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‘Spirit stores’ forecasting strong autumn sales of team merchandise

The atmosphere is electric in Hattiesburg, Starkville and Oxford as the upcoming NCAA Division IA football season nears. Both the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) and the University of Mississippi (UM) have new head football coaches, and Mississippi State University (MSU) is coming off of a winning season and a bowl game victory.

While stores that sell team merchandise in these college towns are fans and want to see their teams win, they have a vested interest in their teams’ success. It affects their bottom line. The old saying “everyone loves a winner” is so true for them.

Preseason predictions

There has to be a little gambler in the owner of stores that sell team merchandise, sometimes referred to as “spirit stores.” Every year, they have to make orders in advance for merchandise to sell during the next collegiate sports season. Their teams’ performance can be make or break.

“Folks like Nike want you to order four to six months ahead of the season,” said Greg Watson, owner of Ashley Sporting Goods in Hattiesburg. “Every year, we are sure hoping USM wins. If they start losing, sales will suffer.”

John Hendricks, owner of The Lodge in Starkville, feels Watson’s pain.

“We spend six to eight months preparing for the upcoming season,” Hendricks said. He added that, indeed, MSU’s performance is key to sales.

Watson pointed out that scheduling is also key to healthier sales. He said he and his team anxiously anticipate the release of USM’s sports schedules, particularly football home games. He hopes to see quality opponents, which means higher attendance, and also lobbies the Athletic Department to schedule games in the late afternoon or evening, which gives him all day to sell.

Watson said he has not seen the level of excitement about USM football in the eight years he has owned Ashley Sporting Goods. USM has a new head football coach, Larry Fedora, and the university has launched a new marketing campaign to draw more fans to home games.

Enrollment is another statistics spirit store owners watch closely. Hendricks said not only is he expecting a solid sales season due to MSU’s success last year and high expectations in 2008, he is encouraged by the preliminary MSU enrollment numbers, which are expected to be up again this fall.

What recession?

Hendricks said he is forecasting a good sales season in spite of the economic downturn. Folks in the South are crazy about their football teams, and he is expecting this to outweigh the economic woes. Fans always seem to have an extra nickel to spend on a shirt or bumper sticker.

One product will always be a big seller at The Lodge as fans look to make noise at MSU games. “Every new student will need a cowbell,” he said with a chuckle.

The Lodge’s theme is “Everything Maroon and White,” and it lives up to that billing. It seems if there is a piece of merchandise that can be embossed with the MSU Bulldog — apparel, items for the home and office, banners and flags, children’s products — The Lodge has it.

“I’ve given up guessing what they might put MSU on next,” Hendricks said with a laugh.

Ashley Sporting Goods, likewise, carries everything Southern Miss. Watson said apparel is always the biggest seller at his store on Hardy Street (Ashley Sporting Goods also has a location on U.S. 98 in Oak Grove). Mini-helmets, footballs, bumper stickers and license plates are also popular.

Watson added that one service Ashley Sporting Goods offers helps set it apart from other retailers of USM goods. His store can personalize shirts and jerseys. He said his store does a thriving business putting names on apparel.

Counting down to kickoff

If one is seeking UM merchandise, Rebel Rags in Oxford is the place to go. “Anything and Everything Ole Miss” is Rebel Rags’ claim to fame.

Not only does Rebel Rags offer apparel, home and office products and everything else imaginable for humans, and even has something for that special animal. Pet offerings include bowls, clothes, collars and leashes.

At press time, Rebel Rags owner Terry Warren was unavailable, but Ole Miss fans are quick to sing the spirit store’s praises.

“I don’t go to Oxford without stopping in Rebel Rags,” said Laura Allen of Brandon, an avid Ole Miss fan. “I love to go look at the store’s new inventory, and the customer service is the utmost. Terry and his employees are just great.”

Excitement is up in Oxford. Last year, UM went winless in SEC play. But, new head football coach Houston Nutt inherits a team with some talent, and many prognosticators are picking Ole Miss to be a surprise in 2008

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com..

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