Lifelong Michigan State football fans Brian McDonald and Pat Kelly were so thrilled when the Spartans beat archrival Michigan in 2008 after a six-year drought that they wanted to commemorate the victory by buying their own Paul Bunyan Trophy.
One problem: No replica of the trophy, which has been claimed by the winning team since 1953, was for sale. The vast retail landscape of thousands of licensed products didn't include official copies of the famous rivalry trophies.
McDonald and Kelly, friends since meeting as part of a fantasy football league in 2004, decided there was a niche to be filled, so they launched Rivalry Trophy LLC to produce licensed hard plastic resin replicas of the Big Ten's famous college football trophies.
They feel they're poised for serious growth. Sales last year were about $350,000. The price point they try to stay beneath is $100 for the large trophies, and under $20 for miniature replicas. A full-sized replica Little Brown Jug retails for $200.
Besides hardcore fans, the trophies are often bought for wedding parties — especially if the bride and groom attended rival schools, said McDonald, who is the company's president. They're also common gifts at Father's Day, graduations and bachelor parties, he said. Companies have bought them for offices split over school loyalties.
Ironically, a major customer has been Jim Harbaugh and the University of Michigan football program.
"Our football staff, including Coach Harbaugh, thought that the replicas of the Little Brown Jug and Paul Bunyan Trophy would be a great keepsake for our players and staff. They presented those as holiday gifts during his first two seasons," David Ablauf, UM associate athletic director, said via email.
Rivalry Trophy replicas were part of Michigan State's player "swag" gift bags for playing in the 2013 Rose Bowl game.
The company's Paul Bunyan Trophy replica leads all sales, McDonald said, followed closely by the "Floyd of Rosedale" pig trophy for the winner of the Iowa-Minnesota game. Third is the Little Brown Jug that's kept by the victor in the Michigan-Minnesota game.
"We usually see a spike in the neighborhood of 50 to 100 trophies in the next day or so," McDonald said. "We target happy fans because they are the ones that are going to purchase trophies. Once the game is over, we focus on the winning team. Someone is always going to win."
October-December is their busiest sales period because that's the heart of college football rivalry game season, and that coincides with the holidays. The company makes and sells thousands of Christmas ornament-sized trophy replicas, as well, McDonald said.
The trophies are sold in a few brick-and-mortar stores such as Michigan MDen and Michigan State's campus bookstore.
McDonald, 43, and Kelly, 50, needed help to get to this point. Creating and licensing a retail product wasn't among their skills, so they studied up, met with the appropriate officials at different schools to get them interested, and got help from Plano, Texas-based college sports licensing giant Learfield Communications LLC.
McDonald credits Learfield with the company's early success.
The company submits its sales data and a lump sum payment to the Big Ten every quarter, and the conference pays royalties to each school represented by trophies, McDonald said.
"Standard licensing is between 12 and 15 percent, with the royalties split equally between schools," he said.
The licensing process involved one-on-one talks with the schools and conference, McDonald said. The athletic departments were helpful in providing hundreds of photos of the trophies, and those pictures were used to create prototype replicas by the China-based manufacturer. Each participating university got models to inspect and sign off on before they went into production, McDonald said. The universities own the rights to the trophy likenesses.
The trophies are as detailed as they can make them, and the quality helped convince the Big Ten and the schools to grant them licenses — an often long, complex process for anyone that wants to sell retail souvenirs.
One licensing industry insider said McDonald and Kelly are a bit unusual because they successfully navigated a licensing process that's normally (but not always) a pipeline reserved for bigger brands.
"(Licenses) are issued to companies that have significant wherewithal, that are more financially sound, established, with distribution networks. So these guys are outliers," said Pete Canalichio, CEO of Atlanta-based Licensing Brands Inc., which has counted Coca-Cola, Major League Baseball and the U.S. Olympic Committee among its clients.
He also praised the Big Ten and the universities for identifying a good product to license: "To the credit of the universities, they saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of something that wasn't being exploited at the time," Canalichio said.
The college licensed retail product industry is estimated at $4.6 billion, according to Atlanta-based Collegiate Licensing Co., which represents about 200 schools, bowl games and athletic conferences.
The process for Rivalry Trophy still took months — years, in some cases. Sales began in earnest in 2011.
"We try to make them as authentic as we possibly can," McDonald said. "You can't recreate a hundred years of tradition of the thing getting passed back and forth."
They ended up going with a cleaner replica. The standard model is $98.
Other famous replicas among the current inventory of 11 trophies available are the Old Brass Spittoon (Indiana-Michigan State) and the Illibuck (Ohio State-Illinois).
There are some Big Ten trophies they've yet to license, including the enormous bookcase-like Land Grant Trophy for the Michigan State-Penn State winner, the Land of Lincoln Trophy that in 2009 replaced the old Sweet Sioux Tomahawk for the Illinois–Northwestern victor, and the recent Twitter-created and very unofficial "$5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy" that goes to the winner of the Minnesota–Nebraska games.
Those could happen in the future, McDonald said.
They plan to add more schools and conferences, such as the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC. Expansion is limited because there are only so many trophies and they are most common in the Big Ten, but there are some prominent trophy games elsewhere, such as the Stanford Axe that's been a trophy for the winner of the Stanford-Cal game since 1933.
"There's just not the passion elsewhere that exists in the Big Ten," McDonald said.
As the company does add more replica trophies to its product lineup, it's also expanding its sales reach by using Amazon.com. However, using the e-commerce giant to scale up sales is a Catch-22, according to McDonald.
For starters, they're reluctant to give up control and the ability to interact with customer that they get from direct sales. He said they've built good relationships because clients talk directly with them about sales or problems, and that's created goodwill they may lose with third-party online sales. That can be lost by using Amazon sales.
"We pride ourselves on customer service. We like the direct connection we have with customers and don't want to lose that," he said.
"It's become the world marketplace," McDonald said. Their plan is to sell just the ornament mini-size trophies in time for Christmas, rolling them out in the coming weeks, he said.
Also, it's simply too expensive to deal with long-distance shipping in-house, he added. Shipping to the western U.S. can add $30 in costs.
"That's difficult to absorb or pass on to customers," McDonald said.
As a small retailer, there are wider issues far out of their control. Because the replica trophies are manufactured overseas, McDonald and Kelly have been keeping an eye on the Trump administration's trade wars, which have not yet affected their business but remain a worry.
"We are in the process of making another order, and there is some uncertainty. It's definitely a concern moving forward," McDonald said. He added that they looked into a domestically produced version of the Floyd of Rosedale trophy, and the cheapest they could get it produced and realistically sold to consumers for a small profit was $498. Still, they're seeking North American manufacturing options.
"We get immediate results. Social is measurable. The ability to target and re-target potential customers is insane," he said. "We know who is likely to make a purchase."
The success so far has McDonald and Kelly thinking about expansion into other products related to the trophies.
Article written by Bill Shea
Crain's Detroit Business