March 20, 2023

MSU Licensing: Protecting the MSU Brand

Michigan State University’s reach is wide, with more than 500,000 living degreed alumni, nearly 40,000 current undergraduate students and an immeasurable number of Spartan fans. These alum, students and supporters of the university are responsible for bringing in millions of dollars’ worth of royalties on licensed merchandise each year, according to MSU Director of Licensing Erika Austin.  

“Collegiate licensing is so special because of the affinity of the fans to collegiate athletics and especially to Michigan State,” Austin says. “The academic reputation paired with the athletic reputation of Michigan State has really helped further our brand.” 

The University Licensing Programs manage the behind-the-scenes efforts to get official merchandise on the shelves for Spartan consumers. 

“The mission and primary goal of MSU Licensing is to protect the MSU brand, and we do that by using our great alums, students, corporations — they’re all brand ambassadors,” says Austin. “The opportunity to come and be a brand ambassador with everyone else and really help promote and support and protect the MSU brand has been the main reason I came to Michigan State.” 

Counterfeit Products 

Protecting the MSU brand from counterfeit product production and negative use of imagery is one of the key responsibilities of the licensing department.  

“We know how important it is for our alums and our current students to see that Michigan State brand used correctly and effectively,” Austin says. “We know that there’s times that we have to protect the brand. Whenever we have success that breeds opportunities for counterfeiters to abuse our brand and we want to make sure that we have all eyes out there as we continue to find success, not only academically but athletically as well.” 

Official merchandise can be identified by a hologram sticker on the tag of the merchandise; if that tag is not present, it is usually counterfeit.  

“We understand that it’s sometimes hard for a fan to tell the difference between officially licensed product and that of an infringer, so we welcome anyone that has questions about if a product is officially licensed or if a vendor is officially licensed to reach out to our office,” says Austin. 

“You’ll see people using the plume,” says Stephene Benkert, Spartan Spirit Shop’s retail manager. “Other people around the area will start using that so it almost looks like Michigan State endorses whatever it is that they’re doing.” 

“When we get reports, we work with our licensing agency, Collegiate Licensing Company, to educate those infringers on the necessity of being licensed in order to produce product,” Austin says. “Then if they don’t comply, we go through the necessary steps to remove that product from the marketplace so that our consumers know that they are buying officially licensed product.” 

Benkert says that when unlicensed brands use MSU marks, they are taking advantage of the university’s reputation.  

“We don’t know what kind of ethics this place has or if they’re doing all the right things,” she says. 

Benefits to Licensed Merch 

“We make it mandatory that all MSU licensees must be a member of the Fair Labor Association or the Workers’ Rights Consortium so we can verify to the consumers that they are buying product that is being made responsibly and that those factories have a strict code of conduct,” Austin explains. “That is important to us, and we can stand behind the quality of the merchandise as well.”  

In addition to ensuring ethical labor standards, further benefits of purchasing officially licensed merchandise include the return of royalties to the university itself, according to Austin.  

“All of the royalties earned from officially licensed product comes back to Michigan State University. Those individuals that are purchasing officially licensed product are supporting MSU students because those royalties are going toward the general scholarship fund as well as special programming,” she says. 

“The University Activities Board gets a part of it, MSU Athletics gets a part of it,” says Benkert. 

In addition, there are efforts taken by the University Licensing Programs to ensure those associated with the university are being protected as well, says Austin.  

“Right now, with NIL, name, image and likeness, it’ll be interesting to see how that affects the royalties,” she says. “It’s important for us to have those opportunities for the student athletes to be able to promote and profit their own personal brand tied to Michigan State University as well.” 

Interactions Between Spartan Spirit Shop and Licensing/Crafter’s License 

While the licensing office is busy facilitating the paperwork behind the products, Benkert and the Spartan Spirit Shop team are working firsthand with consumers and vendors to fulfill their needs.  

A guest came in to Benkert’s location looking for a Michigan State swim cap.  

“Well, that’s not something that we’d normally stock in our store. Sometimes there’s little niche specialty places, you know, there might be a swimming emporium that sells all sorts of swim caps, and maybe they have a licensed thing,” she explains. “I’ll call either Erika or Kaye [Blossey] and say, ‘Hey, I have somebody who is looking for a swim cap, do we have any licensees that sell swim caps?’ Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t; sometimes we have to get creative and figure out another way to help that guest get what they want, and most of the time we’re able to do it.” 

One way to connect Spartans to the specific merchandise they are looking for is to supply smaller creators with crafter’s licenses.  

“We welcome all of those entrepreneurs that have that skillset and want to become a crafter. Those are the smallest licensees that we work with; our friends and family of the community that are interested in that crafter’s license,” says Austin. “It’s also a great introduction to someone that wants to get into licensing. I always advise those individuals to maybe start with the crafter’s license because there is a limit on how much you can sell and how much you can make before moving to the standard license.” 

This allows Spartans and fans to sell their products and keep the MSU brand whole, adds Benkert. 

Process to Become Licensed 

Working with MSU to sell licensed merchandise is made easy through the use of a simple and quick application process administered by the Collegiate Licensing Company, according to Austin.  

“As they go through that process, we vet out the company to make sure they’re in good standing and making sure that their brand is something that we want to put the MSU brand with,” she says.  

The full process takes around four to six weeks and is followed by licensees as small as Etsy shop owners to large corporations like Nike. 

While the team welcomes the creativity of the entrepreneur, there are often some products that the university will not accept or work with. These include alcohol, anything related to guns or violence, and anything of a political nature. 

Spartan helmet