Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Value Of A T-Shirt

One of the most prominent features of any big-time college town is university apparel. No matter where your eye lands, you are very likely to see a person donning the school colors in some way, shape, or form. As a result of this phenomenon, we often say that these universities have incredibly high levels of spirit and tradition. After all, if you visit Ann Arbor and all you see is maize and blue, the rational assumption would be that people in this particular city must love the University of Michigan. The same could be said of any town with a major university within its boundaries.

Much of this spirit is generated from a university's sports teams. After all, when we think of the best college towns, typically the schools in those towns also field major sports programs, particularly in football and basketball. Consequently, visit any of those towns and you will certainly find there is no shortage of "University Name" t-shirts there; in fact, you may feel bombarded by all of the logos and same-colored apparel walking your way. The common argument for this is that there is a certain pride that one feels when sporting university colors, even if everyone else is doing it as well.

While I acknowledge that spirit is a big factor in this apparel equation, I do believe there are other reasons why the major schools have such higher levels of outfitting participation than your average commuter school in a suburban community. The main reason simply comes down to availability of the garments in question. Aside from the university bookstore, students and others at major schools can find university apparel at any number of stores. Typically, a single college town will have small mom and pop stores that sell discounted t-shirts, a separate bookstore with no ties to the school that can sell at cheaper rates, and major retailers (such as Target, K-Mart, Meijer, etc) that will carry boatloads of college merchandise at a bargain. Naturally, the likelihood that one will be able to find a value piece of university apparel is quite high; therefore, not only are the students sufficiently swagged, but parents can afford to take a t-shirt or two to back to the hometown to proudly support their child's academic endeavor. This discussion doesn't even account for the tons of people with no connection to the school who purchase these items because they are a fan of the football or basketball team, usually based on nothing but geography or family-rooting traditions. In sum, it's relatively simple and inexpensive for people to "get their gear on."

At Oakland University, there is no such luxury. Some retailers in and immediately around Rochester have started to stock a limited selection of OU apparel in recent years, but the choices are truly limited. Students and others are then left to purchase their clothing at the university bookstore, where prices are considerably high. The Textbook Outlet across from the campus offers some apparel, but it's prices are in the same vein as the on-campus shop. While Oakland does have a tendency to give away many free t-shirts every year, this tactic is just a small drop in a bucket, especially when one considers the high incidence of "wearing other schools clothing" that occurs on the Oakland campus. Once more apparel is available to students at discounted rates, perhaps parents and family friends will then be more likely to pitch in as well. Black and gold are glorious colors.

I'm not a marketing expert, nor do I have a depth of knowledge on how universities go about licensing their products to others. I imagine most fans are in the same boat, which prompts the question, "What can I, the average fan, do to help out in this regard?" For starters, we can raise the question to the appropriate folks. Next time you go into a Meijer or Target, ask them why there isn't an Oakland Golden Grizzlies section next to the Wolverine and Spartan gear. It should start out in the most important counties, Oakland and Macomb, and then extend to others. For example, I was shopping recently at a mall in Genesee County when I went into a college sports store that was mostly painted with green/white and maize/blue. However, the store did have a rack or two dedicated to some of the state's other schools, most notably Western and Central Michigan as well as Saginaw Valley State and Grand Valley State. Oakland was missing, despite being less than an hour's drive from this location. I casually brought up the lack of Golden Grizzlies goods to the store manager, who was kind in replying that their stock of merchandise is always changing so they could have Oakland in the future. On a return visit a month later, the store had a few Oakland U items on the discount rack with t-shirts ranging from $4.99 to $9.99. While I'll never be sure exactly how they got there, I'm glad I at least posed the question on my first visit.

These are the kinds of small steps the university needs to make if it's to plant itself firmly in the region and outside of it. We've written before about the need to develop lifelong Oakland U fans out of current students, and a big part of feeling that connection is to actually make it a part of oneself via clothing. In twenty years, that ratty OU shirt you use for pick-up games or to lounge around in might bring back fond memories of the glory days in Rochester. Or even more immediately, if a dad or mom or grandparent wears a shirt or hoody back at home, it may prompt them to become more involved with the university, even if by simply attending a home basketball game. Whatever the case, the value of a simple t-shirt extends far beyond the price tag. But in today's reality, the price tag does matter, especially for the cash-strapped student, and it'd become a lot easier for students to show their affection for Oakland if the merchandise were more widely available. Rochester may never be a bustling college town, but there's no reason it can't overflow with the same sense of university pride and spirit as the traditional powers.


  1. Well said, my man. That's awesome that a store an hour from OU is carrying their merchandise. Hell, there are stores barely a stone's throw from campus who hardly acknowledge that OU is there. I will definitely jump on the call to raise awareness.

  2. Historically, the issue has been with the administration. OU has been very protective of its copyright so they never allowed local merchants to carry or reproduce their logo. I know Dunhams carries some stuff now and am glad to hear there are a few more places out there. If I remember correctly, the former AD Jack Mehl was a firm believer in protecting the copyright, but for a newer product, I always felt OU should be generous with their logo to gain some local publicity and support rather than try to hang on to a few dollars in merchandise revenue.

  3. Tom,

    Thanks for the insightful comment. There was definitely some history there that I was not aware of. I agree it would be nice to see the OU brand extend beyond Squirrel and Walton.