When Ohio State booted DiSabato from its lucrative licensing program, the feisty ex-Buckeye wrestler decided to take on Goliath. His old man would be proud.
Editor’s note: Before he blew the whistle on a massive sexual misconduct scandal at Ohio State, the fiery former wrestler waged another battle with his alma mater over licensing profits—one that underscored many of the issues raised by the NCAA’s recent decision to allow current players to make money off their likenesses. Columbus Monthly wrote about DiSabato’s first skirmish back in 2008.
Sports entrepreneur Mike DiSabato is in fighting mood, as usual. The former wrestling champion is huddled in a booth at Emelio's, the pizzeria and bar his family has run in a gritty west-side Columbus neighborhood for more than four decades.
In December 2006, Ohio State booted DiSabato from its lucrative licensing program. At the time, the decision seemed like a death sentence for DiSabato's small clothing and memorabilia company, Silver Knight Sales & Marketing. But a funny thing happened on the way to the gallows: The condemned man fought back. And nearly a year later, he's still causing trouble. "If we're on the same team, I'm going to work my ass off for you," he says. "If we're not on the same team, I'm going to do everything in my power to beat your ass."
The plaques, snapshots and framed newspaper articles on the wall next to him document his family's fighting spirit and remarkable wrestling pedigree. Together, the six DiSabato brothers, Ohio's greatest wrestling dynasty, won 11 high school state titles, and five of the boys went on to wrestle at Ohio State. But no one was tougher than their late father, the elder Mike DiSabato, a diminutive man who put nine kids through Catholic school and lived his life by a simple credo: Honor your friends, speak your mind and kowtow to no one "At the end of the day, who are you?" asks DiSabato, 39, eyeing the wall of memorabilia. "I know who l am because I come from these folks."
In a 16-year-old photo on the wall, DiSabato—smiling, clean cut, a full head of hair—poses with Gordon Gee, the then and later once-again OSU president, after winning a prestigious award given to the top male and female student-athletes at each Big Ten university. In early November, DiSabato looks much different: a grim expression, loose-fitting athletic wear, a Yankees baseball cap crowning his bald head. He talks fast, curses colorfully and heaps a mountain of invective on his enemies. He's a David Mamet tough guy come to life.
He leans across the table and reveals the next move in his David-versus-Goliath battle with Buckeye Inc. In a week, he's scheduled to meet with Helen DeSantis, OSU's assistant vice president for business. The meeting would be an ideal opportunity to apologize to his powerful foe and beg for the return of his small slice of the OSU sports and merchandising pie. But if he did that, then he wouldn't be a DiSabato. "I’m going to very frankly tell her, ‘Either I get my license back tomorrow or I will set an appointment with Gordon Gee, and I'm going to have this discussion with him. I hope we can handle this here.’ ”
Is it foolish, perhaps even suicidal, for a tiny operator like him to strong arm Ohio State, a $4 billion behemoth and a Columbus sacred cow?
"I don't care," he says.
In 1974, Ohio State became the first university in the country to register its trademarks with the federal government The brainchild of a then part-time paralegal named Anne Chasser, the effort focused simply on protecting the university's name. Before then, anyone could slap "Ohio State" on a T-shirt or a business and enjoy the benefits of an association with the university.
In fact, OSU didn't start making money off its various trademarks—"Ohio State," "Buckeyes, " "Brutus," "TBDBITL," the leaf and block "O" logos—until school officials established a formal trademark and licensing program, headed by Chasser, in the early 1980s. Today, the growing popularity of college sports has made the licensing office a big money maker. In the last fiscal year, OSU generated a smidge over $9 million in licensing royalties, a quadrupling of the total from four years ago and an all-time record for any university in the country. "I guarantee you that nobody would have ever envisioned a million dollars, let alone nine," says Rick Van Brimmer, who's worked in the office for 17 years and replaced Chasser as its director in 1999 when President Bill Clinton appointed her to head the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Under Van Brimmer, royalties have jumped dramatically, thanks in no small part to Jim Tressel and Thad Matta. Ohio State's rabid fans and huge alumni base make university trademarks a valuable commodity no matter the circumstances, but the numbers are bound to increase when the signature sports teams—football and men's basketball—contend for national titles, and even more if they win it all. For instance, if the Buckeyes had defeated Louisiana State University in January in the national championship football game, Ohio State would have earned an additional $2 million in royalties, Van Brimmer estimates.
