It's the biggest two weeks of the year for Wildcat Wearhouse, the Lexington company known for hawking all manner of University of Kentucky athletics apparel.
But some of that enthusiasm has been dampened as it has dealt with criticism of a discrimination complaint filed against Hands On Originals, a company with which it shares some common ownership and a business past.
"Our employees are pretty worried about this. Things like this can get out of control and have repercussions, and we're just kind of caught in a crossfire so to speak," said Brandon Everman, one of three co-owners of Wildcat Wearhouse and the only one who doesn't also co-own Hands On Originals.
"We just want to sell T-shirts and go after the (NCAA men's basketball) championship."
Hands On Originals has drawn ire in recent days after the Gay and Lesbian Services Organization, which organizes Lexington's annual gay pride festival in June, filed a discrimination complaint with the city's Human Rights Commission. The GLSO alleged in its complaint that Hands On Originals had submitted a bid to produce T-shirts for the event but then, upon being told it had been selected and learning more about the nature of the event, refused to fill the order "because we're a Christian organization."
The T-shirts for the GLSO event were to include a stylized number 5 on the front, with "Lexington Pride Festival" and the event's sponsors on the back.
The controversy led to stern comments from Lexington Mayor Jim Gray on Wednesday against the company's refusal, as well as a decision by the Fayette County Public Schools to hold off on new orders from Hands On Originals until the complaint is resolved. The school system has no pending orders with Hands On Originals.
At Wildcat Wearhouse, customers have been asking questions about the connections between it and Hands On Originals, Everman said.
"In the past, there has been a strong connection because there was 100 percent common ownership between Wildcat Wearhouse and Hands On Originals," he said.
As of Jan. 1, 2011, though, Everman purchased the portion of Wildcat Wearhouse that had been owned by Blaine Adamson, who is the Hands On Original employee who declined the GLSO's T-shirt order, according to the complaint.
John M. Hoetker and Douglas D. Schneider are the other co-owners of Wildcat Wearhouse and co-own Hands On Originals with Adamson, according to Everman and business filings with the Kentucky Secretary of State.
"Blaine makes all the decisions for Hands On Originals," Everman said. Hoetker and Schneider, who could not be reached for comment, "are simply investors" of Hands On Originals and "hold no active role," he added.
Their ownership role and viewpoints, though, were referenced by Adamson in a statement issued Monday in which he said Hands On Originals' actions reflected"the convictions of the ownership."
"Hands On Originals both employs and conducts business with people of all genders, races, religions, sexual preferences, and national origins," Adamson wrote. "However, due to the promotional nature of our products, it is the prerogative of the company to refuse any order that would endorse positions that conflict with the convictions of the ownership."
Adamson has since declined to return voicemails and emails seeking further comment.
Everman said Wildcat Wearhouse does not have a similar practice despite the two common owners.
"We don't produce custom goods so we wouldn't be in that place to make that decision over here," he said. "I feel, and we feel, at Wildcat Wearhouse that this is strictly a Hands On Originals situation.
"We won't discriminate against any customer who walks in the door. Everybody is just a fan to us."
Everman said he understands why Wildcat Wearhouse remains linked to Hands On Originals in the minds of some consumers.
"All of the signage and even the in-store bags have the distinctive handprint logo of Hands On Originals," he said. "We haven't done anything to get rid of the handprint."
Everman doesn't know if the company will end its use of the logo despite being separate firms, he said.
"There's brand value to that," he said. "Here in Lexington, it's meant so much."
Even employees of the two companies aren't clear on the difference. A receptionist at Hands On Originals on Monday referred to Wildcat Wearhouse as its "sister company."
"We've done a poor job internally," Everman said when asked about the comment.
There's also confusion with the company's business partners. When providing data about athletic licensing revenue from Hands On Originals, the University of Kentucky offered the combined amount of revenue from the two companies because the point of contact is the same for each.
That contact is Hoetker, one of the co-owners who Everman said had no role at Hands On Originals other than being an "investor."
"What that probably is is just a situation where they haven't updated their records," Everman said of Hands On Originals.
UK broke out what it receives in licensing fess from both companies which pay an agent called Collegiate Licensing Company. CLC paid UK $336,764.08 between July 2010 and June 2011 from Kentucky Wholesale Inc., as Wildcat Wearhouse is known in state business filings.
UK received $11,994.88 from Hands On Originals during the same time frame.
Between July 2011 and December 2011, UK has received $141,453.09 from Wildcat Wearhouse and $1,184.62 from Hands On Originals, according to university data.
An effect on sales?
Sales of UK Final Four products at Wildcat Wearhouse have seen a small decline compared to last year's Final Four run, but Everman said he attributes some of that to fans waiting to purchase a championship T-shirt.
"Last year, it had been so long since we'd been to a Final Four, and it came as such a shock that it created a frenzy," he said.
Wildcat Wearhouse has posted signs at its area stores telling customers it is not affiliated with Hands On Originals. The company has 16 stores throughout the state.
"There have been a couple of instances I have heard of that people have informed our employees they don't plan on doing business with us anymore," Everman said. "There have also been some instances of people coming in and saying it's because they're supporting Hands On.
"It's kind of crazy. From my perspective, I don't want either."