During Samantha Stevens’ seven-plus years as Michigan State’s director of licensing, tens of thousands of designs and renderings for Spartans souvenirs crossed her desk, seeking the stamp of approval.
Within this pile of prospective products, Stevens vividly recalls a submission last year by FOCO, the licensed fan goods manufacturer, for an MSU-anointed “Man Cave” sign. Specifically, she recalled it as being “outdated” and “creepy.”
FOCO has been producing team “Man Cave” wall decor since at least 2017, though the company declined to say when the product line originated. Currently, there are 69 versions of the sign for sale, covering 44 pro teams and 21 college programs. The product currently retails for $35 and has amassed over 1,100 mostly positive ratings on Amazon.
Almost all of the teams’ signs contain the same wording as the Nebraska sign pictured in the image above:
- [Team] Man Cave
- Man controls ALL remotes when the [Team] plays
- What happens in “the cave” stays in “the cave”
Michigan State’s, however, is one of the telling exceptions.
Beyond the overall misogyny of the sign’s boilerplate, Stevens says its last line—an homage to Sin City’s vow of silence—would have been especially problematic for a university that in 2018 paid a $500 million settlement to the victims of Larry Nassar, the former MSU sports doctor convicted of sexually assaulting dozens of collegiate and Olympic athletes.
“Ever since the Nassar stuff blew up, we have tried to be hypersensitive to not only what we were putting logos on but how they were reading and how you could take those,” said Stevens, who left her job with the school earlier this month to work for a licensee.
In an email exchange, Matthew Katz, FOCO’s director of licensing, declined to specifically address the content of the “Man Cave” signs or differences between the versions.
“As a licensed product company, FOCO submits all products/designs to its respective Licensors for review,” Katz said. “Adjustments to designs are made when it receives feedback. Products featured on our website have gone through the normal approval process and the Licensors make the final decisions on design.”
Rather than ditching the FOCO “Man Cave” program entirely, Michigan State proceeded with a near-clinical level of benignity.
Removing any cave reference whatsoever, MSU’s leads off with “Fans Welcome.” Instead of “Man controls ALL remotes,” it’s: “No changing the channel during the game.” And instead of, “What happens in ‘the cave’ stays in ‘the cave,’” the Spartans simply exhort their supporters to, “Cheer on Michigan State and have fun!”
An analysis of FOCO’s website reveals one other member of the maximally inoffensive “Fans Welcome” club, one that shouldn’t surprise any follower of sporting scandal: Penn State, the school that for three decades employed a child rapist as an assistant football coach.
A Penn State spokesperson didn’t specifically associate the Jerry Sandusky history with its licensing machinations, but did say that it is “not uncommon for licensing to be denied for a variety of reasons, including on products that do not align with university values.”
Despite the schools' misgivings and what appears on the products, the FOCO website still makes reference to selling MSU and PSU “Mancave” signs.
FOCO’s mission statement says it operates with the “shared goal of helping people let their inner fan shine like a beacon of awesome.” But at least with this product, the company may be illuminating the Achilles’ heels of its licensors. Or, for that matter, the multibillion dollar sports product industry, in which women have historically been neglected while the “Man Cave” motif continues to endure far beyond a single offering from FOCO.
Whereas pro sports licensing is often done at the league level, colleges typically handle their own marks. Bigger schools can end up with more than 200 licensees each year and thousands of product pitches seeking use of an athletic department’s logos and colors. To help manage that volume, schools often rely on a third party firm like the Learfield-owned Collegiate Licensing Company.
CLC, which works with more than 500 schools, including Michigan State and Penn State, can source deals and direct business, but the individual campus gives the final go-ahead on products.
“CLC does not render decisions on companies, products or artwork on behalf of partner institutions,” a company spokesperson said. “Those requests from licensees are processed through to the institution for review and approval or disapproval based on each individual institution’s policies or guidelines.”
A UNC spokesperson said that it was the university's “longstanding practice” to have licensees use “Fan Cave” on products, and that it rejected FOCO’s original design back when it was pitched in 2017 (As of Tuesday afternoon, UNC's official online shop was selling two other products that read "Man Cave"). Iowa State, meanwhile, says that FOCO initially pitched the product with "fan."
“There was no notation or comment from them on why they submitted it that way, nor did our director of licensing question the submission,” said Nick Joos, the Cyclones’ senior associate athletic director.
There are some notable distinctions among the pro sports “Man Cave” signs, as well. The versions FOCO produces for five NHL teams—Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Vegas, and Washington—say “Fan Cave.” An NHL spokesperson told Sportico that the league has, in general, encouraged its clubs to endorse non-gendered fan gear.
On the other hand, despite the NFL's boasts in recent years about the growth of its female fan base, the FOCO placards for 31 of its 32 teams say "Man Cave." The lone exception is for the Los Angeles Rams, whose recent Super Bowl victory is commemorated by a FOCO “Fan Cave” sign. Representatives for the Rams and NFL league declined to comment.
Lev Akabas contributed to this report.