As the guy holding the keys to the Buckeye licensing machine, Van Brimmer is a powerful figure. He controls, to varying degrees, the economic fate of the 550 or so OSU licensees, a diverse lot that ranges from apparel giant Nike to a suburban Cincinnati high school student named Kristin Wood who sells doctored photos of Ohio Stadium. And though money making is a bigger part of the mission than in the past, Van Brimmer remains a vigilant protector of OSU's name, refusing to license muskets, rifles, knives, wine, cigars and condoms over the years. “The license has a tremendous amount of value," says Bret Adams, a lawyer and sports agent who represents ex-Bucks Chris Spielman and Jim Lachey. “People won't ruffle feathers because they want to keep their license."
DiSabato, however, is a different animal. “Mike challenged Ohio State on how they did business, and no one had ever challenged the Ohio State University before," says Adams, who also represents DiSabato.
The hypocrisy of big-time college athletics taints the university's licensing program. Current players, of course, are amateurs, and the university is careful not to profit directly off their names and images. However, it does license products with current players' jersey numbers—James Laurinaitis's “33," for instance—without names on the back. The logic is a bit of a stretch; most Buckeye fans know who wears "33," so what's the difference? And even Van Brimmer acknowledges that "it sounds a little strange that we can use their number and not their name."
What's more, the university has approved the sale of jerseys with numbers that prominent former players wore during their OSU playing days: Eddie George's "27," Chris Spielman's “36," Archie Griffin's "45" (the most popular OSU jersey ever). Again, because no names were on the backs, the university didn't share the royalties with the ex-players, even though their NCAA eligibility was long gone.
But that changed once DiSabato entered the picture. Brash, hard-working and gregarious, DiSabato is a natural salesman. After graduating from Ohio State with two degrees—a bachelor's in marketing and a master's in public administration—he broke into the licensing business in the mid 1990s, first working for apparel companies and then as an independent rep. "He's a competitor; he's a fighter," says Adam Heller,a Columbus sports agent who represents former OSU stars Troy Smith and Anthony Schlegel. "And those are the things that make him very good at what he does."
DiSabato's big break came in the fall of 2001 when he helped develop the Legends of the Shoe (renamed the Legends of the Scarlet and Gray in 2005), a line of OSU products—including apparel and novelties—that honors Buckeye football greats. The idea was groundbreaking for a couple of reasons. It brought the emerging bobblehead craze to Ohio State at the peak of its popularity. It also gave former players a piece of the royalty pie for the first time, including a share in the sale of their jersey numbers.
To get the program started, DiSabato persuaded three of the biggest Buckeye names—Griffin, whom he's known for years, George and Spielman—to give him the rights to their names and images. In turn, DiSabato agreed to pay them royalty checks (between 8 and 10 percent of the wholesale price). The program was a success, with both the university and players getting compensated. DiSabato's ex-jock roster, swelling to 14 now, has earned collectively hundreds of thousands of dollars since then, while DiSabato estimates that OSU made about $3 million from his products between 2001 and 2004.
The players are pleased with the results. "He's a good man," Spielman says. The ex-jocks like DiSabato's passion and candor. "He doesn't like to be told he can't do something," says former OSU quarterback Craig Krenzel, who signed a licensing contract with DiSabato in 2004. But those same qualities, in large part, are what have caused his troubles with Ohio State. “I'm ruthlessly competitive, DiSabato says. "That's a good thing and a bad thing. I know that about me. It makes me draft e-mails and send them when I probably should take a deep breath.”
The breakdown with Ohio State's licensing office came shortly after Forever Collectibles, the maker of the Legends of the Shoe bobbleheads, cut off ties with DiSabato in 2003, and he sued the New Jersey company in Franklin County Common Pleas Court. DiSabato was angered that Van Brimmer, whom DiSabato considered a friend, continued to do business with his enemy, Forever Collectibles. In an instant, Van Brimmer became someone DiSabato wanted to “destroy,” he says. (Van Brimmer declined to talk about DiSabato.)
