Inside TSL: One of My Better Days
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com
TSL Extra, Issue #7

Tuesday, April 17th was one of my more interesting days as the GM of TechSideline.com. That was the day TechLocker.com was announced as one of two outlets carrying the Michael Vick autographed prints, and it was also the day that Jim Rome repeated the name of the web site -- three times -- to a national radio audience.

It started on March 2nd with an email from Locke White, the Licensing Director at Virginia Tech. Locke was brief, to the point, and mysterious:

Give me a call. Working on something neat that you might want to get involved with.--Locke.

As you can imagine, that sounded intriguing. Licensing Directors have one purpose in life: make money. Any time they say they're working on something "neat," what they're saying is, "We've thought up a new way to make money."

So I gave him a call, and he told me about a deal that his department had signed with Michael Vick (more precisely Vick's agency, Octagon) to put Vick's name on a line of products that would generate money for academic scholarships. At the time, White wasn't sure what the full product line was going to be. He knew the old standbys like T-shirts, golf shirts, and hats were going to be part of the deal, but he wasn't sure what else they were going to be able to offer.

But he did know about one item: a limited-edition, signed Michael Vick print. Only 777 made, only 700 sold to the general public, and carrying a whopping price tag of $125, with the full proceeds going to Virginia Tech's general scholarship fund. Locke White wanted to know if we, along with Tech Bookstore, wanted to have exclusive rights to carry the print.

When you're offered an opportunity like that, your brain goes into cost/benefit analysis mode. Since all proceeds go to VT, that meant there would be no profit built in for TechLocker.com. What a shame, because there isn't a retailer in the world that would turn down the opportunity to carry a $125 item that they know would sell like the proverbial hotcakes.

So what was the upside? Publicity and cachet, of course. Even though TechSideline.com/TechLocker.com wouldn't make any money off the prints, the publicity from carrying them would be significant. First of all, anything surrounding Vick generates big publicity, and secondly, White planned on making a big media splash with the product lines, especially the print.

In addition to the publicity, let's be honest about something that a fledgling Web business like TechSideline.com craves dearly: legitimacy. Being part of a deal involving VT Licensing, Michael Vick, and Tech Bookstore would be a huge feather in our caps, even if it didn't mean putting money in our pockets.

And lastly, the cause is a good one -- Virginia Tech's general scholarship fund -- and I was itching to show that TechSideline.com and TechLocker.com can move some product. Not that we blow away everybody else in VT sales (we don't), but I knew that with a high-interest item like this and the motivated, excited audience that visits TechSideline.com, we could make Locke White look like a smart man by selling a bunch of these prints for him.

So we threw our hat in the ring and agreed to help sell the prints. That was in early March, and although Vick's deal with VT Licensing was made public shortly thereafter, White told us to sit on the news that we would be carrying the print. We agreed to take the orders for Licensing (we added an $8 charge for shipping and handling) and to charge people's credit cards, but Licensing would be doing the actual shipping of the prints.

We also decided as a company to let you, our TSL Extra subscribers, have your 10% discount on the prints. This meant we would have to eat $13.30 for every $133.00 print sold to a TSLX subscriber, but we wanted your 10% discount at TechLocker.com to apply to this item, as well.

The Press Conference

So we hunkered down and waited, and we thought April 10th was the big day for the Vick press conference. But Vick had to cancel at the last minute, and the press conference was delayed another week.

Finally, April 17th arrived, and I made my way to the Tech Bookstore, where the press conference was being held. On the way, Jim Rome, who runs the nationally-syndicated Jim Rome radio sports talk show (more on that later), announced that he would be having Michael Vick on during the 1:00 hour. Hmm, I thought, that was interesting, because Vick was supposed to be at Tech Bookstore at 1:30 for the press conference. The wonder of cell phones…

While parking my van, I saw James Arthur, whom many of you know as N2VTFTBL on the TSL message boards and as TSL's recruiting coverage editor and sometime-columnist from August 1999 to July 2000. He was at Tech Bookstore for the press conference, so I invited him into the van to listen to the first part of Mike's interview with Jim Rome.

The interview got underway, and I found myself, for some reason, not really wanting to listen to Mike. Mike once again reiterated how much he wanted to stay at Virginia Tech, but the lure of being the top pick in the draft (which he turned out to be just four days later) was too much, and he had to go. It bugs me to hear him talk like that, because I know he wanted to stay at Virginia Tech, it just didn't make any sense to.

"You want to cut this off?" I asked N2.

"Yeah, sure, let's go in," he said.

So we went into the book store. To make a long story short, the press conference was well-attended. Channels 7 and 10 out of Roanoke were there, and so was Channel 13 out of Lynchburg, plus about a half-dozen newspaper reporters, it seemed. Coach Beamer showed up through the front door (he drives a Cadillac STS, for those who are interested), but Vick was hidden in the back of the store, out of sight (keeping up with the car theme, I didn't see his Lincoln Navigator in the parking lot).

