By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
This week may not quite match the opening week of football season for excitement in a Mountaineer fan’s life, but it comes close for this has been the week that the sporting goods stores across the state of West Virginia have gotten their first shipments of this year’s football jerseys.
And this year they are banking on a new design from Nike for spiking sales, so to speak.
The design honors the rich coal mining heritage of the state, a heritage that has come under much pressure in recent years and that needs a boost. There are three different color jerseys — blue, gold and white, setting up a situation where equipment manager Dan Nehlen can mix and match 27 combinations.
Inside the front collar of the shirts is stitched the image of a canary, that bird having served at one time to let miners know that the mine’s air was clear to breathe, while inside the back collar the state motto “Montani Semper Liberi” is stitched in.
Finally, to complete the mining theme, the numbers possess sharp points and edges, inspired by a coal miner’s pickaxe.
Sales always rise when a new uniform style is introduced, but this is really an intriguing season for marketing for WVU goes into the season without any star player’s number to feature.
It has always been a point of contention for the NCAA has refused to put player’s names on the backs of the jerseys to keep from being involved in a situation where they probably would be forced to pay royalties to the players.
This general theory is under a great deal of pressure at present in a law suit that has challenged that principle in EA computerized football, claiming that the likenesses of players are being capitalized upon even without identifying them by name and they are due royalties on the billions of dollars the game earns.
Every season it is important to decide which of a team’s players’ numbers will be featured jerseys. Often it’s a no-brainer.
You have Tavon Austin and Geno Smith, you put No. 1 and No. 12 on jerseys. It may not say “Austin” or “Smith,” but in the mind of the fan it is his tribute to that player.
A No. 5 jersey is going to be a Patrick White jersey, almost no matter to whom it is assigned that season.
But this year, WVU doesn’t even know who will be its starting quarterback.
It can’t even narrow it to two guys at present.
The same is true at running back and wide receiver.
“That doesn’t just apply this year. Regardless of the level of hype or expectation on a team, you look at the roster and see who is the most established. You follow a procedure similar to if you have a clear-cut selection like a Geno or a Tavon or something like that,” said Matt Wells, the assistant athletic director in charge of marketing.
In truth, he says he’s not sure what numbers did go to the stores this year, which may just be a tactful answer both for compliance reasons and to keep some feelings from being hurt, but you can rest assured that among them are a No. 8 jersey, which is safety Karl Joseph’s number, and he is as close as this team has to a recognizable player going into the year.
It’s important to be right in the number selection, for once the jerseys are shipped, they can’t be changed.
At least that’s the way it has been until the New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder, leading the Pats to offer their fans a chance to exchange the Hernandez jersey — and in the NFL the names are on the back — for one of a New England player not facing murder charges.
See, it matters whose jersey it is. True, WVU fans want WVU jerseys, but No. 103 would not sell nearly as well as the one belonging to the starting quarterback.
“You want a jersey they will identify with. There’s various reasons fans identify with a certain number. I’m sure everyone knows what those reasons are,” Wells said.
More to the point, everyone has his or her own reason for wanting a certain number, “from Owen Schmitt is the toughest guy I’ve ever seen so I wear his number” to “Pat White is the prettiest quarterback I’ve ever seen” to “I wore that number when a I was the third-string placekicker on the high school JV team.”
Wells summed it up this way:
“It all goes back to fans embracing a number they can identify with. When you have a star player that only helps the fan identify with that jersey.”
See, it’s important to have star players. It’s why schools have sports information departments, why their radio and TV coverage is so vital, why a Heisman Trophy winner means a huge payday for the school in sales and donations.
“It translates into both ticket sales, merchandise sales plus a positive for the entire department,” Wells said. “Your local, your regional, your national media coverage grow when you have standout players.
“You saw that this past season with the run Geno had early in the year when he was the Heisman frontrunner,” he continued. “Then the things Tavon did, especially with the Oklahoma game on national television … and then carrying it through the off-season with Geno, Tavon and Stedman (Bailey) in the draft.
“Any time you are on that radar it only serves to help the program, not only through a monetary standpoint with ticket sales, merchandise sales and donations, but even more so with the exposure part of it and trickle-down effect that has with recruiting football or basketball players, as well as exposing the university to others out there and helps recruits students.”
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.