DiSabato recovered from the fallout because the ex-players had signed licensing deals with him directly—in most cases exclusive ones. So, tired of building equity for other people, he became a wholesaler himself, importing goods from China and securing a license to sell OSU products for his own company, Silver Knight, a moniker inspired by the nickname of Ready High School, the West Side Catholic school he and his siblings attended.
He also became a constant wrench in the OSU licensing and athletic money machine. DiSabato argued with officials over trademarks, player licensing rights and possible products (OSU rejected A.J. Hawk and Brutus Buckeye bobbleheads he proposed) and pushed the university to pay former high-profile players royalties from the sale of all jerseys with their OSU numbers on them—anonymous "45" jerseys, for instance. (The university agreed to the change in 2006, DiSabato says.) But the battle culminated when OSU officials started to talk with Nike about giving the company an exclusive deal to sell jerseys.
DiSabato spoke out publicly against the negotiations in December 2006. “I’m shipping roughly 70,000 jerseys," he told Dispatch columnist Mike Harden. "Shouldn't Nike have to compete in the marketplace like everyone else?" His comments did little good; the university approved the Nike deal a few months later. In fact, three days after Harden's column ran, DiSabato received a certified letter telling him he'd lost his OSU license, a devastating blow. Buckeye products represented between 60 and 70 percent of Silver Knight's total sales in 2006.
Ohio State spokesman Jim Lynch says DiSabato's expulsion was "strictly a business decision," declining to elaborate. But DiSabato and others claim the move was personal, that he's being punished for rocking the Buckeye battleship. To show that business considerations weren't the reason for his ouster, they point to the $200,000 in royalties he paid the university in 2006. "This is about arrogance and ego," says Adams, the lawyer.
Emelio's is a rare stable business in a struggling stretch of Georgesville Road on the far West Side of Columbus. Just north of the bar, the Westland Mall is plagued with vacancies, and the former Delphi plant, once the neighborhood's biggest employer and Emelio's main customer base, closed for good in December. But the watering hole survives thanks to its distinctive thin-crust pizza and the loyalty of its regulars, many of whom have left the neighborhood but come back to hang out at Emelio's. "It's the closest thing to Cheers on the West Side," says Bob Stoil, the former Ready wrestling coach and a DiSabato family friend.
The place is now run by Leo DiSabato, the second oldest son in the family. He's updated the interior and added more TVs, but his father's presence is still felt. A large 20-year-old photo of his hero, Frank Sinatra, is on the wall and his old-school values are embraced. The elder DiSabato, who died in 2002, was a tough man with a big heart. He'd loan money to friends with no questions asked and put principles above profits.
Named for a business partner who later was bought out, Emelio's is one of the few bars in Columbus that doesn't sell Miller products. About two decades ago, the local Miller distributor fired its striking truck drivers and hired scabs. The move so offended the family patriarch, whose customers in the early days largely were UAW workers, he cut all ties with Miller. Today, his family continues the protest. Whenever an Emelio's newbie asks for a Miller Lite, the bartender responds, "It's on strike.”
Silver Knight shares a building with Emelio's, occupying a space that used to be a carryout. It's an odd location. There's no sign outside advertising Silver Knight's presence behind a door on the south end of the building. Inside, the space is open, funky and colorful, filled with autographed football jerseys, cool collectibles and racks of clothing. The location keeps Mike DiSabato close to the family business, where he conducts business meetings over pizza and, in November, held a silent auction of OSU memorabilia that raised about $10,000 for the Ray Mendoza Leadership Fund, a nonprofit he helped launch to honor his former OSU wrestling teammate who died in Iraq in 2005.
On an early December evening, DiSabato is in the office, talking on the phone with Mendoza's widow, Karen, who lives in San Diego. "Are you OK?" he asks. Earlier in the day, DiSabato met with officials at Ohio State's John Glenn School of Public Affairs about establishing an endowed leadership institute to honor Mendoza. He hangs up and yells across the room to his assistant, Jermaine Mendoza, Ray’s brother, that Karen seems troubled. “I heard it in her voice as well,” Jermaine says.
Like his father and namesake, DiSabato values loyalty. Perhaps nothing better captures this than his response to Mendoza’s death. After hearing about the tragedy, he reconnected with Mendoza’s family, gave Karen, Jermaine and Ray’s older brother, Niola, jobs and relentlessly lobbied OSU to honor his friend—believed to be the only former OSU student-athlete to die in the Iraq war—at a home football game.