At about 1:40, ten minutes late, Vick came out, wearing boots, baggy jeans (all jeans are baggy these days it seems), and one of the Michael Vick golf shirts with the embroidered VT helmet and Michael Vick signature on the chest.

Locke White, Beamer, Vick, and a couple other folks took up their places behind the podium. Bill Roth emceed the festivities, and he first introduced White and Larry Hincker, an Associate Vice President at VT and the head of University Relations. Hincker spoke briefly of the rise to prominence of VT football under Vick, and then Roth introduced Coach Beamer.

Beamer talked about how great it had been to coach the best player in the country, but more importantly what a great person Vick is. He said he was proud that Vick, who had done so much for Virginia Tech on the field, was doing something off the field as well, by trying to help the Licensing Department make money for the general scholarship fund.

Roth then introduced Vick, and as Vick stepped up to the podium, that's when the media really focused in. The TV cameramen adjusted their lenses, and the still photographers' camera shutters started to click in earnest.

Vick's comments were brief. Vick talked about what a "great ride" it had been at Virginia Tech, and he thanked Coach Beamer for the opportunity to play. He said that he was very appreciative of the things that had happened to him at Virginia Tech, and that's why he was trying to give something back to the university through the Vick licensing agreement. "Virginia Tech will always be home for me," he said, "and I'll always come back. It's a big part of me."

And I was struck once again by the image of a young man who was leaving before he wanted to. Thankfully, it would work out later that week for Michael.

After Vick, Locke White came on to explain the Vick "program," which he says he hopes will generate $100,000 for the Licensing Department. For perspective, income from licensed VT products generated just $350,000 in income as recently as 1999. That went up to $550,000 in 2000, and the forecast for 2001 is $800,000, including a hoped-for $100,000 from the Vick products. White says his department is shooting for $1 million in 2002, which he believes would place Virginia Tech in the top ten nationally.

White talked about the prints, saying that only 700 would be made available to the public at $125 a pop. "They're going to be available here at the Tech Bookstore," he said, "and on-line at uh, uh, TechSideline.com. We're really excited about it, and we recommend that everyone go out and get on the Internet or come in and buy one of the prints, because once they're gone, they're gone."

I would like to tell you that when he said "TechSideline.com," a murmur went through the crowd, and pencils scribbled furiously, followed by a reporter shouting, "Hey, there's Will Stewart!" leading to a mad rush over to me to find out how TechSideline.com got involved in this deal. But of course, no such thing happened.

A humorous side note is that I recalled Locke saying "uh" about five times before saying "TechSideline.com," but when I sat down to write this article, my tape of the press conference revealed it to be just twice. And although it seemed to me that the wait between "Tech Bookstore" and "TechSideline.com" was a pregnant pause of five seconds or more, it really wasn't very long at all, barely a noticeable hitch in White's speech.

A few other things happened at the press conference -- White and Vick unveiled an eight-foot version of the print, and Vick was interviewed by the media about his impending selection by the San Diego Chargers (or so we all thought). Mike was very soft-spoken when he was interviewed by the media, most of whom had covered him throughout his Tech career. He look straight at the reporters who were asking the questions, and he smiled several times, appearing to be very at ease with the beat reporters he has grown so used to.

With the press conference over (and no one approaching me to ask how in the world TSL got to be a part of things) I hustled home to put the print up on the home page and write my News and Notes article. Many things to do, and very little time to do them in.

When On Rome…

Imagine my surprise when I got home and logged onto the TSL message board to find that Jim Rome had mentioned TechSideline.com on the air, during his interview with Vick just before the press conference. Nuts! I thought, remembering my decision to turn off the radio while Vick was being interviewed. I must have just missed it!

But thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I was able to pull up an archive of the broadcast on Rome's web site. He mentioned TechSideline.com about ten minutes into the interview … and boy, did he get it wrong. Here's the excerpt from the end of the interview:

Rome: One final thought, now that you're about to turn pro, you've already gone about setting up a scholarship fund through something called TechSideline.com. What is that all about?

Vick: It's a scholarship fund. I think I deserved to do that for the people here at Virginia Tech, because they've done so much for me. So I'm trying to do things to help out and show my appreciation for everything that's been done for me here at Virginia Tech, and all the people who have supported Michael Vick throughout my three years here at Virginia Tech.

Rome: What it is, Michael Vick has signed some gear, go to TechSideline.com, you can purchase that, and the money goes to setting up the scholarship fund. Nice, man, very nice. All right Mike, good weekend for you, good luck.

Vick: One more thing.

Rome: Yeah, man.

Vick: I heard you just had a baby this weekend or last weekend. I just wanted to congratulate you on that.

Rome: That's nice, Mike. Thanks for being on the show, I appreciate that. Good luck this weekend.

