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Saturday's matchup between the Big Orange and the Big Blue in Memphis may have more people than ever seeing green.
"The last few weeks have really been different for basketball," said Todd Perkins, merchandising manager for HoundDogs, a local chain of sports merchandise stores. "People talk about football all the time, but now people are requesting more basketball items and there is more of a general buzz about basketball."
"Got Pearl?" is a logo on one of HoundDogs' best-selling T-shirts, but it's apparently more than just a slogan. Perkins said he noticed this week a rise in requests for basketballs to autograph. After asking customers why all the interest, he learned University of Tennessee men's basketball coach Bruce Pearl was getting ready for another local autograph session and fans wanted to be ready for it.
"Coach Pearl is accessible, and because of that, you really see a big difference," Perkins said.
Chris Fuller tends to agree. The associate athletic director for sales and marketing at UT said fans are clamoring for Vols basketball merchandise, prompting the athletics department to lobby major retailers to stock more Big Orange stuff.
In fact, Fuller said UT has invited representatives from large retailers to the UT-South Carolina game next month to witness the phenomenon.
"I don't think we've fully capitalized on it. We need to get our retailers to have confidence to purchase (Vols basketball) merchandise 12 to 18 months in advance," Fuller said. "In basketball, we are capable of much bigger numbers."
While Fuller doesn't have firm revenue numbers for Vols basketball merchandise sales, he said overall merchandise sales are up 31 percent for the 2007-2008 academic year versus the same prior-year period. He said Internet sales are up 44 percent in the same period and sales at specific events for football and basketball have increased 21 percent.
Fuller doesn't attribute all the increases to Pearl's basketball program; he said football posted significant growth, too. But he's aware of the impact Pearl is having. The coach's marketing prowess is evident with the national spotlight his team has attracted. Pearl is a regular on ESPN highlight reels, and his team is in demand for regional and national game telecasts.
Tiffany Carpenter, director of public relations for UT's athletics department, said her office each day receives at least three to four requests for Pearl to speak, and those requests have picked up since the latest Associated Press poll ranked the Vols second in the nation, just behind the University of Memphis. Carpenter said her office is overwhelmed with fans dropping off items for Pearl to sign and is asking them to not bring them in until after April.
"In the past, we've had to be more proactive (in marketing basketball)," said Carpenter. "This year people are really excited about Tennessee basketball and they are contacting us more for tickets and promotion."
This week the men's team is ranked higher than the Lady Vols for the first time since 1982.
"It's interesting," Carpenter said. "Football has always sold itself; now it's nice to have basketball selling itself."
Carpenter believes the relationship between UT basketball coaches Pearl and Pat Summitt and UT football coach Phillip Fulmer is helping take UT athletics to a higher level.
UT is the only school in the country to have three top-five attendance rankings in athletics (men's basketball, women's basketball and football).
"The attention that the University of Tennessee gets nationally is something the men (basketball team) have never experienced," said Carpenter. "It helps the image of the University of Tennessee."
Jed Dance knows quite a bit about how a team's success can boost sales. He is vice president of Bacon & Co., a Knoxville-based wholesale merchandise business that has produced and distributed UT merchandise since 1925. Bacon & Co. makes T-shirts, collectibles and novelty items for about 20 schools.
"When they are winning there is no question sales are better," Dance said. "The past three years with coach Pearl have definitely made a big impact. We've geared more of our items toward Tennessee basketball."
Dance and his staff work to stay ahead of the curve by watching team trends and predicting how they will translate into sales.
"It's a gamble," he said. "We're already preparing for the men's and women's tournaments."
And if Tennessee defeats Memphis Saturday, Dance promises a T-shirt commemorating the game by Sunday.
A win also would be good news for stores like Tennessee Traditions, the official store of UT athletics. Vols fans are shelling out $70 each for a pair of orange and white warm-up pants like the ones the Vols wear.
Gwena Dotson, assistant manager of the Tennessee Traditions store on campus, said the men's basketball team's success is helping sales quite a lot.
"You can tell they are doing well," Dotson said. "It's been like that with the Lady Vols in the past; now it's true for the men."
Meanwhile, HoundDogs' Perkins said the last few weeks have really been different for basketball sales.
"We're wondering now what will happen if they make it to the Final Four," Perkins said.
It's a question he and other retailers are hoping the Vols can answer.