His idea met resistance from athletic department officials. He suspects personal animus toward him was to blame. But after countless meetings, e-mails and some timely criticism from The Dispatch’s Harden, OSU brought Karen Mendoza and her 11-year-old son, Aleksandr, on the field for a tribute to her husband during the Nov. 10 Ohio State-Illinois game. "It's outrageous that Mike DiSabato had to ... force Ohio State to do the right thing," Adams says.
DiSabato is multitasking. He hops into his Toyota to give a driving tour of his old West-Side stomping grounds, but his business isn't put on hold. He answers a cellphone call from the rep of the cage fighter Stephan “American Psycho" Bonnar. “We want him in Columbus," says Dişabato, urging the rep to persuade Bonnar to appear at a March 1 Ultimate Fighting Championship bout in Columbus that DiSabato is helping to promote.
After attending a blockbuster UFC show at Nationwide Arena last year, DiSabato dove into the emerging sport of mixed martial arts. Needing to replace his lost OSU revenue, he signed several of the top ultimate fighters—including Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell, a recent ESPN the Magazine cover boy—to licensing contracts. He also developed three clothing lines (MMA Authentics, Familia Gladiatoria and Cage Fighter) that target the sport’s growing audience.
The new business isn’t making big money yet, but it has huge potential thanks to the sport’s global appeal. “It’s blowing up,” says DiSabato’s brother and employee, Adam. Plus, DiSabato already has connections in the world of mixed martial arts; ultimate fighters Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman were wrestling teammates at OSU, and his brothers know other fighters, many of whom started out as collegiate wrestlers.
DiSabato has big planş. He talks about someday selling his brands to a giant apparel company for a small fortune, and he's looking at a building in Hilliard he wants to convert into an office, warehouse and training facility.
But that doesn't mean he's forgotten about his OSU feud. Back at Emelio's, DiSabato digs into a pepperoni pizza ("the best in the city," he says) and plots his next move. That meeting in November with DeSantis didn't go well, "She said to me, ‘Mike, I got a call from the licensing office. The ladies in the licensing office actually feared for their safety because of you.’ I said, 'Helen, are you serious? I see where this is going. We don't have much more to talk about, so see you later.’ And I walked out."
Now, he's gearing up for another appointment at OSU. He's yet to get a face-to-face with Gee, but Adams, his lawyer, was to have met with Gee's top attorney, Chris Culley, in mid January.
The current situation reminds DiSabato of the best period of his wrestling career, his freshman year at Ready, when he won his only state title. Later in high school and college, DiSabato became a defensive, technical wrestler. He was still good, but he had trouble winning big matches. The difference was mental. As a freshman, "I was trying to win, not trying not to lose;" he says.
Today, DiSabato is approaching his battle with Ohio State the same way he attacked his wrestling opponents as a 112-pound, go-for-broke freshman. In late November, DiSabato ignored a "cease and desist" letter the university sent him demanding that he stop selling a T-shirt with the gold-pants logo. The letter stems from a long simmering dispute between the university and DiSabato over who controls the licensing rights to the 73-year-old tradition of giving every Buckeye football player a gold-pants trinket whenever the team beats Michigan. OSU backed off in a later letter, but all wasn't forgiven. "Silver Knight's actions do not appear to be the actions of a company that wishes to regain its status as an Ohio State Licensee," wrote associate OSU legal counsel Michael Mitchell.
Meanwhile, DiSabato says he might start selling generic red football jerseys with the names of former Buckeyes he has under contract, such as Spielman, Hawk and if he goes pro and DiSabato can sign him, James Laurinaitis. (His father, the professional wrestler Joe "The Animal" Laurinaitis, already has a licensing deal in place with DiSabato.) That move surely would provoke a swift response from OSU, which, along with several other schools, sued a company called Smack Apparel in Louisiana for doing something similar.
DiSabato likens legal action against Ohio State in Columbus, where Buckeye football is a religion, to “suing Jesus Christ." But sitting in the back booth at Emelio's, a small photo of his father with 1950 Heisman Trophy winner Vic Janowicz behind him, DiSabato is spoiling for a fight.
"Now I'm dangerous," he says.
This story originally appeared in the February 2008 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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