The foul ball hung precariously in the air.
As three Razorbacks sprinted to the first base line to nab it, University of Arkansas fans across the nation held their breath. A catch, here in Game 2 of the College World Series, meant the first national title in program history.
Companies like Image One in Little Rock had prepared for this moment for months. The plan was set, said vice president Kyle Luttrell. Already 200 Arkansas national championship shirts were printed and ready for big box retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Hibbett Sports and Academy Sports+Outdoors. That was only about 5% of the thousands of projected shirts in the first wave to be hustled out to stores.
An hour after Arkansas won, Image One’s entire production team would have reported to work, Luttrell said. They would start printing a variety of Arkansas national championship shirts — with up to 20 designs in all. These were among the latest of the extra 700 to 800 Razorback merchandise designs approved in June by Michael Harris, the UA’s director of trademark licensing and revenue generation.
Transport personnel would start picking up at 3 a.m., Luttrell said. They would fan out across the state to big box retailers, Razorback gear stores and other retailers. Arkansas would be even more awash in cardinal red than usual.
Of course, that foul ball wasn’t caught. A revived Oregon State surged ahead to win Game 2, then took Game 3 to win the national title. Arkansas walked off TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., as national runners-up, tying the best finish in program history.
But getting so close made the loss all the more heartbreaking for fans. Still, there is a silver lining: The 2018 Razorback national championship shirts printed by Image One and other companies won’t go to waste. They will be donated to developing countries instead.
This sort of thing has happened in each major team sport, at almost every level, for decades. Donating companies get to classify the exported merchandise as a tax write-off. A single charity organization handles distribution of excess NFL merchandise, but high school and college merchandise is handled by multiple churches and philanthropic organizations.
They take runner-up championship shirts to poor nations in Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia. They also take misprints — which are an inevitable part of screen printing — as well as the overruns made to offset the anticipated misprints.
Arkansas-related shirts can float up in the most unlikely of places. Such as Uganda. Luttrell recalls kayaking on the Nile River there and coming across a native boy wearing a T-shirt of the Pulaski Academy Bruins, a private school in Little Rock.
“I was totally surprised,” he said.
Turns out, the overrun shirt was part of a batch missionaries had taken to the Uganda orphanage where the boy lived.
LICENSE TO PRINT
Image One is one of a few companies nationwide licensed to print national championship merchandise for different college programs. That means they can print shirts including the college’s name and the phrases “NCAA champions” or “NCAA national champions” (or, in select cases, “champs”). According to the NCAA, licensees pay a royalty rate of 14% to the UA on Hog baseball merchandise.
Fewer companies are licensed to print shirts with the official NCAA logo and logos involving major events like the College World Series and college basketball’s March Madness and Final Four. Harris said they include Nike, Blue 84, Champion, Gear For Sports and Russell Brands.
Football merchandise is the most popular and makes the most money. Image One printed tens of thousands of shirts for both Alabama and Georgia ahead of this year’s College Football Playoff national championship. Those programs regularly rank in the Top 10 in merchandise sales. Arkansas nationally ranks No. 16, according to Luttrell. That’s still high considering the state’s relatively small population and a football team that hasn’t won more than eight games in a year since 2011.
“It comes down to the passionate fan base we have,” Harris said. “Our fans really make a statement.”
Companies like Image One cater to the fans of the eight teams that reach the College World Series with unique designs. So long as consent is given, a shirt involving the likeness, name or saying of a coach could be included in the design. In December 2017, for instance, the UA bookstore began selling a “Hammer Down” shirt. It referenced new football coach Chad Morris’ press conference promise of playing at a faster tempo: “We’re going to put it in the left lane, pop the clutch and put the hammer down.”
While it appears no 2018 season design alluded to Razorback baseball coach Dave Van Horn, one bootleg design referenced infielder Carson Shaddy, then a senior for the Hogs. ESPN cameras caught fans in Omaha wearing a “Who’s Your Shaddy?” shirt, a product based on a meme the official Razorback baseball Twitter account broadcast at least once. NCAA regulations, however, forbid commercializing student-athletes’ names through merchandise. Such a design could not be officially licensed.
Images of the shirts to be donated are kept under wraps. Image One has signed non-disclosure agreements forbidding it from publicly releasing images of the 2018 Razorback national championship shirts among others, Luttrell said. The idea of “alternative universe” champs could dilute the brands of the losing and winning teams, as well as the NCAA overall. It’s likely such images could also help prove there’s a market for that kind of merchandise.
In 2016, such a concern inspired Major League Baseball leaders to decide all gear celebrating the 2016 Cleveland Indians World Series title — which never happened — would be destroyed, not donated as usual. Its reason: “to protect [the Indians] from inaccurate merchandise being made available in the general marketplace,” according to the Associated Press.
That change lasted only a year, though.
So, in both college and the pros, gear of World Series champions who never were still goes toward a worthy cause.