In 2004, Jared Loftus moved to Baton Rouge, La. with the dream of opening a successful T-shirt shop in the shadow of Louisiana State University’s Tiger Stadium. His inspiration came while selling bootleg merchandise out of a backpack to raise money for his campaign for student body president at the University of Southern Mississippi. Loftus noticed a significant demand for the custom merchandise. He found a licensed manufacturer and opened Tiger District in November of 2004.
Despite long odds, Tiger District thrived thanks to a rabid fan base for LSU football. In less than two years, he expanded the store of 1,300 square feet to more than double its original size. Yet Loftus had bigger plans than a single store selling LSU gear, and last year he sold his brick-and-mortar location to shift his business online. Loftus says it was difficult to let the store go, but the sale freed him to expand his scope and satisfy a national demand for custom college football merchandise.
Today, Loftus sits at the helm of College District, an online college football merchandise company that fills 1,500-2,000 orders a week from across the nation. The former one-man operation is now up to a staff of twelve and has raked in nearly $1 million dollars this season. Loftus says that all profits are being reinvested into company growth.
He says part of the reason for his move to an online format was the realization that his success was really dependent on LSU’s success. It wasn’t a bad business model. LSU has won two National Championships in the past decade, and heads to New Orleans in January to play Alabama in this year’s BCS Championship Game. Adam Knapp, President and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce, estimates that well over 150,000 fans flock to the area on days of LSU home games.
It wasn’t enough for Loftus. “I couldn’t help but notice that when LSU doesn’t do well, somebody else does,” he says. That realization led him to the Internet. His company now handles orders not only from Tiger District, the online store for LSU fans, but from seventeen other school-specific sites from Florida to Oregon. Loftus thinks the relationship with gridiron performance is more prevalent now than ever before. He says his business is so closely tied to each team’s on-field success that he doesn’t even need to watch the games these days. He can tell who won by changes in his sales numbers each weekend.
That connection is also apparent on Facebook, where Loftus operates fan pages for each of his College District outlets. It is no surprise that the two most popular Facebook pages are for LSU and Alabama. The two pages already have more than 40,000 “likes” combined with the game still three weeks away.
No item has made a bigger splash than Tiger District’s homage to Tyrann Mathieu, LSU cornerback and return specialist, and his nickname: the Honey Badger. The Honey Badger T-shirt made an appearance on CBS during the October 8th game between Florida and LSU, and it sparked an immediate reaction from fans. Loftus says that the Honey Badger shirt hit record sales and that the sales of all items tripled.
The shirt, originally released in the infancy of Tyrann Mathieu’s Youtube-inspired nickname, is now the flagship item for Tiger District. Loftus says the shirt didn’t sell particularly well upon its initial release, so he turned to his consumers for a solution. He polled fans for ideas and then put it to an online vote. The winner, which features a ball-carrying badger with the words “Honey Badger Takes What He Wants!,” is now commonplace amongst the LSU faithful. ESPN blogger Edward Aschoff says the shirts are, “easily the best in the sport right now.”
The College District website is being upgraded to not only act as a hub for all of the school-specific sites, but also for users to upload and vote on fan-created designs. Loftus wants the crowd-source design method to be at the core of his business model, and he wonders why more businesses don’t utilize it. “It’s a no brainer,” he says. “You’re asking consumers what they want and then you’re selling it to them.”
Loftus plans to expand his business beyond college football in the coming months. He will shift his focus towards college basketball for the first time in January and hopes to tap into the demand for custom merchandise at schools like Duke and UNC. College sports are just the beginning for Loftus. He has already purchased more than 250 domain names in preparation for expanding his business into professional leagues like the NFL and MLB. Loftus isn’t too concerned about the enormity of his goals. He adds, “fans are fans and there is no shortage of creativity.”