Penn State merchandise sales slip in hard year

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HARRISBURG -- If you bought a new Penn State T-shirt, sweatshirt or hat this year, you've passed the loyalty test.

The Nittany Lions football team and head coach Bill O'Brien have overcome tremendous adversity in their just-ended season.

They have endured the fallout from Jerry Sandusky's arrest and conviction for child sex crimes, the death of Joe Paterno and the ongoing debate over his legacy, and the NCAA's four-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions.

While Penn State's football team has enjoyed a winning season on the field, merchandise sales haven't rebounded.

In the first quarter of the 2011-12 fiscal year (July through September), Penn State ranked 12th among all major universities in royalty payments derived from sales of clothing and other products bearing licensed logos, according to the Collegiate Licensing Co. It reflected a consistently strong showing for a team that hasn't been in the national championship picture for several years, and it was also the last full quarter before Sandusky's arrest.

This year, for the same quarter, Penn State slipped to 20th, right behind much smaller West Virginia University (18) and Texas A&M (19).

"That's typically a pretty good gauge on the enthusiasm of the fan following," said Mike Smith, a reporter for Sports Business Daily.

Schools usually soar up the charts during or after a national title-contending season, Mr. Smith said. Drops are usually far more gradual. So for Penn State, it's been a precipitous fall, and it's left empty space in cash registers across Central Pennsylvania.

State College merchant Steve Moyer believes sales have held up pretty well among the tried-and-true Penn State backers: the students who are in Happy Valley or a branch campus, or the alums who have ponied up hundreds of dollars for season tickets.

At Mr. Moyer's store, Lions Pride on College Avenue, sales on game weekends have been solid. And he expects that when all is said and done this year, the store across the lawn from Old Main will be very close to 2010 results.

But his store's online sales are down about 20 percent, so Mr. Moyer thinks there is a real enthusiasm gap in what he calls the "fringe fans," the people who follow the team primarily by TV or who maybe were really devoted to Paterno and have lost that tie.

Penn State has always been No. 1 in terms of college sellers at Bleacher Bums, a sports apparel store with three midstate locations. But Dave Sklar, owner of Bleacher Bums, said that after watching Penn State sales tank in the months after Sandusky's arrest, he did see some of the faithful rally around the team and Mr. O'Brien this year.

"We saw fans come back out to support the team," Mr. Sklar said.

Through the season, Mr. Sklar saw a little surge in pre-season support for the team and its new coach, then a drop after the season-opening losses. Business picked up again as the midseason win streak progressed, leading to a spike in activity leading up to the Ohio State "white-out."

"People were big-time up for that game," he said.

But many said it's hard to tell when the Penn State brand will be back to full strength.

With a four-year bowl ban and recruiting limits just starting, many experts think the Nittany Lions are more likely to retreat to the second-tier of the Big Ten for a time.

In State College, most of the merchants have weathered downtimes before. So they expect to be around for the comeback.

"Four years will go like that," Mr. Moyer said. "Bill O'Brien is a heck of a coach, so I don't see any slowdown here."

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