Vick: Thank you.

Rome: All right man, be good. Bye. (pause) Michael Vick. All right, very nice. He is good to go, and he is saying all the right things, that he wants to learn, get into camp early. He's looking to study under Doug Flutie to learn the system. He's saying all the right things … Michael Vick joining us on the program, and he's still doing some things with Tech, too. That does not suck. Very, very nice. He has -- TechSideline.com is the way he is setting up the scholarship, if you want to contribute to that, go ahead, check it out, and get some of his gear.

Will here again: all right, Romey, so you totally screwed it up, but thanks for mentioning the web site on the air three times. I won't make fun of you for saying later that there's no way San Deigo GM John Butler was going to trade the #1 pick.

I get a kick out of the way Rome made it sound as if TechSideline.com is Vick's personal project, but as they say, any publicity is good publicity. Contrary to what you might expect, TSL did not get pummeled by tens of thousands of Rome listeners ("clones," as he calls them), and there was no perceptible uptick in traffic either that day or the next few days.

If you've never listened to Jim Rome's show, his show is, in my opinion, 75% garbage. Rome first made a name for himself by calling then-Rams QB Jim Everett "Chris Everett" to Everett's face, even though Everett had warned him not to. It was on the set of Rome's old TV show, several years ago, during taping. Everett got out of his chair and knocked Rome backwards out of his, and the altercation became the Clip Seen Round the World on sports news shows (ESPN SportsCenter definitely had fun with it).

Rome is a punk. He's respectful to his guests, but among his listeners and callers, he encourages endless smack-talk and drivel that anyone with a brain has no interest in listening to. Whereas most radio talk shows consist of back-and-forth dialogue between the host and callers, Rome's callers instead get on the air and then go on rambling, smack-filled monologues for as long as Rome decides to leave them on the air, or until they say, "I am out" and hang up. I don't remember the last time I heard Rome actually talk to one of his callers. If you've heard one of these calls, you've heard them all.

In general, the attitude of disrespect that Rome encourages and cultivates is just pathetic. Like I always say, "If you don't have the time or talent to speak or write correctly, then just talk smack." It's much easier and takes no talent. Kind of like rap music.

But I have to admit that now that Rome mentioned TechSideline.com on the air three times, I no longer think he's just a punk. Now he's a punk who has mentioned the name of my web site on a national radio broadcast.

Okay, so that's not much difference.

That night, only one of the two Roanoke TV sports broadcasts I listened to mentioned TechSideline.com by name -- WDBJ-7 did, WSLS-10 didn't. And the Roanoke Times and Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote articles on the press conference without mentioning where to get the prints, leaving both Tech Bookstore and TechSideline.com out of the article.

Cha-Ching!

I was amazed at how well the prints sold through TechLocker.com, despite the hefty $133 price tag. We sold our first print at 2:38 that afternoon, and by 3:00 had sold 13. By 4:00, it was up to 31, and at midnight, we had moved 82 of the prints. As of May 15, we had sold 226 of them, making $30,058 for VT's general scholarship fund.

How does that compare to Tech Bookstore? I don’t know what Tech Bookstore's latest figures are, but I know that after five days of sales, we had outsold them 190 to 120. In any event, Locke White is looking like a smart guy for thinking outside the box and working with TechSideline.com. So far, we have helped him make 30% of the $100,000 he hopes to get from the Vick products, and hopefully, we'll make a lot more for him.

You'll recall that during the 2000 football season, the Virginia Tech Licensing Department requested that all owners of web sites with the terms "hokie(s)" or "virginiatech" in their domain names change the names. Licensing made the request to protect their trademarks. Naturally, since TechSideline.com was called "HokieCentral.com" at the time, I received one of the letters. The change was to be made by November 15 ("Or else!" I imagine), and we complied, changing HokieCentral.com to TechSideline.com in November.

A number of people advocated that I should tell the Licensing Department to insert their request where the sun doesn't shine. As I explained at length at the time, I had neither the funds, the time, nor the inclination to get involved in a legal battle with the Licensing Department over a name change, because a name change, while inconvenient, didn't threaten the existence of the business. Sure, the country boy in me wanted to rassle, but I understood that it made the most sense just to comply and get on with life. I miss the old HokieCentral.com domain name, but I've grown to love TechSideline.com, which we know as TSL (besides, as one person told me recently, "TechSideline has personality. Everybody's doing central-this and central-that now").

Had I fought the request at the time, it would have engendered only ill will and bitterness, and Locke White never would have called us with this opportunity. Did this opportunity make us money? No, but it got us a lot of other things, and it strengthened the good working relationship we have always had with Virginia Tech Licensing. Hopefully, that will lead to other opportunities in the future, but whether it does or not, this go-round has definitely helped TSL's reputation within the Virginia Tech community and has advanced our cause.

I've rambled on long enough. See you next month.

 

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