Big game boosts money, reputation

More than pride is on the line as the Georgia Bulldogs play Saturday for a chance at their first national title in 32 years. A win over Alabama, and then in the BCS championship in January, could trigger a windfall of both cash and cachet for the University of Georgia.

The SEC championship game alone will generate extra revenue for the school in the form of royalties from the sale of merchandise including shirts and hats that bear UGA logos. But that will be small change compared to the payoff if the Bulldogs were to win the BCS title.

A national championship could yield an additional $1 million a year or more in royalties, which UGA would split 50-50 between athletic and academic purposes. Beyond that, university officials and sports marketing experts say, a national championship would raise the school’s profile, energize its brand and boost its prestige.

Some even suggest it could spark an increase in the quality of applications and the amount of alumni contributions, though skeptics downplay parallels between football prowess and academic distinction.

Georgia takes in about $4.5 to $5 million a year in merchandise royalties now, said Alan Thomas, UGA associate athletic director, making it a consistent top 10 royalty earner among colleges. A 20 percent increase after a BCS title would not be unreasonable, and may even be conservative. Auburn University’s royalties doubled to more than $5 million when its team won the national championship two years ago.

“There’s so much exposure that you get (winning a title) that you become a national brand,” Thomas said. “There would be a cool factor that would go with being associated with Georgia, whether you’re a diehard alum or a casual fan. It would be the ‘it’ brand.”

UGA president Michael Adams said he is “excited about the national visibility we are getting” from the school’s football success, but he called any financial impact “minimal.”

Still, whatever additional money is generated will come in handy.

UGA’s athletics department uses its half of merchandise royalty revenue for purposes including athletic scholarships and facilities.

The University of Georgia Foundation gets the other half. It funds scholarships, alumni operations and fundraising, among other needs, but not buildings. In recent years, the foundation has taken in gifts and pledges of just over $100 million annually. Royalties comprise a small but important part of that total because they are unrestricted funds, so they don’t have to be used for a specific purpose.

Beyond royalties, Tom Landrum, senior vice president for external affairs at UGA, said, “If you have a national championship team, you’re going to get wonderful nationwide exposure which will help you in any number of ways.”

Whether better quality student applications or more alumni donations are among those ways is debated.

Those who believe in an athletic halo effect point to examples such as Georgetown University, whose profile grew dramatically when it won basketball championships in the 1980s.

But Cornell economics professor Robert Frank argued in a study that success in big-time college sports does not significantly increase the quality of student applications or the amount of alumni donations.

Landrum said a confluence of improved academics, facilities, programs and athletics raise a university’s image.

Shortly after 1980, when Georgia won its only national football title, the school completed a highly successful capital campaign. Was it the Herschel Walker factor?

Landrum said there was more to it.

“I would say it was a culmination of an institution on the rise in academics, and in demand, and the maturing of our donor base,” Landrum said. “And, yes, we had a great football team that year.”

Sports marketing analyst David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, said there is some correlation.

The glow of a championship season can attract students who might not otherwise have considered a school, he said, including some top-notch students who elevate the institution.

A championship can woo potential contributors, too, he said.

“Sports can be a very powerful backdrop to raise money,” Carter said, noting that some contributors, basking in the football team’s success, might give to the engineering school, not athletics.

“When there’s a strong buzz, it provides platforms for other schools on campus to take advantage of,” Carter said.

UGA would not be alone in benefiting financially from a national title. Its roughly 600 licensees, who are authorized to sell logo items, also would stand to gain sales.

Stuart Cohen, owner of Southland Graphics Apparel, a Cumming licensee, said that while, “The BCS will be even bigger, no question,” the SEC Championship already has offered a chance to cash in.

Cohen is supplying vendors camped out downtown with shirts and other merchandise. “I’ve got vendors calling me from all over the country,” he said, “and they want product.”

Cohen also sells to sporting goods stores in small towns across Georgia,”and their business is brisk.”

The lure of quick profits also draws another group: counterfeiters selling unlicensed products outside the Georgia Dome.

Jim Aronowitz, associate general counsel for the Atlanta-based Collegiate Licensing Company, which represents schools in trademark licensing matters, said the firm will have several enforcement teams working the area around the stadium.

“There may well be some entrepreneurs trying to make a quick buck selling counterfeit product,” he said. “We will frequently see vendors selling out of a van or vehicle, or on foot selling out of bags.”

Shirts and hats are the most-frequently counterfeited items, he said. Fans can distinguish an officially licensed CLC product by its quality and its hologram label, the company said.

Besides quality, fans have another good reason to buy official merchandise, he said: the revenue goes back to the school in the form of those royalties.

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Staff writer Laura Diamond contributed to this article.