SALT LAKE CITY — There's always been a healthy back and forth between Utah and BYU through the years for collegiate licensing supremacy.
But stick a fork in all that now. Besides leaving the storied Utah-BYU rivalry on respirator, news that the Utes will be bolting for the expanded Pac-10 seriously alters the balance of merchandising power between the two schools.
Membership in the Pac-10 gives Utah a huge marketing advantage over its long-time playing partner, explains Derek Eiler, vice president and managing director of the Collegiate Licensing Company.
Like it or not, Cougar fans need to wrap their craniums around the fact the collegiate sports spectrum suddenly got several hues of crimson darker.
But beyond bragging rights, it's big business.
While not on the scale of merchandising behemoths such as Florida, Notre Dame, or North Carolina, both the Utes and Cougars consistently rank among CLC's Top 50 best-selling institutions.
CLC represents some 200 schools, providing licensing expertise for managing, protecting and developing clients' individual brands. CLC schools, including Utah and BYU, make up 80 percent of last year's stunning $4.3 billion North American college sports market, as reported by Reuters. And that was during a recession.
BYU and Utah are each raking in annual gross royalty incomes approaching $500,000 or more, based on CLC's revenue estimations for similarly ranked schools (see accompanying chart).
As a Pac-10 school, the Utes are positioned to double those numbers eventually. By comparison, the University of Texas, also in the CLC fold, has led the nation in merchandising four years running, generating $8.8 million in royalty income last year.
Peering down the road, Eiler believes the Pac-10's larger markets and media exposure offers Utah a broader platform to expose its sports programs and academics. Better competition resulting from playing the likes of USC and Washington every year, as well as belonging to one of the six BCS conferences, should create a "halo effect" for the Utes, as well.
Utah can also anticipate a rush of increased consumer interest when it finally launches Pac-10 play, Eiler said. Penn State saw a 20 percent short-term increase in royalties when it entered the Big 10 in the fall of 1993, much from the novelty of joining a different conference. Fans are naturally enthused and want to go out and buy new gear branded with the new conference's logo, he said.
Many aren't waiting.
"Sales for Utah have really picked up. I can't say how much exactly without crunching the numbers, but I know they're way up," said Marcus Burrup, manager of the Fanzz store at the Gateway. "I ask every Ute customer who comes into the store if they're excited, and they're all really stoked."
Burrup says although he's a BYU fan, there's no denying how great it's going to be for business. "It's going to be nuts having all these new teams coming into Utah."
Brett Eden, director of Marketing and Licensing at the U. is letting it all soak in for the moment. "Right now, we're at the top of the Mountain West Conference (for merchandise licensing). We've been experiencing double-digit growth. Now, we're going into the Pac-10 at the bottom, Eden said. "It's a great opportunity to market the school regionally and to learn from our new partners. But I think just as important as the conference is making sure the merchandise is appropriate and likable to the fans."
BYU, meanwhile, appears stratified for the moment, although it's hardly a doomsday scenario.
Even with Utah's defection, the Mountain West Conference has been successful in raising its profile throughout most of the country, Eiler said. Adding Boise State, which has been moving up on national radar, helps mitigate the conference waving goodbye to the Utes.
Eden, who left a similar position at BYU to come to Utah 2½ years ago, thinks Cougars will be just fine. "They're a unique school and have strengths that others don't — a niche, so to speak. I don't think they'll see any reason to stray from that."
Adam Parker, Eden's replacement in Provo, doesn't see Utah's conference jumping influencing his school's merchandising numbers up or down. Cougar and Ute fans are so separated; they root for one school or the other, he said. Nor does he expect the rivalry to suffer because "bragging rights are still there."
"I am curious how it turns out for Utah going from a non-Bowl Championship Series conference to a BCS qualifier," Parker said. "I think that may get the fans more interested, adding something to the fire initially."
Prior to shifting conferences, Utah was already making merchandising headway. Where BYU once dominated logo wars between the pair, Utah has been on a tear in recent years and looks to claim the 2009-10 selling season.
Going back to 2004-05, Utah's average ranking on CLC's annual list has been 45.6, compared to BYU's 48.4. The Cougars slipped to No. 53 as recently as 2007-08 before bouncing back to No. 46 last year.
Boise State was ranked outside CLC's Top 50 in 2004-05, but the school's 45.5 average ranking since then is actually several spots better than BYU's.
Parker, who was at BSU before joining the Cougars, said there clearly was a spike in interest for the Broncos after the team's initial Fiesta Bowl appearance. Likewise, he thinks Utah benefitted from its Sugar Bowl win several years ago. "Fans are very reactionary," he said.
CLC's rankings seem to bear that out.
"Utah used to be mired in the 60s (on the list). Now, they're consistently in the top 50," Eiler said. "Joining the Pac-10, there's nowhere to go but up for them."
Pac-10 bottom feeders Stanford and Washington State are currently ranked 44th and 37th, respectively, by CLC, which approximates the conference's merchandising floor. Utah's first Pac-10 date, the University of Colorado, is ranked 42nd.
"Utah is within striking range of being in the low 40s, and maybe a realistic goal is moving into the upper 30s with time," Eiler said.
But such a scenario is dependent on Utah continuing to put an strong product on the field. "People like brands that win," he said.
Big money in licensing
Officially licensed products run the gamut, from toys and video games to furniture and patchwork quilts, although apparel, such as T-shirts, hoodies and ball caps, are still the mother lode.
Manufacturers like Reebok, Nike and Champion, as well as local producers like SDI, pay royalties — in the range of 8 percent to 10 percent — to Collegiate Licensing Co., on behalf of client schools, for permission to use the institutions' names and logos on products they produce.
CLC rank — Yearly royalty revenues
1-5 — $4 million+
5-10 — $3 million+
11-35 — $1 million+
36-50 — $500,000+
Source: Collegiate Licensing Company