store offers a wide variety of product emblazoned with UCLA’s colors, logo and name.

* San Diego State University last week doubled the size of its year-old Aztec Shop in Fashion Valley mall in San Diego to 2,400 square feet and added licensed clothing from more than 50 other colleges.

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* UC Irvine sells its merchandise through two on-campus shops and a bookstore in the Irvine Marketplace. However, the bulk of the off-campus store’s sales involve books, not clothing with the UCI marks.

Not surprisingly, collegiate sales are driven by success on the athletic field and arena.

“When our football team came out strong last year with that amazing start, our store was packed,” said Kris Shetter, marketing manager for the SDSU shop. Fan interest waned after the Aztecs self-destructed on the gridiron, but the shop rang up $500,000 in sales last year and hopes to hit $1 million during the 1993-94 school year, Shetter said.

Colleges that properly promote and police their “marks” can earn several million dollars annually in licensing fees, Battle said. But only a handful of universities--such as Michigan, Georgetown and Miami--have reached that pinnacle.

College administrators initially entered the licensing arena hoping to crack down on “offensive and obscene” products that flooded the market during the 1980s, Battle said. One Southeastern U.S. university’s mascot appeared on a condom, while a Texas institution’s logo appeared on the handle of a pistol.

Policing is still a major part of product licensing, but during the late 1980s, cash-strapped college administrators recognized the potential for profit as America’s ongoing love affair with collegiate sports blossomed. Savvy administrators now know that revenue will soar if their teams appear in the NCAA’s basketball Final Four or win the mythical football “national championship.”

Today’s market leaders move to the top of the sales heap on their athletic prowess. But, increasingly, it takes more than winning seasons to stay on top.

“Kids like the ‘winning team’ aspect, but they also are picking up on licensed apparel as a fashion statement,” Much said. “Yes, you see a lot of Chicago Bulls because they won, but kids also are drawn by the colors and the logo.”

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For professional and collegiate teams, bright colors and flashy designs are increasingly important.

College coaches have always pressured administrators for permission to make their mascots more fierce-looking, but college administrators are a “fairly conservative group,” Battle said.

Don’t count on USC’s maroon and gold giving way to silver, black or teal--three of today’s hottest colors.

The established universities will give their loyal alumni the traditional colors and designs, Much said. “But you might see a new line of flashier things for the kids who want to make a fashion statement.”

Some customs remain sacrosanct. Stanford University last week headed off alumni protests by emphatically stating that the school’s nickname, “Cardinal,” wasn’t being put out to pasture in favor of something more marketable. Confusion erupted after a university official authorized a contest to produce “additional design elements” for use on licensed merchandise, including mugs and T-shirts.

And Battle shudders at the thought of the Volunteers abandoning their bright Tennessee orange and white for black and silver just to bring in more greenbacks. “I could never imagine changing Tennessee orange to anything,” he said. Vols fans would “burn the world down if you did that.”

Trojan Trinkets

Revenue from the nationwide sales of officially licensed collegiate attire and memorabilia is expected to reach $2 billion this year. University of Southern California recently opened a temporary boutique at South Coast Plaza’s Crystal Court, hoping to get a head start on holiday demand.

USC GIFT STORE

* Location: Crystal Court, South Coast Plaza * Opened: Saturday * Closes: Dec. 31

Selected Items for Sale * Citizen quartz watch: $285-$295 * Sweat shirt: $50-$75 * Stadium blanket: $50 * Tommy Trojan rocking horse: $96 * USC toilet paper: $6* * USC toilet seat: $25* * Letterman’s jacket (wool and leather): $200 * Child’s cheerleader outfit: $19.95 * Sold out but will be restocked

Source: USC Gift Store; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times


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