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High school spirit trickles off-campus, and often so do profits

Fervent fans blinged out in flashy paraphernalia. Big-box stores devoting entire sections to home team apparel. Licensing agreements. Buccaneers and Bulls, step aside. The Panthers, Ravens and other area high school teams are becoming the merchandising darlings of Tampa Bay. Walgreens, Walmart and Publix stock high school apparel that varies by store: Plant High School in South Tampa, Alonso in North Tampa, Armwood in Seffner.

And two team moms started a national business catering to dozens of schools, including Robinson High, as well as private schools Jesuit and Tampa Preparatory. Their items now stock the shelves of local boutiques and shops.

Meanwhile, the national governing body for high school athletics is attempting to help schools cash in on the merchandising trend. But the effort is in its infancy, so much so that some Hillsborough County school officials haven't heard about it and royalties are hard to track. Indeed, a district official was unaware of the program and never saw a royalty check supposedly sent to one school.

But no matter the bureaucratic confusion, demand for school apparel abounds.

Though the trend isn't entirely new, some retailers say local teams' athletic success in recent years has made it more lucrative.

"When I went to school, I think we got like one T-shirt," said Terrell Italiano, owner of Teamwork Imprinted Sportswear in South Tampa. "Now, if the wind blows hard the kids get a T-shirt." They get one "for every club they're in, every event they're in."

• • •

BJ's Wholesale Club on Waters Avenue has sold Alonso blankets. Not far away at the Walgreens on Sheldon Road, an electronic sign flashes the latest deals in red block letters: "Alonso H.S. T-shirts now in stock!"

The shirts are $5.99 apiece or two for $10. Get a navy shirt with "Alonso" written in gold block letters or vice versa. No frills, no fuss, but it'll do in a pinch.

Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten said stores throughout the chain have stocked high school merchandise such as shirts, hats, hoodies and even balloons for more than five years. Only a few locations participate in the program at any given time, usually when a nearby school wins a title, has a major academic honor or plays its biggest rival.

Carrying local team apparel helps customers feel connected to their neighborhood Publix.

"Our customers come to the store because it's their Publix, and they really appreciate us showing support for their children's school or team," Patten said.

• • •

Alonso Booster Club president Tracy Saboe said she isn't bothered that retailers take an interest in school apparel.

The booster club's specialty is sweatshirts printed with the school's logo, a raven with outstretched wings flying through an "A." With below-normal fall and winter temperatures, this school year has been great for sales.

Otherwise, students seem more attracted to T-shirts that highlight a specific sport or class shirts that further friendly rivalry between grade levels.

"Because things that we sell at Alonso are so specific, the general ones (sold in grocery and drug stores) haven't really cut into our sales at all," she said.

Plant High freshman Keely Mattera agrees. The lacrosse player already has enough paraphernalia in her closet and hasn't bought any Panther gear from outside vendors. Last week, she wore a team shirt with the school's familiar "P" logo.

But there is a market out there, said Lauren Murray, co-owner of Pieces With Purpose, an apparel company best known for its sparkly and artsy offerings.

Murray and partner Amy Lerom were both Plant High moms — Murray's son Aaron quarterbacked one of those championship football teams. They used to lament that the team gear wasn't very fashion-forward, leaving them with few satisfactory options on Friday nights.

"The only thing they really had were T-shirts that went down to my knees or a men's polo in women's sizes," Murray said.

Together, the women designed shirts that mimicked the latest trends.

"We use an array of embellishments," Murray said, noting their trademark embroidery, rhinestones, rhine-studs and glitter.

Now, several schools purchase Pieces With Purpose items at wholesale, mark up the price and pocket the difference.

During football season, DKM Accessories in Palma Ceia stocks up on Pieces With Purpose items. Next to shirts in Plant's black and gold, are Jesuit High School's blue and white and Robinson High's black and silver.

The boutique also sells bracelets and football pendants bejeweled in team colors.

• • •

Whether the merchandise will ultimately benefit schools on a larger scale remains to be seen.

Some businesses, like Pieces With Purpose, have come up with their own profit-sharing programs. The company also has created a scholarship fund at Plant.

However, high school spirit wear is largely unregulated.

Last year, the National Federation of State High School Associations launched a partnership with Licensing Resource Group, the same company that represents the financial interests of hundreds of colleges and universities.

Under the plan, wholesalers would share 10 percent of their profits with participating high schools. The Florida High School Athletic Association joined the program, and its member schools are supposed to benefit. But the program is totally voluntary for wholesalers, and some haven't heard about it.

Manatee Bay, a Largo screen- printing company, specializes in school spirit apparel and supplies shirts to Walgreens and some other retail outlets around Tampa Bay. Vice president Bob Palmiero says the company participates in the licensing program, but he couldn't be specific about which local schools benefit.

"It will get better," Palmiero said. "Everybody's intentions on this are great. They all want to see money go back to the school."

Wholesalers are supposed to send the schools' cut to the Licensing Resource Group, which then consolidates the take for a specific school and cuts a check for the total. The company says it has sent royalty checks worth $1.1 million to 6,300 schools nationwide, including 300 in Florida. But, again, an official couldn't nail down which area schools are under the agreement or track the money.

For instance, Dick Welsh, who manages the licensing program, says LRG sent Plant a royalty check. When asked how much the check totaled, Welsh told a reporter to ask the school. But a school district official said he never heard of any licensing agreement, and Plant hadn't seen any money.

And some wholesalers even question whether high schools can license their names or mascots.

Still, none of that could shake school spirit for people like Terrell Italiano, who has been selling Panther T-shirts across the street from Plant for years.

"We stay open late on Friday nights when they have home games."

Tia Mitchell can be reached at tmitchell@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

High school spirit trickles off-campus, and often so do profits 04/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 28, 2011 5:30am]

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