Deal could shut fundraising group out of U of M arena

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The Barnyard, a University student group that some say has bolstered attendance and atmosphere at men’s basketball games, no longer can raise money by selling University-provided student section shirts at games.

The change, likely to greatly hurt the group’s fundraising, came as a result of renegotiations of a recently expired contract between the University and Minnetonka-based Gold Country, both of which had allowed the group’s fundraising under a contract.

Gold Country owns and operates the Gold Country stores in Dinkytown and Stadium Village as well as other stores, such as Goldy’s Locker Room at the Mall of America.

The contract, signed in July 1998, allows Gold Country exclusive rights of merchandise sales at University events, including apparel at men’s basketball games.

Minnesota’s contract with Gold Country expired June 30, and the renewal is expected to be signed within the next couple of weeks.

Associate athletics director Tom Wistrcill said 90 percent of the discussions are about online merchandising.

But part of the discussion, he said, is “how strictly we would need to and want to abide by the (exclusivity) rule.”

“We recognize that the student group wants to find ways to raise money; we also recognize that we have a partner that’s paying us a tremendous amount of money to sell licensed products.

“(Gold Country) has kind of looked the other way and been nice about it,” Wistrcill said.

Troy Amundson, vice president of Gold Country, said negotiations about fundraising were still under way.

“Is it a deal-breaker?” Amundson said. “No … we’ve never made a huge stink over the thing.”

It’s difficult, Wistrcill said, to make case-by-case decisions when exceptions have been made.

“If you say yes to one person, it’s hard to say no to anyone else,” Wistrcill said. “I just want to get (the contract) clean.”

Athletics marketing started the Barnyard, named after the University community’s affectionate nickname for Williams Arena, by placing ads for members, and registered the group with the Student Activities Office.

The group originally raised money through a $5 optional membership in the student section, which included an official section shirt.

The group later designed student section shirts, and then bought the surplus from Athletics Department marketing, selling them at Williams Arena entrances for $10, said Nadine Babu, the Barnyard’s adviser and one of the first officers of the group. Babu said the group sold about 3,000 shirts, each bringing in about $8 for the group.

The Barnyard used that money to promote at-home games and create a Minnesota student presence at away games. One road trip to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., would have cost as much as $180 for a student to travel by bus, purchase a game ticket and stay in a hotel.

Through fundraising, Babu said, the rate per student was $89.

Barnyard members might have to resort to selling the shirts off-site, possibly at local bars and restaurants. They will still receive money from student season tickets if students spring for the $5 membership option.

Communications senior Josh Johnson said he feels like the University isn’t behind Barnyard and they’re not trying to strengthen the team.

“A strong student section is important and can help us win games we’re the underdogs in, like playing Illinois or Michigan State.”

Neal Johnson has been a board member of the men’s basketball booster club, the Golden Dunkers, since 1978.

The Golden Dunkers have funded Barnyard game-day giveaways such as headbands, towels, pompoms or “something to wave,” Neal Johnson said.

The promotions “get the barnyard excited, which gets the fans excited, which hopefully gets the team excited,” Neal Johnson said.

The Barnyard hasn’t just contributed to the game-day atmosphere. Student season ticket sales saw a sixfold increase between fall 2004 and fall 2005 because of a combination of the team’s success and the Barnyard’s hard work, Johnson said.

“It went from somewhere around 300 to last year up around 1,800, and a lot of that was just (Barnyard members) going out and hustling and trying to get students there,” he said.

Gold Country, which also operates Bucky’s Locker Room locations in Madison, Wis., has a similar agreement with the University of Wisconsin: 100 percent exclusive retail management rights, according to the company’s Web site.

That agreement, signed by the University of Wisconsin in May 2004, gives Gold Country those exclusive rights in exchange for $300,000 a year in royalties, plus up to 35 percent of Internet sales or sales in excess of $1.5 million.

Gold Country’s royalties to Minnesota, agreed on six years prior to the Wisconsin contract, were to be at least $110,000 per year for the first five years and at least $115,000 per year for the last three.

Vince Sweeney, senior associate athletics director for external relations at the University of Wisconsin, said the contract with Gold Country is pretty clear.

“Exclusive means exclusive … that’s why they put the dollar amount on the table,” he said.

No student groups or departments within the athletics department are allowed to raise money by selling merchandise at Wisconsin games, Sweeney said, but said he didn’t know how useful it would be to compare the two schools’ agreements.

“Our situation’s a little different,” he said, because Minnesota had made an exception to the contract,” he said.

Men’s basketball spokesman Kyle Coughlin said that while he wasn’t aware the group had sold shirts at games or that it would no longer be able to do so, there could be a “reasonable explanation why this can’t happen.”

“Maybe it’s something we did in the past and we found out ‘Gee, we really can’t do that because this violates the agreement,’ ” Coughlin said.

“Basketball season still is a couple months off,” he said. “There might be other solutions out there that we can explore.”

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