1 of 2
Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
Richard Olsen, a 1992 graduate of the U., selects a wig at the bookstore.

Sharing crowded Crimson Corner shopping space with dozens of other University of Utah students and supporters inside the bustling University Bookstore, Richard Olsen glanced at racks of school sweatshirts, tried on Ute baseball caps and checked out various red trinkets Friday afternoon before finally finding the perfect item for his game-day wardrobe.

You might recognize him today at Rice-Eccles Stadium. He'll be the one whose head resembles Ronald McDonald and Bozo the Clown.

Then again, judging brisk sales lately, the Utah alumnus probably won't be the only one wearing a big, poofy, bright-red wig.

And he definitely won't be the only one donning paraphernalia adorned with a block U. or crimson colors.

Coach Urban Meyer and his football squad haven't just created excitement at the stadium with their Top 10 ranking, BCS flirting and undefeated record. The Utes have also created a buzz everywhere Utah merchandise is sold — or sold out.

Suddenly, Utah gear is as hot as Boston's Red Sox — explaining why the day before the Utes' next highly anticipated kickoff felt like Christmas Eve in the bookstore, with scurrying shoppers, red-hot sales and crimson-clad items going like hotcakes at a chuck-wagon breakfast.

Meyer should have worked a royalty commission fee on U. stuff sold into his contract, and bookstore employees only wish they got a percentage based on restocking shelves. Sales of Ute merchandise are up as much as 80 percent on campus compared to last year, U. licensing administrator Shane Hinckley told KSL-TV this week.

Bookstore sales manager Nancy Gray says the shopping spree has been phenomenal.

"Having a good football team makes a difference," she said, adding that it's the students who ultimately benefit, as revenue goes back into the school's budget to improve parking and to fund other needed improvements.

The increased business has even spilled over to other parts of the bookstore, where sales of education supplies and trade books are up. That, says Shane Girton, the bookstore's acting director, is not a coincidence.

"It's real exciting. Everybody is having good sales because of more traffic," Girton said. "There's a lot more talk about the team and where it's going. I think Urban Meyer is mentioned in every conversation for what he's done for the university."

Utah's bookstore isn't the only one seeing red in a good way. Ute purchases are way up at local sporting merchandise stores.

Carl Stock, a manager at the Fanzz outlet in the Crossroads Plaza, said U. product sales have increased 70 percent this fall, and 2003 was better than the year before.

The reason, he explained, has everything to do with Utah's 6-0 record.

"Everybody," he said, "loves a winner."

It remains to be seen if this crimson tide at the register will help the University of Utah overtake its biggest rival in the national rankings — not the AP or coaches poll but the Collegiate Licensing Co.'s top-selling universities list. BYU currently ranks 45th for royalties reported between July 1 and Sept. 30. The Utes weren't listed among CLC's most recent Top 50, coming in at 51st behind South Florida and Army.

For the fiscal year of July 1, 2003, to June 30, 2004, BYU finished 46th in sales (down from 41st in 2001), while Utah came in 49th place.

Derek Eiler, Collegiate Licensing's chief operating officer, believes Utah's success should give them a "true bump" — perhaps even leapfrogging BYU — when this fall's numbers are accounted for in three to six months. But while "winning is a leading factor" in sales, he pointed out that size of alumni base, school colors, TV exposure and availability of the retail product all play into overall product power.

One side-effect problem for the U. has been an increase in knock-off merchandise sales, such as towels and hats. Some vendors are illegally hawking products that aren't licensed but still use the Utes trademarked name and/or images, including the circle and feather mark, the U., interlocking U.'s, the U. of U. mark, the words Utah, University of Utah, Utes, Running Utes, Lady Utes and even the names of the mascot (Swoop) and the student section (The Muss).

"Right now, everybody wants a piece of Utah's action, so to speak," Hinckley said.

Ute faithful have plenty of choices at the bookstore — from hoodies and beanies to six-foot microsuede collegiate LoveSacs (invented by a U. alum, by the way) to trailer hitch covers to anti-BYU lights to, well, women's unmentionables (OK, we'll mention them: U. thong underwear for $12.99, shorties for $14.99 and camisoles for $16.99).

"Anything with red on it" sells, Girton said.

"I came all the way from Montana to buy U. of U. stuff," said Utah grad Erik Dewitz, who now lives in Missoula. He and some old frat pals visited the bookstore to stock up on Ute garb, including one item from the unmentionable rack, prompting some friendly pal razzing and a plea, "Let's keep this quiet."

(Don't worry, it's our secret.)

Josh Smith, a golf pro from Los Angeles and a former U. Phi Kappa Alpha member, headed to the register with $85 worth of goods: two T-shirts, a sweatshirt and a hat. The California resident said buying Utah merchandise is "like bargain shopping" compared to prices of USC and UCLA stuff. He hopes to use the purchase to spread the good word about the Utes, too.

"One (shirt's) for a female friend who's about to become a U. fan," he said.

Ashley Owens, a nursing student, talked her dad, Kevin Christensen, into expanding her U. wardrobe. While holding a red-tinted U. water bottle that apparently has become the rage on campus, she marveled at all the crimson-coveting customers.

"Ever since the games started to get good, everybody's buying stuff," she said. "This bookstore is not usually this busy."

Christensen had his arms full of Ute products, including a beanie for his wife and a sweatshirt for his mother-in-law who started going to the U. in 1950, took nearly half a century leave of absence and then wrapped up her behavioral science degree in the early 1990s.

"Grandma loves the Utes," he said. "We all had to graduate from the U. to get in the will."

Utah star safety Morgan Scalley's family was among the Crimson Corner clientele. His niece, Abby Orison, was shopping with Mom and Grandma to find the right U. cheerleader outfit for Halloween. She's trained well so far: Her favorite team is "Utah," she cheered, pompoms rapidly shaking in her hands. And her favorite player? Alex Smith, of course. OK, not really. "Uncle Morgan," she exclaimed.

Comment on this story

As for Olsen, he picked the one-size-fits-all (fill in the blank . . . all fanatics, clown-wannabes, maniacal Muss-keteers) $8 wig "because it's crazy" — not to mention cheaper than the slinky underwear that you can't show anyway, he joked. Plus, he too will be using it as his Halloween costume, apparently another trend sparked by the winning streak.

"Who's not going as a Ute fan this year?" laughed his friend, Chris Durr.

Perhaps only those who don't snag U. merchandise while it lasts.

They might have to go as BYU fans.


E-mail: jody@desnews.com