Purple Pride

Dan Murtaugh

Before the football season started, Northwestern running back Damien Anderson was being touted as a Heisman candidate in newspapers, magazines, Web sites – even on T-shirts.

Now his name has disappeared from the press, and the “D.A. for Heisman” T-shirts are now marked down to $5 at The Locker Room, an NU paraphernalia store across the street from Ryan Field.

Business in general has been hard for the two stores near Ryan Field that specialize in NU merchandise. Both the Locker Room, 1416 Central St., and Let’s Tailgate, 1805 Central St., began the season with Heisman hopes and Big Ten championship expectations for NU, but both stores over-ordered purple apparel and are having trouble selling it to fair-weather fans now that the football fever has chilled.

“A winning team brings a demand in merchandise,” said Cindy Fosco, co-owner of Let’s Tailgate. “We expected a real big year. I don’t know what happened to the team.”

Locker Room owner Ross Kooperman said he doesn’t expect NU’s football team to be good every year — and when a rebuilding season comes along, “you just have to ride it out.”

“Over-ordering hurts any business, but you have to make some projections,” he said. “You have to hope you’re right.”

Both stores are trying innovative approaches to make the best out of a lame-duck season for the Wildcats. The Locker Room is offering e-mail discounts, while Let’s Tailgate plans yearly bus trips to away games — the store took 85 people to Purdue on Oct. 27.

“We try to get people to say, ‘We’re here, win or lose,’ … and support the team all the time,” Fosco said.

A bad fall is especially tough on NU merchandise sellers — Fosco calls the football season “our bread and butter.” But the owners are more concerned about the team than their slumping sales. Fosco is already looking forward to next year.

“We’ve got a lot of young kids — a lot of it will depend on how (backup quarterbacks) Tony Stauss and Matt Danielson do,” she said. “A lot of changes are going to be made in the offseason. … We’ll have to wait and see.”

Fosco, a lifelong Chicago Bears and NU fan, began selling NU goods in the early 1980s in front of Ryan Field with her business partner and boyfriend, David Gaborek. Now co-owners of Let’s Tailgate, the two travel to most of the team’s road games, including this year’s Ohio State game, at which they were cursed at and told, “We’re gonna fill your stadium with red next year,” Fosco said.

NU’s football fortunes have changed so much since the early 1980s that Fosco and Gaborek have gone from selling mostly other teams’ merchandise to selling pro-NU items such as books entitled, “I Hate Ohio State.”

The product turnaround for the two stores can be attributed to NU’s Rose Bowl season in 1995. Kooperman said that before that season, other Big Ten teams didn’t respect NU and often scheduled the Cats as their homecoming opponent. The Rose Bowl team proved to administrators, students and alumni that good academics and good athletes can go hand-in-hand, Kooperman said.

The 1995 season had an even greater impact on Fosco and Gaborek — they decided to turn their stand in front of Ryan Field into a year-round store located just three blocks away.

“It was a good opportunity to sell at NU because the demand is so great,” Fosco said. “It was a big gamble, but it’s six years later and we’re still here.”

Gaborek and Fosco don’t devote all their time to the store — he’s also a real estate agent. Additionally, during slow business seasons like the summer, they both sell beer at Chicago stadiums such as Wrigley Field.

But their true passion is the store and promoting purple pride. They sell doorbells and alarm clocks that play NU’s fight song, purple piggy banks that say “saving up my money for Northwestern University,” and garbage bags marked with opposing teams’ logos under the label, “trash the opponent at your next tailgate.”

Fosco hopes her efforts can spark student support and increase attendance at home games.

“Especially for Ohio State next year,” she said. “We have to keep all that red out of the stands.”