Merch Madness: How UConn Huskies are embracing new era of college athletics with officially licensed player merchandise
Nika Mühl had seen the posts from UConn fans. She was blown away by the number of people tagging her and sending messages, all expressing their excitement to buy her newly launched apparel.
Eager to interact with the fan base, Mühl often replied something along the lines of, “Oh my God, thank you! That’s amazing. Show a picture of it when you’re wearing it.”
But the reality of it all didn’t fully sink in until the Big East Tournament when Mühl glanced into the stands at Mohegan Sun Arena. There were Husky faithful wearing merchandise to support the Croatian guard in every direction she looked.
“It’s so rewarding, it’s so crazy,” Mühl said. “I didn’t think the outreach was gonna be that big. It definitely humbles you and just makes me want to work harder and make all those people proud watching us in the stands every day. It was amazing seeing them in my jersey, in my shirt, just having my last name on their backs. It’s a special feeling.”
For the first time, fans can cheer on UConn men’s and women’s basketball in the NCAA Tournament while wearing their favorite player’s jersey or other officially licensed apparel.
Legislation signed by the state of Connecticut to usher in the new name, image and likeness era of college athletics back in 2021 didn’t allow student-athletes to use their school’s branding and marks, but that changed this past summer.
By late November, UConn teamed up with Athlete’s Thread to sell officially licensed player apparel and even found a way to include international players. The athletic department has created more options for players in the months since through partnerships with Breaking T and Campus Ink, which runs the UConn NIL Store.
“It’s a really interesting time for (student-athletes) and a realization for many of them just how powerful their personal brand is, and how their personal brand and the institution’s brand (are) when put together,” UConn Director of Brand Partnerships and Trademark Management Kyle Muncy told the Courant. “It’s a chance for them to generate a little bit of income, but also it’s a chance for fans to show support for those student-athletes in a way that they’ve never been able to before.”
How it all works
This past fall, Muncy met with student-athletes across every sport and gave presentations on the new NIL merchandising opportunities they could opt into. A former soccer player for the Huskies in the late 80s/early 90s, Muncy had been in their shoes, though he’d never gotten the chance to do anything like this.
“You have no idea how cool it’s going to be 20 years from now when you can pull out the T-shirt that has your name and number on the back, or the jersey, or the whatever it might be,” Muncy recalled telling them. “The idea that someone buying your jersey, someone literally thinks enough of you as a student-athlete to go out and spend money and support you, and they’re supporting UConn at the same time. You’ve created a great memory for them and that’s going to be a great memory for you somewhere down the road.”
It was important to UConn’s athletic department to find a way to allow international student-athletes to earn passive income through merchandise sales, too. The Office of International Student and Scholar Services within the Department of Global Affairs has helped with that process, including working with players so that they understand the rules.
“Our staff has worked so hard,” Mühl said. “We’ve attended so many meetings. We’ve come to them with so many questions that they were not always able to answer but they were looking for answers searching, finding stuff out — what can we do, what can’t we do? They did so much for us this year and I’m super thankful because without them I would never have this opportunity.”
International players aren’t able to take an active role in NIL. That means they can’t participate in brand sponsorships or promote something on social media as their domestic counterparts can.
Azzi Fudd and Bueckers have made a point to include their women’s basketball teammates in all of their NIL deals, such as giving them custom Bose headphones for Christmas and Bueckers gifting everyone a pair of Crocs. Once their international teammates’ gear went live, the pair posted links on their social media platforms knowing that they couldn’t do so themselves.
“We want to be able to support them in any way that’s possible,” Fudd told the Courant. “So it was really exciting to see (their apparel go live) because people love them, fans absolutely adore them. Especially I feel like just getting to look in the crowd and see people wearing their shirts, it brings a smile to my face, warms my heart … It makes me so happy for them, to see them being able to do this stuff, take advantage of it.”
While the Husky Mania Fan Shop, Athlete’s Thread and Breaking T follow a model used in professional sports that pays players an undisclosed royalty fee on a quarterly basis in consultation with a group licensing agency — either Brandr Group or One Team Partners, depending on the item — the hallmark of the Campus Ink is going a different route. Players earn between $8 and $15 on every item sold, which NIL director Adam Cook said are “industry-leading payouts.”
Breaking T’s specialty is reacting to moments as they happen in real-time. The company uses a social analytical platform called Crowd Break that quantifies what a certain fan base is excited about to determine what products to launch.
Regardless of the retailer, the more products fans buy, the more players receive.
A glimpse at the creative design process
After Lou Lopez Sénéchal went off for 26 points to lead the UConn women to an 84-67 victory over storied rival Tennessee on the road on Jan. 26, popular fan account Bueckerszone tweeted out a graphic with the caption, “We are LouConn.”
The post went viral, generating nearly 16,000 views. In the process, lifelong Huskies fan Holly McCarthy sent out a quote tweet directed at Muncy asking if UConn could make a LouConn shirt.
