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.