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Niche Focus: Be the Team MVP

Follow these tips to be the most valuable shop when it comes to the team and spiritwear niche.

By James Andres, Contributing Writer

Teams want to upgrade apparel with higher-end brands or a brand with a certain look — and with sublimation, that’s possible. Photo courtesy of Adam Lavitola, co-owner of Clubhouse Athletic and Campus Ink.

April 16, 2021

Craig Mertens, general manager at Digital Arts Solutions, knows the drill when it comes to servicing the team-sports niche as a decorator. “In the midst of fast-changing norms and new consumer needs, innovation is your secret weapon, especially with teams that have been shut down,” he says.

The key to being innovative, though, is knowing exactly what types of artwork and decoration techniques these sports clients, coaches, players and fans want to wear.

“You need to match real-time trends; choose from an abundance of fonts, styles, and vector illustrations; and have a seamless way to populate your web stores, social-media pages and email campaigns with teamwear examples that help you stand out,” Mertens says.

For example, Tanya Doyscher, owner and graphic designer at The Visual Identity Vault, says she has been getting more requests for custom vinyl or direct-to-film printing.

“With those methods, people can be more individual or not have to commit to a minimum,” she says. “It’s hard with school being out most of this year already and so many sports on hold or limited spectators.”

Plus, there has been a lot more demand for online purchases to be shipped straight to the end buyer.

“This helps cut down on touchpoints in team groups and is more convenient for coaches and families,” says Josh Ellsworth, senior vice president, dealer and enterprise sales, Stahls’. “Having a way to collect orders and payment online is critical for both team and spiritwear.”

What Teams Want
Adam Lavitola, co-owner of Clubhouse Athletic and Campus Ink, changed his approach to selling team and fanwear in 2020. “We had one goal during COVID-19: loyalty,” he says. “The way we pitched to our customers changed. We let them know we care and support them so that when sports truly return, it’s like they never left.”

Lavitola created free templates and mockups of sublimated gear for soccer, basketball and hockey teams that wanted something with an extra “wow” factor. “Teams want to upgrade their apparel with higher-end brands or a brand with that ‘look’ — and with sublimation, that’s possible,” he says.

As vaccinations begin to slow the spread of COVID-19, more sporting events and practices hopefully will resume, presenting opportunities for you to share robust programs (and more) to coaches, players and fans. Here’s a breakdown of a few options you could consider bundling for these programs:

1. Coach and staff uniforms: masks; polos or T-shirts; vests or hoodies; and joggers
2. Gameday uniforms: masks, uniforms, hoodies and socks
3. Travel wear: masks, T-shirts, matching sweat shirts and socks
4. Fan and spiritwear: masks, T-shirts, tank tops, hoodies, jackets and joggers

Lavitola also has been selling a lot of matching sweat suits and tracksuits. “While basic brands were selling out and stock was limited, we took the opportunity to custom-make tops and bottoms,” he says. “This process takes about three weeks but elevates a team’s brand.”

Continuing to offer PPE and face masks galore also will be important to this market, Mertens says.

Non-Apparel Pitches
Don’t forget all of the add-on, non-apparel products you can suggest for teams, such as tote or gym bags, water bottles, hand towels, hand-sanitizer packs, etc. Select a small group of proven products that other customers love so that you can say, “This water bottle is our No. 1 customer favorite.”

Bundling is a great tactic for increasing order size. “Product bundles are particularly attractive in the ship-to-home, e-commerce world,” Ellsworth says. “It’s a great way to increase revenue.” Using a “good-better-best” presentation also can help you increase order size and value. If you don’t imprint hard goods, you easily can source them from a
promotional-products supplier, a distributor with a great supplier network or another decorator.

Ellsworth says the profit opportunities around the uniform may be much greater right now. “Some of our more unique requests have been floor graphics for social distancing in schools and wall graphics, for reminders,” he says.

Some of your clients may be so focused on their usual requests that they may not even think to ask for these extra items. Therefore, it’s important for you to pitch them to all of your school and team clients so they’re aware you can provide them, if needed.

The Online Lineup
Ellsworth says teams with online stores have had the best chance at success during COVID-19 and into the eventual post-pandemic environment. They represent an easy “yes” for teams and coaches.

“When you manage the store and fulfill orders, you’ve taken the commitment out of the team’s hands,” Doyscher says. “They don’t have to track orders or deal with money changing hands.” Screen printers will need to educate teams that they may not be able to hyper-customize one-off orders, and that some designs will have minimums to compensate for setting up screens.

Since online stores became the lifeblood of Lavitola’s shop in the past year, his team learned to maximize the probability of success. “We set up stores within 24 hours for free,” he says. “We offer free shipping and free masks to every team that works with us. We also lowered our minimums to be as inclusive as possible. We create digital flyers, ads and emails to help our clients get the word out.”

Lavitola doesn’t stock more than five products in an online store, which helps buyers avoid analysis paralysis. He also focuses on limited-release stores that stay open less than a week, creating FOMO and a faster cash infusion. His team also bundles “must-have” products, like training shirts and shorts, along with a higher-end product.

One example of such a product that can be added into a team bundle would be a product from a hot retail brand like adidas. Consider something low on the price scale, like the drawstring 3-Stripe gym sack, or the pricier 3-Stripe duffel bag. This would make the bundle really attractive with an added discount.

Finally, incorporate lessons from monthly subscription-box companies. “Don’t forget the finer opportunities in branding and customer experience through unique packaging and kitting,” Ellsworth says. “Some of the simplest ideas, like branded tissue paper, can [turn] an otherwise nonchalant experience into something shareable on social media.”

James Andres is the content manager for S&S Activewear. For more information or to comment on this article, email James at

Decoration Trends to Try

1. Keep the artwork simple. Mertens says teamwear and spiritwear artwork is trending toward clean screen prints, without complex elements. Stripes are being incorporated. Lavitola’s college-aged customers like the bright neon and “Miami Vice”-inspired colorways that
really pop.

2. Pay attention to fonts. Block, comic-book and handwritten-script styles are in demand. Invest in a good digital library to get access to lots of fonts and images to cater to this market.

3. Allover sublimation (AOS) is hot. “You can also save time and avoid production bottlenecks with full sublimation when you have anything more than a one-color design on your traditional basketball pinnies or uniforms that require vinyl custom names,” Lavitola says.

4. Look to the pros for inspiration. “Customers still ask for what we see at the professional and collegiate level,” Ellworth says. One of the more notable trends is breathable, perforated numbers.

5. Cater to highly custom orders. Doyscher says she has started producing special-order garments. “People don’t want to commit to minimums,” she says. “For those orders, we offer heat-transfer vinyl (HTV). Other shops do direct-to-film transfers, which is another great way to offer a custom garment and stand out from our competitors.”