“And bang, within a day we had a LouConn shirt out there,” Muncy said. “And the fan response was fantastic, people were buying it.”
The original LouConn shirt and sweatshirt sold on Athlete’s Thread features a sketch of the graduate wing with a ball in her hands against a background with the phrase. Breaking T launched a version that plays on the UConn logo with a shadow of Sénéchal shooting in one of the letters shortly after. The UConn NIL Store announced another iteration, “Welcome to LouConn,” as a limited release in March.
“Being able to be here and having LouConn and all those T-shirts with my face on it, I really never thought I would have that one day,” Lopez Sénéchal said. “Seeing my friends, my family wearing them, it’s just really rewarding and I feel very grateful to have all those opportunities with basketball.”
Athlete’s Thread and Breaking T have capitalized on trending player topics throughout this season. There are “Coach P” products for Paige Bueckers, sidelined with an ACL tear, and “Joey California” apparel for men’s basketball guard Joey Calcaterra, who is from California and spent most of his career playing for San Diego. When Mühl broke Sue Bird’s single-season assist record, which stood for over two decades, that led to shirts, too.
“The data said that fans were extremely excited about this,” Breaking T director of strategic partnerships Nicole O’Keefe told the Courant. “So from there, we said, ‘Okay, this is definitely a product we want to make.’”
While Breaking T follows moments and the data behind them, Campus Ink leans more into personalities and capturing a player’s personal brand. The company handles all of its creative, printing and fulfillment in-house, including a team of artists that talks with athletes to inspire designs for their merchandise.
Players are asked about their favorite and least favorite colors, nicknames, if they have any tattoos and if there are phrases or verses important to them. If a player has their own logo or design idea, that can be incorporated, too.
“We just want to learn a little bit about you,” Cook said. “We’ll come up with some really cool stuff, get your feedback on it and make sure that you’re represented really well through your merchandise. … That’s an individual’s name, image and likeness, and you want them to feel good about how it’s being used.”
For women’s basketball guard Caroline Ducharme, the phrase “Ducharmania” coined by fans last season, came up in the discussion. The launch date for the limited release was a complete surprise though: the T-shirt went live on Feb. 16 in celebration of Ducharme’s return to the court after sitting out 13 games with a concussion.
“It’s cool that it’s my last name, my family name. I like that they’re involved with it,” Ducharme said. “So it was really exciting and it meant a lot coming back and seeing that out there.”
UConn fans also came up with “Karaban Caravan” for men’s basketball forward Alex Karaban. For his shirt, the UConn NIL Store went with a design that says “Hop on the Karaban Caravan” with Karaban driving a truck with a Husky logo on the front and a bunch of fans packed in tow.
“UConn fans fell in love with the ‘Karaban Caravan’ name, so I’m trying to make the most of it with NIL now,” Karaban said. “It’s exciting, you get to put your own twist on it. You get to have your own creative thoughts on it and really put out what you want out there for the people to wear.”
With strong fan response, what comes next?
It didn’t take long for the UConn NIL Store to sell out of the entire first stock of women’s basketball jerseys. Cook said that hasn’t happened with any of Campus Ink’s 14 other schools — the company started with Illinois, got backing from Mark Cuban to expand across the country and has plans to add a lot more schools in the coming months.
There’s also been a strong response over at Breaking T, with the sales pretty much equal between men’s and women’s merchandise, according to O’Keefe.
“I want to thank all the fans — I mean, I don’t like to call them fans, I want to call them our family, our support — for purchasing, for buying, for wearing it,” Mühl said. “I feel like that’s so amazing and I’m so thankful, and we’re all thankful as a team. It’s just an amazing thing to see how much support we have because without them we wouldn’t be anywhere.”
All of the companies look to capitalize on those sales, and in turn generate more revenue for the athletes, as March Madness gets underway.
The UConn NIL Store launched a second Mühl graphic tee — the junior guard said the first release was “tough” — as well as one for Dorka Juhász. There will be more limited-release drops to come throughout the tournament.
Breaking T is hoping for some big moments and standout performances to inspire new shirts. The company will continue to use social analytics to monitor what fans are most excited about throughout the Big Dance.
Looking toward the future, UConn hopes to make NIL merchandise across all sports more accessible for fans. Muncy’s goal is to get to a point where there is a store on or close to campus, or possibly even in-arena, where fans can go before a game and request a jersey with any student-athlete’s name and number on it. They’d be able to pick it up later that day or have it shipped to their home and, in an ideal world, receive it in the second half.
“We’re working really, really hard to make that a reality,” Muncy said. “To think that we’ve only had product on sale since November and we’ve had the success that we have had in selling product, it’s exciting. But I think we want to make sure that we’re executing it in a way that’s going to be sustainable over a period of time and continue to provide opportunities for athletes next year, and the year after, and the year after, and be able to evolve as NIL continues to evolve.”