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It's up, it's in! University bookstores cash in on instant championship souvenirs

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Since the University of Florida Bookstores began selling swim wear in the last couple of years, the bikinis and board shorts have been popular items. (University of Florida Bookstores)

Last April, less than nine hours after the University of Florida had won the national basketball championship, the campus bookstore was stocked with the same Nike T-shirts the players had put on after the game to pose with the championship trophy.

Anticipating a win but not willing to lose money if the Gators had lost to U.C.L.A., Lynne Vaughan, director of the University of Florida Bookstores, had placed a contingency order with Nike, meaning the shirts wouldn’t hit the presses until the buzzer sounded and a victory was secure. By 6:30 a.m., Vaughan was helping unpack 1,200 T-shirts adorned with the Florida Gator logo and the words, “National Champions.” Her staff had picked them up in Orlando, a two-hour drive from campus.

“It was like a feeding frenzy," Vaughan said. “We opened the door at 7:30 and people just streamed in.” She estimated that at least 50 people were waiting outside when the store opened. By 10:30 a.m., the T-shirts had sold out and Vaughan had had to order another shipment.

And when Florida became the first Division I school in history to win national championships in football and basketball in the same year, Vaughan was in marketing paradise. Florida students went into the bookstore the morning after the football team’s victory over Ohio State in January, which was the second day of the spring semester, and headed straight for the clothing, Vaughan said. “We were saying, ‘You want a T-shirt with that chemistry book or a chemistry book with that T-shirt?'” she joked.

University bookstores across the country--especially those with high-profile sports teams--are stocking up like never before on merchandise ranging from T-shirts and hats to team-stamped household products and novelty items, all in an effort to satisfy clamoring alumni, students and casual fans. If there’s room to slap a logo on it, some college bookstore somewhere sells it.

Vaughan offers what she calls a Tiffany-style pool table lamp that reads “Florida” next to a large Gator logo for $550, a rocking chair with the university’s seal for $420 and an infant stroller peppered with Gator logos for $65. Over the last couple of years, the Florida bookstores have also begun selling swim wear for men, women and children, Vaughan said.

At the University of Texas at Austin--whose football team won the NCAA championship in 2006--the bookstore takes special care to please female fans, offering sports bras, purses and underwear with the Longhorn logo, as well as Longhorn-shaped earrings. Then there's the orange, white and brown leather custom-made cowboy boots for $2,500. Since the boots went on sale in November, five pairs have been sold, said Brian Jewell, vice president of marketing at the bookstore.

Jewell likes to let the Longhorn faithful decide what products to keep on the shelves. “It’s our responsibility to buy smartly and not order a lot,” said Jewell, who has stopped ordering certain T-shirt designs when they just don’t sell.

However, since Jewell started stocking foot-tall garden gnomes sporting Longhorn pointed caps last fall for $19.99, he has sold more than 1,000. “It doesn’t amaze us,” Jewell said. “It just confirms that we need to be on the lookout for products the loyal fan will buy.”

David H. Jones works at the Alabama Book Store, which started selling the popular gnomes in Tuscaloosa three years ago. “It’s hard to be shocked anymore by what bookstores sell," he said.

Jones said his biggest seller right now is an adjustable baseball cap with a hound’s tooth pattern, a version of the hound’s tooth fedora legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant wore (Jones also sells replicas of the fedora). The 2,000 caps he initially ordered were gone in two weeks--all shipped to fill Internet orders.

“Alabama fans will buy just about anything,” Jones said. “We had a horrible year"
the football team went 6-7 -- "and they still wanted to show their colors.”

Nick Saban, the new Alabama football coach who was hired in January, has also inspired a few products. With decals that say, “S: The Coach,” (a takeoff on the once-popular “W: The President” bumper stickers) and T-shirts that read “got nick?” and “Member of Sabanation,” Jones says he has sold around 1,200 Saban products.

Jones stocked T-shirts celebrating the departure of head football coach Dennis Franchione in 2002, and those sold well too.

Sudden success can almost be too much for some bookstores. George Mason University, the Cinderella team of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament in 2006, sold 21,000 “Final Four” T-shirts. The night the Patriots clinched a spot in the Final Four, the Internet orders started pouring in.

“By the end of that week, we were wiped out of all our products,” said Jack Smith, manager of the George Mason Bookstore. Fortunately for Smith, the bookstore had already placed orders with vendors for the fall semester. “We basically sold all our back-to-school merchandise in March.”

TL Sportswear prints championship apparel for NCAA teams in all sports and, according to operations manager Danny Robbins, fills huge orders like George Mason’s as well as much smaller orders like the one placed for the Johns Hopkins University lacrosse championship in 2005 (around 3,000 T-shirts). Robbins says the company never starts printing T-shirts until the games are over.

He recalled the 2006 Rose Bowl game, which decided the national championship in football. “Texas was down by [two touchdowns to USC] with less than seven minutes to go,” Robbins said. “They came back and won. We don’t want to have to throw away T-shirts that we’ve already printed.”

In Florida, Vaughan is already thinking about how she will rearrange her merchandise if the Gators win the national championship again. After all, big wins are big for business. “The guys are very good,” Vaughan said of this year’s basketball team. “The expectation is high, so maybe the basketball team can turn around and tell the football team to win another one.”

E-mail: enm2107@columbia.edu