College sports fans can now buy Jell-O molds in the shape of their favorite team’s logo, pet beds modeled to look like their favorite team’s football stadium or basketball arena, and barbecue spatulas that can imprint a mascot right into a flame-broiled beef patty.
“It really does seem like colleges can slap their logos onto any product and sell it,” said Mark Francis, professor of sports business at UCLA’s Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment and Sports.
But before some of the more novel sports-themed merchandise makes its way to stores, schools have to think long and hard about which products they’re willing to tie to their brand. And product developers, especially those with limited resources, have to evaluate which markets are best to launch their merchandise.
It’s a complicated process, but it is often lucrative for all parties involved. Officially licensed college merchandise generated $4.59 billion in revenue in 2013, according to the Collegiate Licensing Company, an Atlanta-based licensing affiliate of IMG College that represents more than 200 universities.
The biggest portion of those dollars comes from apparel sales — jerseys, T-shirts, sweatshirts and other clothing bearing the university name, mascot or logo. But product lines are expanding as universities seek more revenue and as manufacturers are more aware of the buying power of college sports fans.
Lori Burens, the licensing and merchandising coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh, said she receives more than 100 requests each week for new products that seek to use the Pitt logo. At some schools, where there is no competition from other universities or professional teams in the same market, the requests are even more numerous.
“That’s a good sign when your marks are in demand,” Ms. Burens said. “But you have to be careful that the product is safe.”
For each request, Ms. Burens has to analyze the quality of the product, the marketing and sales plans, and the track record of the manufacturer before deciding whether to issue a license. Pitt works with the Collegiate Licensing Co., which gathers a lot of that information for the schools.
“We are a facilitator in the process,” Andrew Giangola, a spokesman for IMG College, said in an email. “Each school makes its own decision as to which product to license.”
The average application process lasts about two months, though some products can require much more time. And the process isn’t cheap. While a license for local market sales can cost as little as $750, those aiming to sell and market a product nationwide can face bills of more than $21,000 just to get a university’s approval.
With more novelty products on the market, that can make the school’s decision-making process more interesting.
“The market is so saturated with T-shirts, so it is nice to see people get creative and come up with new products for your brand,” Ms. Burens said. “But we have to pay close attention to what people are branding and make sure it’s a good fit for the university.”
Pitt takes a conservative approach, she said, and refrains from licensing any product tied to tobacco or alcohol.
The Jell-O molds, for instance, are the type of product that might interest Pitt, though the school has not yet been approached to license that particular item. Of course, there might be an occasional fan or two — or more — who decide to spike their Jell-O mix with an adult beverage.
Kraft Foods first launched its college football Jell-O mold line in 2013 with just four schools — Michigan, Texas, Arkansas and Florida. It announced last week the offerings have been expanded to include an additional 16 schools — though not Pitt, Penn State or West Virginia.
The mold kits, which include four packs of dyed gelatin, retail for $5.99 and are available on Amazon.com.
Hermes Risien, Jell-O Brand assistant at Kraft Foods, said in an email that the company identified those particular schools by analyzing local retail support and fan bases. That’s one reason novelty products are available for some universities and not others.
Among the schools affiliated with the Collegiate Licensing Company, Michigan, Texas, Arkansas and Florida were among the 15 highest-grossing brands during the 2013-14 academic year. Pitt was 51st, according to numbers released last week. Penn State was 18th, and West Virginia was 20th.
The University of Texas, which has been No. 1 for the past nine years, has averaged about $9 million in licensing revenue in each of the past four seasons.
That licensing haul is more than half what Robert Morris University earns for its entire athletics program. The school, based in Moon, reported $15.3 million in total athletic revenue in 2012-13, according to the Department of Education.
“It’s all about targeting the large fan bases,” said Mr. Francis, who also coaches the UCLA men’s club hockey team.
When Stadium Cribs Pet Beds launched at the end of last year, the Kansas-based company targeted the largest college sports programs in the nation to capitalize on their passionate fan bases, said company spokesman D.J. Allen.
“From a business standpoint, though it’s a great product, you want to know there’s enough of a fan base that can make it worthwhile to go into production,” Mr. Allen said. “Any time you talk about manufacturing, there are added costs.”
That means it is not very likely schools such as Robert Morris or Duquesne will experience the same type of brand proliferation. The University of Michigan boasts an alumni network of more than 535,000 former students. Robert Morris’ alumni base is 40,000, according to the university.
The company does offer stadium- or arena-themed pet beds for Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia. The beds are available at StadiumCribs.com for $59.99 to $79.99, depending on the size of the pup.
As the college sports season gets underway again at the end of this month, the intensity of marketing efforts for all types of university-related merchandise will pick up. Though some products — lip balm, grill covers, garden gnomes, ice trays, baking pans — make it seem that schools will sell anything, they actually spent a lot of time approving each of those items.
“It might not seem like it, but there is a lot of consideration given to items sold,” Mr. Francis said. “Schools have spent too much money establishing those brands to have them soiled by a bad decision.”
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.