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Successful Q-C couple turns from sports to kitchens
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Photo: Todd Mizener
Mitzi and Jeff Collins, former owners of Sports Avenue, now own two Black & Gold shops and eight KITCHEN stores.
DAVENPORT -- It was two hours after the Green Bay Packers had defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997.

On the backside of the Louisiana Superdome, Jeff and Mitzi Collins were stuffing cash -- lots of it -- into a jacket vest owned by a friend, a Louisiana-based attorney. In a short span after the Packers' 35-21 win over the Patriots, Sports Avenue -- a sports-based apparel shop owned by the Quad-Cities couple -- had made $45,000 in cash.

"We were making T-shirts, hats, all sorts of other championship items, all on the spot,'' Mr. Collins said of the adventure. "It was amazing. We were knee-deep in help -- people just working crazily -- and we were seven or eight deep in line with people buying. We didn't have any credit-card machines out there. It was the craziest thing we'd ever seen.''

It got even more interesting when the crush waned.

"We close up shop, and here we are -- on a dimly lit street on the backside of the Superdome,'' Mr. Collins said. "And we have all this cash and no security. So we stuff it in a bag and inside the vest of the coat of a friend. He drives to his boathouse on the other side of town and keeps the money there.''

The following day the friend called Mr. Collins.

"He tells me there is $45,000 in cash sitting on a counter in his house,'' Mr. Collins said. "I'm floored. Truth is, I forgot about it. He had to call us.''

It was just another day in the long, winding and successful business careers of Jeff and Mitzi Collins.

In October 2010, the Collinses sold their interest in their Sports Avenue venture, a grouping of 46 successful sports apparel franchises across the country that employed more than 400. Today, the Collinses own eight KITCHENS stores (specialty items for the kitchen) and a pair of Black & Gold shops that sell University of Iowa-licensed products.

"We turned down the first offer, and then we were asked what it would take for us to sell the Sports Avenue stores,'' Mr. Collins said. "We tossed out a number we knew would never be met. Never. Funny thing, the group we would eventually sell to came back and thought it was a reasonable offer. We could not refuse. It was time. Our partner, (the late) Terry Lunardi, had passed away, and it wasn't the same without him.''

Thirty-five years ago, Mr. Collins opened a pair of mall-based Karmelkorn shops in the Quad-Cities. At the time, he was a vice president for General Growth, a mall construction and management company that built NorthPark and SouthPark malls. Ms. Collins, who worked for John Deere at the time, gave up her post with the farm implement giant and began overseeing the Karmelkorn shops along with Mr. Collins. Soon the pair added eight Crazy Top apparel shops across the Midwest and South to their expanding business portfolio.

"The Crazy Tops shops were the predecessors to licensed products,'' Ms. Collins said. "In the 1980s, not all the schools or professional sports teams were selling licensed products. In fact, the University of Iowa was one of the first to understand how important and beneficial it would be financially to license products.''

Crazy Top shops evolved into Sports Avenue, taking shape in an era when licensed sports soared. The Collinses arranged contract deals with The New York Yankees for five stores in New York, the New York Jets, Arizona State University, Washington University, the Milwaukee Brewers, the New Orleans Saints, the St. Louis Cardinals and a host of other college and professional teams. Sports Avenue also became the exclusive retailer for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

"We caught it at the right time,'' Mr. Collins said. "I loved it. I have a background in real esate, and it was fun for me to scout locations. There were challenges, but Sports Avenue grew at a pace we never expected. We made money -- maybe not as much as you might think with taxes and payroll and other things -- but we made money.''

The two also met some interesting people along the way, including Joe Namath, a bevy of New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals executives, New Orleans Saints players and one much-maligned NFL star.

"We had three Saints players signing at one of our team stores in New Orleans,'' Mr. Collins said. "It was a Saturday, and they were playing the San Francisco 49ers the next day. We heard that Terrell Owens was in the mall that day, and our security guy, Big Rich, decided he was going to talk with (him) and see if he would stop by. Big Rich did find Owens, and Owens promised to stop.

"Well, he not only stops, he buys $1,200 worth of Mitchell & Ness throwback jerseys, has a Sharpie in his shoe ... and takes over. He stays for 90 minutes, talks with everyone, poses for pictures and signs everything. What a gracious and kind man. Say what you want, but Terrell Owens will always be great in our eyes.''

The Collinses have a five-year noncompete clause with the company that purchased Sports Avenue. However, they're not about to sit back and let the business world pass them by.

"There's something else out there,'' Mr. Collins said. "I don't know what, but it's out there.''

Remembering the dream

Who: Jeff and Mitzi Collins, former owners of Sports Avenue, now owners of KITCHENS and Black & Gold stores
Quote: "There were challenges, but Sports Avenue grew at a pace we never expected." -- Jeff Collins

Local events heading

  Today is Thursday, Oct. 2, the 275th day of 2014. There are 90 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The ladies have adopted the fashion of wearing representations of insects in the flowers on their bonnets. Some look very natural.
1889 -- 125 years ago: T.F. Cary, former Rock Island alderman, has accepted a position as salesman for a Chicago wallpaper house and plans to move to that city.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Work on the new telephone building on 18th Street between 6th and 7th avenues is progressing rapidly.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Rock Island's new theater at 3rd Avenue and 19th Street will have a name significant of its location. The "Rocket" is scheduled to open Thanksgiving Day.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Two of Rock Island's newest water towers were vandalized last night, including the one at 38th Street and 31st Avenue, where police took five Moline boys into custody about 9 p.m..
1989 -- 25 years ago: Some of us who live in the Quad-Cities take the Mississippi River for granted, or at least we used to. But the river is not taken for granted by our visitors. And most Quad-Citians are realizing the importance of the river to this area as increased emphasis is placed on tourism.

(More History)