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Sunday, March 3, 2024

How Michigan Turned a Sign-Stealing Scandal Into a Successful Marketing Ploy

  • The Wolverines’ official retailer launched a wildly popular merchandise line around the phrase “Michigan vs. Everybody.”
  • A portion of profits from the Ts go toward athletes in the athletic department thanks to NIL rights—they’ve made $350,000 so far.
Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan athletics’ official retailer, The M Den, first launched a merchandise line around the slogan “Michigan vs. Everybody” in 2021. But after the Big Ten suspended head coach Jim Harbaugh over allegations of sign-stealing in November, the phrase took on a whole new meaning. The M Den quickly relaunched the campaign. 

“Obviously, the Michigan fanbase being so engaged and passionate and fiery about the decisions that were made, and the way the conference was handling it—the way the media was running with it, it really did kind of invoke that kind of ‘us against everybody’ type of mentality,” Jared Wangler, who spearheaded the campaign, tells Front Office Sports. Wangler is a football team alum and co-founder of Valiant Management Group, which runs the school’s main name, image, and likeness collective. “The players were kind of buying into it. That led to us [re]kick-starting the campaign.”

Opposing fan bases and teams have dismissed the Wolverines as cheaters all season, and an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations has commenced. But the Michigan community could get the last laugh. They’re not only celebrating a College Football Playoff national championship berth, but also reaping the fiscal benefits of turning the scandal of the season into a successful marketing ploy.

The M Den’s collection, which includes T-shirts, sweatshirts, wristbands, and even trading cards with the phrase “Michigan vs. Everybody” emblazoned, has sold more than 50,000 units in two months, Wangler says. As of Monday, the T-shirt is currently sold-out in every size except triple-XL. A portion of the proceeds from those sales goes to the university for the use of its intellectual property—UM has made six figures so far, according to Wangler. Another portion goes to all athletes at Michigan, who have earned a total of $350,000. (That’s about 10 times what the campaign made in 2021.)

Athletes, coaches, and alumni, including former Michigan quarterback Tom Brady, have shared the phrase. Even the athletic department’s official account tweeted the slogan. “Jim Harbaugh, and the seniors on the football team—they deserve all the credit for [the campaign’s success],” Wangler says. “It’s turned into a rallying cry. The team bought into it. They’re dialed in.”

Other retailers have since created their own variations. Fanatics started a T-shirt line using “Wolverines Against the World,” which is also sold-out in almost every size as of Monday morning. BreakingT is selling shirts and sweatshirts with the slogan “Michigan vs. the World.” It also developed a line of t-shirts using the word “Bet,” which team members had tweeted out after Harbaugh was suspended in November—they were betting on themselves to win despite the turmoil the team had experienced. (The variations in phrasing result from trademark issues: IP to the specific phrase “Michigan vs. Everybody” belongs to The M Den, which inked a deal with the company that owns the trademark to the phrase “Detroit vs. Everybody.”) 

“To me, it’s revenue-sharing,” Wangler says. That’s an important value for Harbaugh, who has said multiple times that he’s in favor of a revenue-sharing model with players. Wangler, who played fullback for Harbaugh from 2014 to 2018, notes that UM’s coach has held that view for a long time, but it’s just now getting more traction due to the conversations around athlete compensation.

In Houston this weekend, Harbaugh talked to reporters about how everyone from administrators to coaches to media rights-holders cash in on college football—but athletes don’t.  “So it’s like, come on, man, let’s do the right thing here,” he said. 

Ironically, Harbaugh’s alleged rules violations have inadvertently helped make his players—and all athletes at Michigan—a little bit richer.

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