Frenzy on for Kentucky Wildcats Final Four memorabilia

For UK merchandisers, business is very good

jpatton1@herald-leader.comMarch 29, 2011 

That Big Blue SEC championship T-shirt is sooo two weeks ago.

Now, the must-have for Wildcat fans is "the locker room shirt," as in the one University of Kentucky players were wearing Sunday night in Newark. N.J., while schmoozing with music mogul Jay-Z, after winning the school's first Final Four berth since 1998.

Within 15 minutes of the game ending, Kennedy Book Store had the shirt, the hat and about a dozen other items up on its Web site, Kennedys.com, assistant manager Chris Lawrence said. By 8 a.m. Monday, there were more than 200 orders waiting to be filled.

"It's been 13 years since we went to a Final Four, so I think people are hungry," Lawrence said Monday. "If you sell it, they will come. ... It's been steady all day both in the store and online."

Most stores placed their T-shirt orders with vendors months ago.

With Kentucky's somewhat surprising run at the national championship, a lot of faith and guesswork was involved.

"We've got significant quantities of everything on the Web site," Lawrence said.

Larry Lambert, president of JCS Enterprises, the parent company of Kentucky Korner (Kentuckykorneronline.com), said Monday morning that shirts, including that one, were arriving that afternoon after being printed overnight in Kansas.

"I suspect we're scrambling just like everybody else," Lambert said. "Demand is going to be very high."

He said that sales of Wildcat merchandise began to pick up last Saturday, after Kentucky made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. "I suspect this is going to be a big week," he said.

Wildcat Wearhouse (Wildcatwearhouse.com), which is owned by the same three guys who own Hands On Originals, began printing 5,000 shirts Sunday. They worked through the night, stopping at 5 a.m. to box and load shirts into any vehicle with wheels so they could get them to stores across the state.

"Those are already distributed and gone," said Doug Schneider, a co-owner. An additional 13,000 shirts, printed elsewhere, were on their way.

At that pace, sales will top those after the 1998 national championship, when the company sold about 13,000 shirts.

And those sales will mean additional money for the university, which gets a 10 percent royalty off every shirt that Hands On/Wildcat Wearhouse makes and sells.

By Monday afternoon, stores in Somerset, Owensboro, Hazard and Pikeville were down to selling the banners off the walls. Customers wanted anything with the words "Final Four" and "Kentucky" on it, Schneider said.

"We've turned down wholesale customers all day today, asking for hundreds of shirts," he said. "We're printing as fast as we can."

Part of the frenzy, Schneider said, is because this is "unexpected."

After UK's last-second victory over Ohio State late Friday night, Schneider and his partners went into overdrive to figure out their game plan.

"It took a lot of Red Bull and coffee," he said.

This weekend, there will be 120,000 blank shirts sitting out back in trucks, waiting — just in case — the Cats make it to Monday's championship game.

If that happens, the printing crew will be on standby. The three owners will be somewhere else.

"None of us can be in a room together watching (the game)," Schneider said. One partner walks the UK campus, oblivious to results until after the game; another watches every second. Schneider will tune in for two minutes, turn the game off, and then check back after halftime.

A big margin on Monday would be helpful.

"We'll make the call, depending on how the team's playing," he said. "Within five minutes of victory, it will be like a circus."

Reach Janet Patton at (859) 231-3264, or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3264.

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