Buckeye retailers hoping football championship will save their season

Patrick Cooley
The Columbus Dispatch
Amy Flanagan, of Grove City, looks through Ohio State merchandise Friday at College Traditions on Lane Avenue. A Buckeyes' win in the national championship game would be a big boost for retailers whose sales have suffered mightily during this most unusual football season.

College Traditions owner Kelly Dawes will cheer for Ohio State’s football team in Monday night’s national championship game not just as a fan, but as an entrepreneur.

Up until the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day, which the Buckeyes won to qualify for the title game, sales at her University District apparel store were down by roughly half compared with the previous year.

“But once we clinched that win, people just went crazy,” she said.

Sales related to the Sugar Bowl win over Clemson gave the Lane Avenue shop a huge boost, and Dawes hopes a win on Monday will offset the dismal 2020 football season.

“I’m pretty much done with my national championship bookings, those had to be done weeks ahead of time,” she said. “We want to be sure we have merchandise in here beginning Tuesday.”

Few retailers were untouched by the coronavirus pandemic, which benefited big sellers like Amazon and Walmart, but devastated small businesses. Stores like College Traditions that focus on Buckeye-themed athletic apparel were also impacted by an unusually short football season, with many losing as much as half of their sales as football fans stayed home and games were canceled.

Ohio State's Sugar Bowl victory over Clemson helped boost sales at College Traditions.

The Big Ten's truncated season resulted in the elimination of the nonconference schedule. Then the conference canceled the entire season before changing its mind and agreeing to play, but only against Big Ten opponents.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride,” Dawes said. “We’re going to have a season, then we’re not. When (fans) thought we were going to play, we saw people trickling in, but it’s been consistently flat.”

Three more Ohio State games were canceled over concerns about infections, including the annual contest against Michigan, which typically brings thousands of rabid Buckeyes fans to Columbus, where they buy drinks from bars, meals from restaurants and jerseys from stores like College Traditions.

In all, Ohio State’s football team played only six games prior to the Sugar Bowl, half a typical regular season. To make matters worse for apparel stores, fans were not allowed to attend games at Ohio Stadium.

“We’ve definitely seen an impact (from coronavirus restrictions), but I wouldn't say it's due to the lack of games being played, but more the fact that no fans are in the stands,” said Benjamin Cohen, director of marketing for Conrad’s College Gifts in Easton Town Center.

Other stores reported sales figures similar to that of College Traditions.

“We definitely saw an uptick in sales after the (Sugar Bowl), and that continued into the next few days,” Cohen said. “If we win Monday, we expect that to carry into February or March. If we lose, things will go back to normal until March Madness.”

Sales at Buckeye Corner, which is owned by the athletic apparel company Lids and has multiple central Ohio locations, were also down by roughly half in 2020 compared to 2019, a spokesperson said.

But after Ohio State's Sugar Bowl win, things changed. Between Dec. 27 and Jan. 5, sales at Buckeye Corner stores went from down 50% compared to the previous year, to up 7% compared with the previous year, the spokesperson said.

The company is confident Ohio State football fans will go on a spending binge if their team is crowned the champion Monday night. In the event of a Buckeyes victory in the title game, several central Ohio Buckeye Corner stores will open an hour earlier (at 10 a.m.) Tuesday.

Ohio State Buckeyes T-shirts are displayed Friday at College Traditions on Lane Avenue.

The Buckeye Room in Dublin expects to see a boost even before Ohio State takes the field against Alabama for the championship game.

“In the next few days, we’ll probably have a huge uptick in sales of Buckeyes gear,” Assistant Manager Jared Saleski said. “We’re already getting a lot of questions about the championship gear.”