Cashing in on the Cats: Basketball team’s winning ways help save local economy’s bottom line

The UK basketball team has increased sales for several businesses around Lexington, including Wildcat Warehouse and Hands On Originals at Wildcat Warehouse and Hands On Originals on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010. Photo by Adam Wolffbrandt

By Garrett Wymer

The UK men’s basketball team’s statistics on the court have garnered nationwide attention and a No. 2 national ranking. But it is the numbers the team has put up on South Limestone and Waller Avenue that have many local business owners excited this season.

Managers at Kennedy Book Store, Wildcat Textbooks and Campus Pub have all noticed a significant spike in business as a result of the buzz surrounding UK head coach John Calipari and his Cats.

The enthusiasm seemed to reach fever pitch after Kentucky’s 88-44 win over Drexel on Dec. 21, said Carol Behr, general manager of Kennedy Book Store, and David Wade, general manager of Wildcat Textbooks.

That victory gave UK its 2,000th win, making the school the first to reach the milestone in college basketball. The official “UK2K” shirt, commemorating the basketball program’s historic achievement, made history of its own at Kennedy Book Store.

“We’ve sold over 10,000 of that shirt,” Behr said. “I’ve never sold that much of one design before. Not even for a national championship.”

The swell in business and sales of UK apparel comes at a time when Kentucky pride appears to be at an all-time high, at least according to the receipts.

But the effect of the team’s success doesn’t stop at merchandise — local eateries and bars are also reaping the benefits of UK basketball’s rewards.

Dave Spreitzer, owner of Campus Pub and Patchen Pub, said the excitement surrounding this year’s squad has breathed new life into his business.

Campus Pub was filled to the brim for the UK–Florida game on Tuesday night, even with a 9 p.m. tip-off, Spreitzer said.

“You can’t put a price on the economic advantage of quality sports teams,” he said.

“Business was fine with the Billy (Gillispie) era,” Spreitzer said. “And, even as much as we all loved Tubby (Smith), I didn’t realize how much business had waned over the last four to five years.”

However, business this season has been incredible because of the excitement surrounding the team, Spreitzer said.

Wade compared the current fervor to that for the UK basketball teams of the late ’90s. From 1996 to 1998, the UK basketball team appeared in three straight national title games, winning the championship twice.

“We were so good there in the late ’90s … going to the finals for three straight years … but the excitement level (now) is up to and maybe even surpassing that,” Wade said. “Something about this team really has everybody excited.”

Internet orders have played a large role in the current influx of merchandise purchases.

Behr said probably 50 percent of orders for the “UK2K” shirt have been over the Internet, emphasizing the university’s fan base across the nation.

Even over Winter Break, with students not on campus, Wade said Wildcat Textbooks had “a lot of extra work to do,” particularly because of Internet orders.

The development of the Internet is the main difference between the excitement and economic effect of the ’90s and that of today, Wade said.

“As exciting as it was then, the Internet was just coming along,” he said. “There’s UK fans all across the country. Now they can get on the Internet and buy mostly from local companies, because we have the licensed gear. Now there’s no limit to it.”

T-shirts may be the biggest seller when it comes to merchandise, but items like car flags, license plates and magnets are also selling as a result of the fan frenzy.

People are looking for any item that can say, ‘Yes, I’m a Kentucky fan,’ Behr said.

“People are just hungry to celebrate again,” she said.

The eagerness to celebrate is also carrying over to the bars.

“We’re selling food, beer, liquor. Everyone’s in a great mood,” Spreitzer said of the crowd at Campus Pub for Tuesday night’s SEC game.

“If they keep winning like this, it’s terrific for the local economy,” Wade said. “There’s no telling what can happen.”