I’m in Washington, D.C. for meetings, staying in the old part of town between the Capitol and the White House. Last night I had dinner with a colleague.
When my friend reached out to me last week to make arrangements for meeting for dinner, he carefully raised two issues: first, did I like steak, and second, if I did like steak, would I mind going to the steakhouse in the Trump International Hotel, which is located in the Old Post Office building that is very close to my hotel?
I chuckled a bit at the cautious way in which my colleague approached even the possibility of eating dinner at a restaurant in a Trump property. Clearly, he was wary that even though the venue was very convenient and the restaurant had a good reputation, just making such a suggestion might bring an explosion and denunciation in response to the very thought of passing under the Trump name. And his careful approach was entirely justified, because there is no doubt that a significant segment of the American population has sworn off ever doing anything that involves setting foot on the premises of a Trump property or that might be viewed as acceptance or support of the Trump brand. Me? I like steak and especially like being able to walk to a convenient dining venue, so I agreed to have dinner at the Trump International steakhouse — which was very good, by the way.
Still, I found the incident pretty remarkable. I’m not familiar with the value of the Trump brand prior to his run for the presidency, but it seems pretty clear that it has been affected, and not in a good way, by Trump’s behavior on the campaign trail and as President — to the point where even mentioning the possibility of visiting a Trump property for dinner is a subject to be approached with delicacy and trepidation lest sensibilities be bruised and personal relationships be shattered.
That’s not exactly a good attribute for a brand.
Recently the University of Michigan announced its operating budget for 2018. Normally a red-blooded Buckeye wouldn’t pay attention to anything having to do with That School Up North, but in this case we’ll make an exception, because the operating budget included information about how much money TSUN expects to receive from the Big Ten as its conference revenue distribution next year.
And the projected revenue number (drum roll, please) is: $51.1 million. That $51.1 million in expected revenue distribution will go not only to the despised Maize and Blue, but also to the good guys in Scarlet and Gray and all of the other schools in the 14-member Big Ten Conference. Do the math, and you will quickly determine that the Big Ten will be dishing out more than $700 million to the schools that are lucky enough to be part of the Old Conference in 2018. Say, do you think the school administrators and athletic directors at Rutgers and Maryland are happy about their decision to join the Big Ten back in 2014?
The story linked above says the big driver of the Big Ten’s enormous projected 2018 distribution is TV revenue. The Big Ten’s TV deal is expected to produce $2.6 billion in revenue over six years, generating lots of money to dole out to Big Ten members. The Conference has been pretty far-sighted in maximizing its TV revenue, having created its own network before other conferences did and driving a hard bargain in its negotiations with networks. The Big Ten has two aces in the hole that give it incredible leverage: huge schools with lots of graduates and supporters who are spread out around the country, are passionate about sports (primarily football), and want to watch their team play every weekend during the fall, and a conference that now stretches from Nebraska all the way east to New Jersey and Maryland, covering many of the biggest media markets in the country.
The $51.1 million in projected Big Ten revenue for 2018 is just each member school’s share of the Big Ten’s common revenue. The powerhouse schools like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State also generate lots of cash from their individual merchandising, licensing and “partnering” deals. Those schools know that their fans want to wear their school’s gear and put up school merchandise in their dens and family rooms and “man caves,” and they’ve got prized brands that also contribute lots of dough to the bottom line. We’ve reached the point where educational institutions have developed, and now own, some of the most valuable brands, logos, and mascots in U.S. commerce.
In the largely midwestern footprint of the Big Ten, football is a cash cow that produces lots of moola. The Big Ten Conference and its member schools are milking that cow for all it’s worth.
The Urban Outfitters/Kent State sweatshirt controversy seems unbelievable to me — but maybe I just don’t realize how little companies know about the schools whose names get put on the front of products those companies sell.
In case you missed it, Urban Outfitters was offering a faux vintage Kent State sweatshirt that was daubed in red paint smears and splots. Of course, anyone who knows anything about Kent State and its history would immediately think that the sweatshirt was referring to the shootings that killed four Kent State students and wounded others on May 4, 1970. Not surprisingly, people were outraged by what seemed like a sick effort to profit from a terrible American tragedy.
Urban Outfitters claims, however, that it “was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such.” Which is worse: trading on a tragedy, or being so obtuse and insensitive that you don’t recognize that a red-spattered Kent State shirt would inevitably be thought to allude to the May 4 shootings? It’s a close question in my view.
Urban Outfitters is one of those stores that tries to portray the most hip image possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if the people who designed the offending sweatshirt had never heard of the Kent State shootings. If you treat everything as just another “brand” and make no effort to understand an institution or its back story, this kind of embarrassment inevitably is going to happen. Urban Outfitters should be ashamed.