Demand for Duke lacrosse gear soars

Updated: April 19, 2006, 4:55 PM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

In the wake of publicity generated by the sexual assault scandal surrounding the Duke men's lacrosse team, sales of merchandise bearing the "Duke lacrosse" name and logo have skyrocketed.

"Historically, lacrosse has been one of our three or four best-selling sports," said Tom Craig, general manager of retail stores at the Durham, N.C., school. "But over the last month, sales have increased to three or four times our normal rate."

Despite the cancellation of the team's season April 5 -- or perhaps because of it -- the campus stores have experienced a run on merchandise related to Duke lacrosse, and therefore have continued to carry it. Developments in the case include the Tuesday arrest of two of the players.

"We just had to keep up with the demand," Craig said. "There are a couple outstanding orders that we are waiting on; but as of now, we are in great shape in terms of inventory online and at the stores."

Among the available items are hats, T-shirts and replica jerseys, which arrived only recently but were ordered in January, according to Craig.

Craig said the items are generic in that they aren't identified as men's or women's lacrosse, so there was never a discussion with university officials about the possibility of stopping sales after news of the scandal broke. Duke's women's lacrosse team is ranked No. 1 in the country.

"I don't think we're taking advantage of the situation," Craig said.

Repeated calls to the school's news and communications office were not returned.

But crisis management executive Mike Paul said he believes there's an equal chance that the school will continue to allow the sale of lacrosse merchandise as that it will cut off sales. Craig said bookstores at Duke are institutionally owned and operated.

"The dilemma here hinges on the fact that there is still a very good women's team playing," said Paul, president of MGP & Associates PR.

Although the merchandise remains available at campus stores, one national retailer, Dick's Sporting Goods, has pulled all Duke lacrosse merchandise from the shelves in its five stores in the Raleigh-Durham area.

"The reasons we stopped selling the gear are very straightforward," said Jeff Hennion, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the company, which has more than 200 stores nationwide. "It is highly controversial in the Raleigh-Durham area. Having that type of product out in front of our customers seemed to be a lightning rod. And secondly, we had customers who saw it out in the store and complained about it."

Hennion said that area stores in the Dick's chain had stocked only a small amount of Duke lacrosse gear and that sales of Duke lacrosse merchandise made up less than 1 percent of the revenue grossed in those stores.

"This is not about us judging who is right and who is wrong. It's just such a tiny part of our business that we just wanted to avoid the issue," Hennion said. "We spend millions of dollars every year towards local programs in our areas to prove that we want to be part of the community instead of just being a large retailer. This decision reflects that."

Duke lacrosse shirts are still available for $11.95 on the athletic department's Web site, www.goduke.com, which is as it should be, according to Kathleen Hessert, president of Sports Media Challenge, a Charlotte, N.C.-based sports strategic communications and reputation management firm.

"There's nothing wrong with continuing to sell Duke lacrosse merchandise," Hessert said. "If they were putting them on sale or promoting them, that would be entirely different, but I think what they are doing now is just satisfying the demand of their customers."

That demand from outside Durham has pushed the price considerably above face value.

When the story first hit the news more than a month ago, the average price of a Duke lacrosse item on the online auction site eBay was $7.74. The average price now is $17.04. The pace of transactions has increased, too. In early March, only a handful of Duke lacrosse items changed hands in a week. This past week, 79 items sold.

On Monday, T-shirts sold for more than $40 each, with as many as 16 bids on single items.

Janelle Smith of Coats, N.C., purchased a shirt on eBay on Monday night for $30 because she said she was sure that if she made the 65-mile trip to the Duke campus, everything would be sold out.

"My boyfriend will probably wear it at the gym," Smith said. "Not out anywhere, as to not cause too much controversy."

Smith said she understood that the shirt wouldn't come cheap, given the story's prominence in the news.

"I knew it would be high in price," she said.

David Miklofsky, a 22-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., purchased a Duke lacrosse T-shirt on eBay for $16.49.

"What if Duke doesn't have a men's lacrosse team anymore?" Miklofsky asked. "Either the value of the shirt will be increased based on not having a program or, the more likely outcome is that there won't be a demand for an odd item such as this."

Officials with Brine, which makes Duke lacrosse hats and T-shirts, did not return multiple calls seeking comment about whether the company is putting more product into the marketplace to meet increased demand.

Although many outlets selling Duke lacrosse merchandise report brisk sales, not everyone is seeing more dollar signs because of the scandal.

"Duke is normally one of the best sellers for us; but in the last month, it's been in the middle of the road," said Mike DeSimone, owner of Lacrosse Unlimited. "Most of our customers are parents buying for kids ages 9 to 15 years old, and I think some of them are waiting for the outcome of this case before they come in and purchase something."

Eighteen of the 47 players on Duke's roster are from New York and Connecticut, where Lacrosse Unlimited's 12 stores are located.

Said DeSimone: "It's upsetting that lacrosse finally hits the news and it's getting notoriety in a negative fashion like this."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter