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Making the Team

If you’ve never sold to a team or league, doing so presents some unique challenges that can make you never want to see another team or league. Knowing about them in advance will help mitigate problems. Selling to teams and leagues can result in lower margins and unique headaches, but it can be worth the trouble to grow your business by putting your name in front of many families at a time.

Making the Team

Learn the Ins and Outs of Supplying Apparel and Equipment to Teams and Leagues

By Doug Wilcoxson, Bomark Sportswear

(Originally published in the August 2015 issue of Recognition Review.)

If you’ve never sold to a team or league, doing so presents some unique challenges that can make you never want to see another team or league. Knowing about them in advance will help mitigate problems. Selling to teams and leagues can result in lower margins and unique headaches, but it can be worth the trouble to grow your business by putting your name in front of many families at a time.

Parents will come back to you for other products you sell, like corporate awards and personalized gifts. Eighty percent of the responsibility in a community is handled by 20% of the people (the 80/20 rule), meaning that the people you’re trying to reach on the corporate side are often the people coaching these teams. They either own a small business or have influential positions within a bigger business. The same thing goes if you have aspirations to supply high school varsity sports teams. The parents running T-ball leagues will be part of the high school athletic boosters when their kids get to high school.

Another reason to pursue team/league business is for the stability. The recent recession hit awards retailers hard, in part because corporate clients cut awards first when times are tough. But even in tough times, parents don’t want to pull their children from youth sports. That offers some stability for retailers.

FINDING THE BUSINESS

To get involved in the business, you have to make sure teams and leagues can find you. If your business’s name doesn’t mention sports, you may have to send out flyers or advertise that you also handle uniforms and sport equipment. Dedicate space in your showroom to these products. You don’t need a sample of everything from Rawlings, for instance, to let customers know you carry Rawlings. You need a dozen baseballs and a batting helmet. Major League replicas draw attention fast. You need just enough to make it clear that you can get athletic apparel and equipment for teams and leagues. If you don’t have a showroom, place a flyer in every outgoing order that says, “If you’re coaching a team, sponsoring a team, or playing on a team, give us a shot at supplying your team uniforms and equipment.”

Get involved in local leagues or start going to games. Many of Bomark’s core customers are people who were in the personalization industry and decided to combine that with the hours they were spending at the ballpark for their kid’s games. Be aware that some leagues won’t let you bid on business if you’re involved in the league, but for most leagues, involvement gives you a leg up in the bidding process. If you don’t have kids in leagues, go to some games on the weekend to find out what apparel and equipment the team is using now and to identify the organizers. (When presenting your products, you’ll want to offer them something comparable to what they have now as well as something more or less expensive, depending on the community, but you can’t do that without knowing what they have and whether they are happy with it.) To figure out who the organizer is, look for the person who is running around like crazy. After the game, introduce yourself, explain that you sell team apparel and equipment, and ask how you get involved in the bidding process.

Look in the sports section of a local weekly newspaper—not a hard-news paper—to find tryouts and signups for travel teams and rec leagues. You may find out too late to get this year’s business, but you can do your research for next year.

If you want to pursue school business, don’t aim for high school varsity sports right away. With high schools, it can take time to get the money you’re owed, and many varsity teams want big-name brands that you will not have access to.

Instead, start with booster clubs, noncore sports, or elementary schools. Offer spirit packs (such as a personalized sweatshirt and T-shirt) for booster clubs to sell; they’ll keep a portion of the profits. Noncore sports like cross country or pep band need personalized items but aren’t as name conscious. Starting with elementary schools gives you an in when those children hit high school and their parents are running the booster club.

TEAMS VS. LEAGUES

Teams and leagues are two entirely different markets. Travel teams play in a lot of out-of-town tournaments, require children to try out for the team, and have participation fees much higher than league costs. Parents also pay for hotels, food on the road, and more. They are more likely to purchase quality, personalized apparel. Travel teams also may seek more personalized gear for the team. They care about the look.

With leagues, everyone gets to play, and fees are kept low to ensure no one is excluded. This business is competitive because it’s all about the cost. However, don’t let that deter you from pursuing leagues because it’s all about getting your name in front of those families.

SECURING THE BUSINESS

Though you may not be able to get big name brands, you can get comparable apparel that may even have been run through the same production line. You also have to be in the ballpark on pricing, but service is what really matters. On-time delivery has been an issue, with children sometimes waiting for uniforms until a month into the season. Most leagues’ organizers aren’t satisfied with the provider of their uniforms and equipment, but they don’t have a reason to trust that you’re better than their existing supplier. On-time delivery is critical, especially since many leagues have big events, such as pictures or parades, on opening day.

There is no magic number for pricing. It depends on your business and your area. Suppliers can help you make some decisions in one-on-one conversations. When it comes to the cutthroat business of supplying leagues, you can’t think about the money you don’t make on the first order. It’s about residual income from parents buying team-affiliated items and other products not related to sports. (I have a 6-year-old grandson, and you can sell me just about anything with his name and number on it.) Parents on travel teams will buy jackets, sweaters, and pullovers, not just a T-shirt and hat.

Because leagues struggle for money, especially when sponsorships are down during recessions, you can risk not getting paid if you bill the league after the sale. The league has money in the bank when they place the order because they’ve just completed signups. That’s the time to get paid. Offer them something free if they agree to pay a percentage down and the rest on delivery. Freebies can be adding numbers to the back of the hats of kids who are likely to lose them otherwise or to individually bag each uniform. Bagging the uniforms saves league directors from sorting through massive boxes the night before opening day, ensures you know you didn’t forget one or two items, and lets you close each bag with stickers that advertise your business.

The people running these leagues are volunteers who pay money out of their pockets to help run them. You want to solve their problem and be a one-stop supplier for everything they need—apparel and equipment. You may not want to carry equipment, but doing so ensures they don’t leave you for an equipment supplier that also offers uniforms. Order equipment as needed from suppliers. Even if you don’t make much money on it, you didn’t lose time, money, or the customer. Do keep freight costs in mind when pricing equipment since FedEx and UPS have begun charging by dimension, not just weight.

DELIVERING EFFECTIVELY

Team and league business is a “tomorrow” business and late signups (called “add-ons”) are a guarantee, so it’s a good idea to partner with suppliers who have no minimum order, same-day shipping, and online ordering.

Know the limits of your garment styles and materials. One issue that comes up a lot in sports apparel is raglan cut. With raglan-cut shirts, the sleeve is put in with a panel, rather than a typical set sleeve, which some believe improves range of motion for athletes. Using the popular raglan cut limits the decoration space, and you have to be aware of this before creating or ordering artwork. You can’t order full-front transfers for raglan-cut shirts. Design the artwork around the shirt. Many teams create an arched design for their team name to accommodate the longer team name without going over the seam of the raglan sleeve. Full-button jerseys are another example. Baseball players love them and, though screenprinting or doing tackle twill across the placket is not impossible, it is certainly more challenging.

Even the material can be an issue. There are different weights of mesh (measured in deniers) and you have appropriate and inappropriate decoration processes for them. You can’t get detail on porthole mesh, and tackle twill will do well on some meshes but is really too heavy on others. Remember that performance fabrics are lightweight, so use a decoration process that is appropriate for the weight of the fabric.

FINAL WORD

Working with teams and leagues will be different from working with your other clients, even those related to apparel or athletic events. For instance, race T-shirts can vary slightly without anyone being bothered by it, but if all of the young athletes on one team don’t have identical uniforms, everyone will notice. This puts your work under scrutiny.

That extra scrutiny can pay off; use this as an avenue to sell your other products to this captive audience. Ensure when you deliver a team/league order, you include a flyer showing the variety of products you can create to make sure you get orders from everyone involved. This helps guarantee residual income. Don’t sell short the opportunity a league or team can get you.

This article is based on “The Ins and Outs of the Team/League Business,” a seminar presented by Doug Wilcoxson. Wilcoxson, who has been associated with the team and league business for his entire career, spent the past 18 years on the supplier side with Bomark Sportswear. He has experience on the decoration side and in running leagues and coaching, resulting in a broad understanding of team and league business.

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