Locating Vandy apparel remains a challenge

For SEC football fans, few things are more fun than dressing up in school colors on gameday. But for Vanderbilt fans, locating officially licensed Commodore merchandise in Nashville retail stores can be a unique challenge. At long last, there's an effort underway from the Chancellor's office to change that.

Vanderbilt's football team opens its home schedule Saturday evening against Furman, and ardent Commodore fans are already making their tailgating plans.  For the fashionably conscious, the burning question is... what to wear to the game?

And if I don't already own a Vandy T-shirt or cap, where can I go to find one?

If you were a Tennessee fan, the answer would be easy.  Drop by most any Nashville department store or sporting goods store, and you're instantly overwhelmed by the selection of Volunteer merchandise, all in that bilious shade of orange.  The orange stuff fairly screams at you as you saunter from aisle to aisle.

Conspicuous by its absence is the Vanderbilt paraphernalia.  While the Vol stuff is wall-to-wall, the Vanderbilt section is way in the back and poorly stocked, if it exists at all.

What's wrong with this picture?  Vanderbilt is still in Nashville, right?  A recent tour of Metro retailers revealed that the problem has improved not much, if at all, in the last five years.  Sure, there's the Vanderbilt bookstore in Rand Hall, with by far the city's best selection.  But the bookstore is not very accessible to shoppers-- and much of the merchandise there is so expensive, you'd have to be a Vanderbilt to afford it.

Who's responsible for the dearth of quality, affordable Vanderbilt apparel?  Out of a sense of frustration, I decided to ask some questions and attempt to find out.

It seems there's good news and bad news on this front.  The good news is that the university, right on up to the Chancellor's office, has recognized the problem and is at long last determined to do something about it.

The bad news is that there are still a lot of obstacles to be overcome.

Margaret Harris, who holds the title of Marketing and Licensing Coordinator reporting to Vice Chancellor Mike Schoenfeld, has primary responsibility for ensuring that Vanderbilt's 200-plus licensees produce only merchandise that is approved and properly licensed.  But recently she's been given another charge-- to help increase the availability of such officially licensed merchandise in retail stores.

"There's not a lot of Vanderbilt product out there," acknowledged Harris.  "We're doing everything we can think of to push the products out there.  We're really trying to get retailers to carry Vanderbilt products."

In her second year in the post, Harris' office has formed the Commodore Retailers' Association to reward retailers who stock merchandise bearing the Vandy logo, and to encourage them to increase their inventory.  About 15 local retailers have signed up, including Sports Seasons, Hat World, Lids, The Legends Club, Nashville Sporting Goods, You Greek Me Greek, the VU Medical Center gift shop, and the airport gift shops.

"Based on their inventory level they get benefits from the university-- season tickets to games and so forth.  We also do things like arrange coaches' appearances, like we did at Sports Seasons with Coach Johnson [Aug. 10].  We had a great turnout that day.

"And we plan to make it even better.  We plan to contact 50 retailers this year."

Meanwhile Harris works with retailers already part of the association to encourage them to increase their inventory of Commodore merchandise.  Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, the market for licensed team merchandise is largely driven by the success of the athletic teams, and retailers sometimes tell Harris that Vanderbilt paraphernalia just doesn't sell well.

"They say, we want to support you, we understand that you're our team here.  But we only have a limited amount of space, and we've got to put something there that is going to sell."

Typically clothing items are sold in units of 144, but most stores don't want to carry that much.  So Harris' office orders large volumes of nice T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats, and approaches retailers about carrying them in smaller volumes-- at Vanderbilt's cost.

"What we do is say, we understand.  Well, how about putting 20 T-shirts out there?  Something.  You can get it at Vanderbilt's cost-- we're not marking it up.  That's how we try to work with them.

"Some of the ones like Sports Authority-- it's really hard to get them to carry Vanderbilt products.  The manager says yes, we get requests, but the corporate office makes the buying decisions.  We contact the corporate office, and the Licensing Resource Group tries to get them to commit.  We do all we can to push the product."  Through such efforts, Harris has even made inroads into mega-chains like Wal-Mart and Kroger.

Another obstacle Harris faces is getting manufacturers to produce the product.  Vanderbilt's shades of gold (only two are approved by the school) are not stock colors for many vendors.  For that reason, much of the apparel produced is black, white, or gray, not gold.

"There's a 'flat' gold, which is used by athletics-- and a 'metallic' gold that's used in the logo," said Harris.  "Russell Athletics does a good job, and Soffe does a good job, but others aren't as good."

Harris' department has helped supply the basketball Memorial Maniacs with a solid, gold T-shirt that's the proper shade.

"We were brainstorming with the Resource Group recently about doing packages with season-ticket holders where you get a good-looking, gold T-shirt-- one that we think is 'Vanderbilt gold'-- for just a few dollars with a season ticket.  We've got to find some new traditions to get everybody excited about wearing gold."

Perhaps the biggest obstacle Harris' office faces is that the Vanderbilt football team hasn't had a winning season in-- well, we won't go there.  But one day the team will inevitably have that long-awaited breakout season, and Harris' office wants to help retailers be prepared for the demand.

For shoppers, the bookstore remains an option, and most fans are on campus on game days.  I pointed out to Harris that the bookstore is tough for most shoppers to get to when school is in session-- but as she pointed out to me, the bookstore is online.  Browse their site, or call them, and they will send a copy of their newly expanded catalog.

As of 2002 Nike has become the official outfitter for the football team's uniforms and coaches' gameday apparel.  The bookstore currently carries black replica football jerseys ($195), and the coaches' new white polo shirts with the "V" inside the star logo ($45).  But it will probably be another 6-8 months before a wider array of Nike Vanderbilt products begins appearing in stores.

At least one store owner I spoke with said that in past years Vanderbilt had maintained such strict controls over its logos and images that Commodore merchandise became hard to find.  But you can chalk that up as one more thing that should change for the good under the leadership of Chancellor Gordon Gee, says Harris.  "Any vendor who's worked with us will tell you that we've now made it very easy for them to work with us," she said.

Many of the same old obstacles remain.  "But we are slowly making progress," claims Harris.

What can loyal fans do to help get more merchandise into retail stores?  Buy the products.  Patronize the retailers who carry the products.  Ask retailers who carry the products to carry more, and ask those who don't, why not?

And of course, support the teams proudly by wearing your black and gold, says Harris.  "As everyone knows, when you win football games... they want your product."

Mike Schoenfeld, Vanderbilt's Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs, added, "For better or worse, merchants and consumers make their purchases based on won-lost records in the major sports, but we're confident that when we do achieve even more success in football and men's basketball, the supply and the demand will be there.

"We will not be happy until Nashville is Commodore country, and you can buy a Vanderbilt cap, shirt or mug in any part of town, at any time of the day or night."

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