Cravens Coffee Co. began selling its Zags Blend coffee in 1999 – the same year Gonzaga University’s men’s basketball team ended up in the Elite Eight.
All 1,500 of the school-branded coffee bags sold out in two months, said Cravens owner Simon Thompson.
This year, Zags Blend is going out the door in record volumes. Credit belongs to GU’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, both of which steamrolled their way into the Division I championship tourneys, he said.
“We already expect to sell 1,000 bags of Zags Blend this month,” Thompson said. “It’s a different animal this year. It’s a big phenomenon.”
He said Cravens just sent 16 bags of Zags coffee to tiny Orofino, Idaho; they were sold out in two days.
Unlike many regional colleges that see their school-branded products sell fastest during football season, Gonzaga products experience “merch madness” in the spring.
“It’s really picking up this year, more than previous years,” said Kris Kassel, the university’s assistant athletic director, who oversees such product deals for GU.
Beyond coffee, Zags-branded items this year include apparel, wine and even chocolate bars, Kassel said.
At the Gonzaga bookstore, shirts and hoodies that announce the team’s No. 1 ranking are in high demand, said bookstore manager Ken Roughton.
If the Zags go deep into the NCAA tournament, Roughton said he will have a hard time keeping enough merchandise in stock.
Three other regional schools have teams in Division I basketball tourneys – the University of Idaho, University of Oregon and University of Montana.
Oregon, despite its rabid fan base, isn’t seeing the same level of activity for merchandise as Gonzaga, said Matt Dyste, director of the school’s product licensing office.
“Our sales are tied to football season, primarily,” he said.
Like many universities, Gonzaga signs merchandise deals with a number of producers of food, beverages, candy, apparel and items such as bobbleheads and license plates.
The schools exercise control over the types of products and how they’re marketed, said Tricia Hornsby, a representative with Collegiate Licensing Co., an Atlanta firm that acts as a product licensing broker for more than 200 universities, including Gonzaga.
About two-thirds of the products that carry the Zags logo or the image of Spike, the team mascot, are apparel. The other third is everything else.
For now, there’s only one Gonzaga Candy Bar, produced by the Spokane Valley franchise of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.
The bars come in two sizes, selling for $1.50 and $2. As with all other university products, the sales revenue is divided among the college, the licensing broker and the manufacturer.
“Normally, our busiest times are Valentine’s Day and Hoopfest,” said Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory’s Rachelle Blackmer.
“But this year, because of the tournaments, those sales are going to be close to our other best times,” she said.
While it’s not common for universities to approve deals that allow alcohol to be marketed with their trademark, Gonzaga made an exception with Walla Walla winery Dunham Cellars.
The winery, with the help of its area distributor, Vehrs Inc., convinced GU officials to approve the release of a wine called Zags Red.
The key, said Mike McKenna, a manager for Vehrs, was demonstrating that Dunham makes a quality wine and that the bottle’s design and label would be stylish and distinctive.
The 500 cases of Zags Red bottled in 2008 sold out within three months of release, McKenna said.
Area stores still have bottles of the 2009 and 2010 vintages, he said.
“We’re getting a lot of orders now for the 2010,” he added. “It sells for around $22 per bottle, and some people may buy it for the name and brand. But then they also discover it’s a great wine.”