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Wearing History Well

In April, 2003, Emmett Gill started Vintage Sports Apparel, a Silver Spring (Md.)-based maker of $175 replica sports jerseys from historically black colleges. As a former sociologist for the nonprofit Center for the Study of Sports & Entertainment, Gill spent years studying black college football and basketball stars from the 1950s and 1960s who ultimately made it to the professional leagues. That research provided the inspiration for his fledgling apparel line, which is sold both online and in 14 college bookstores.

Today, Gill works as an academic counselor at the University of Maryland while continuing to grow his two-employee company on the side. BusinessWeek Online reporter Burt Helm recently spoke with Gill, a Howard University graduate, about the challenges of retail distribution when competing with established players and sustaining his niche business even after the "throwback" jersey craze has started to subside. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What made you decide to start Vintage Sports Apparel?

A: I have been involved in sports for a while. I'm a sports sociologist by trade, and I've also done work with professional athletes and their nonprofits. Given my interest in sports, I inquired about becoming an authorized retailer for Mitchell & Ness [a major retro-jersey company], and they weren't offering any more authorizations. So I decided to do it myself.

Q: Why did you choose to focus on jerseys from historically black colleges?

A: When throwback jerseys got big, no one really marketed jerseys from historically black colleges. I really believe it's because people aren't familiar with the history of the schools. If you look at the current players in the National Basketball Assn. who went to a historically black college, there may be four or five, and in the National Football League there may be about 20.

One of our objectives in the near future is to make jerseys of current athletes who have made it [to the NBA and NFL] from historically black colleges because that helps kids who don't know about these cats from the '50s and '60s -- which were really the glory days for these schools -- make a connection.

We try to add some historical context to everything we do. So we print the stories of the players who wore the number of the jersey and put that information on the tag. When you purchase one, you can have that piece of history to hang onto.

Q: It's rare for an academic to start a company. Was it a tough move for you?

A: I've basically had to teach myself a lot about the business. I think it's interesting because one of the most ironic things about this whole venture was that when I got into the industry, it was at its climax, and now it's definitely dwindling.

When I was trying to get into the business, there were licensing companies that were making sure they were covering all their bases -- because this retro-jersey thing was so new, they were making sure they could maximize their entry into this industry, and it was hard to find a niche.

Q: Now that the craze is subsiding, how do you plan to survive?

A: The key in our marketing scheme is to get on campus and make sure that alumni, students, and faculty have access to our jerseys. They will become advertisers for us. That's the difference between doing it for a professional sports team and for a college. Every year you're going to have new students, new profs, and new alumni. With professional sports teams, most folks wear the jerseys because they like the colors and how it looks. We also had a lot support from Black Entertainment Television -- the hosts wear just about any jersey that we send them.

Q: Has it been difficult getting your jerseys distributed at the colleges?

A: We've been successful at the colleges that run their own bookstores. Unfortunately, Follett [which manages the bookstores of several historically black colleges] has not allowed us to become a vendor. They put out a generic brand instead that didn't really go and do the research. It's unfortunate because I'm a graduate of Howard University, and we haven't gotten to distribute through the bookstore there. A goal is to crack the Follett fortress and to get into every bookstore of every historically black college.

Q: Where do you eventually want to take the company?

A: We did have a couple of offers to become a subsidiary, but we turned them down because we wanted to make sure we always had the historically black colleges part. It just didn't seem right.

Part of the reason I decided against it was I felt our company had a lot of potential, and it wouldn't be as good with someone else's vision. But we're only 16 months old, so we're going to hang out for a little while. To be very honest, right now is not necessarily about the money -- it's about trying to see if we can create a product that's catered toward blacks, that can survive in the marketplace.

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