December 4, 2003

Colleges Profit From 'Rivalry Merchandise'

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Imagine visiting a friend at another college and seeing Cornell’s logo on the students’ t-shirts. You may think, “Why are these students wearing Cornell shirts?” So you take a closer look at the shirts.

On closer inspection you see that the t-shirts are defacing one of Cornell’s sports teams, one that the rival college beat in a recent game. You are insulted and inquire about the shirts, just to find out that Cornell is actually profiting from them. Is this a true story? No. But is it possible? Yes.

So what’s going on? A recent story in the Wall Street Journal shed light on this practice. It seems that in the college-logo retail industry, there’s a growing demand for “rivalry merchandise” in which, according to the article, “two schools allow their trademarks to appear on the same item, even if one team is being throttled, humiliated or labeled as a loser.”

Why would schools agree to such a practice? Money. The two schools share the revenue that the merchandise makes and often argue that it simply highlights the traditions of their rivalries. According to Ron Bohler, licensing director of Memory Co., the market leader in nonapparel rivalry products, “sometimes their logic is elusive.” This year, rivalry products account for 15 percent of its sales, up from 5 percent in 2002.

Cornell supports such products if they are done in the proper fashion. For example, one of the biggest sports rivalries on campus is between the Cornell and Harvard hockey teams. There have been many times when merchandise has been made to celebrate this rivalry.

In order for Cornell to approve this type of merchandise, it must be done in a positive manner that shows respect for both institutions. According to Cornell Athletics and Physical Education Administrator Frank Araneo, “Attempts [at merchandise ideas] by some of the ‘Lynah Faithful’ have been rejected, such as ‘Harvard: Give me an A. Give me another A. Welcome to Harvard!’ This is a play on the perception of grade inflation at Harvard, and was rejected strongly by both schools.”

Other examples of rivalry merchandise have been more successful, however. PSP Unlimited, an official producer of Cornell merchandise, produced a shirt that read “Cornell/Harvard Hockey–this ain’t no love story,” which played on the movie Love Story, in which one of the main characters played hockey for Harvard.

Although Cornell does not regularly partake in the practice of less favorable rivalry merchandising, many other schools do. According to the Wall Street Journal, 25 colleges have approved merchandise that depict their mascots being boiled alive in soup pots.

These schools argue that if they do not license rivalry merchandise, fans will buy even more offensive knockoffs from bootleggers.

Cornell has, however, found another way to stop such practices.

“Through our relationship with the Collegiate Licensing Company, and our own resources, we pursue bootlegged merchandise vigorously including legal action and confiscation of the unauthorized merchandise,” said John C. Gutenberger, director of University relations.

Rivalry merchandise may benefit universities financially and fans mentally, but what are its effects on the actual players?

“I doubt the players think about it very much. Their focus is school and their sport. I believe the coaches keep the players focused away from such things,” Araneo responded.

Archived article by Melissa Costa