Digital Decorating:

Heat Printing for Friday Nights

By Josh Ellsworth, Contributing Writer

Creating replica jerseys of what is being worn on the field is a great way to tie in the experience for fans and perhaps give them something personalized with regard to the player or players they are supporting.

June 7, 2013

While I dislike seeing summer go, I love the start of fall — and football. Millions of people will flock to stadiums across the country to support their favorite teams this autumn. Each weekend, nothing is quite as spirited as the battles that take place on the gridiron under the Friday night lights.

Whether the local team is great, good or bad, the stands are rocking, cheerleaders are cheering,  players are pumped up to be playing and each coaching staff is  focused on the game plan. Likewise, as an apparel decorator — particularly a heat printer — your eyes should light up with excitement to capitalize on the opportunity that is presented during these Friday nights.

Having worked with some of the largest team uniform decorators in the country, I know Fridays mean big opportunities — and the team jersey is at the heart of the experience. Every football team has about 40-50 players that need jerseys in home and away styles.

There are many options for decorating team uniforms, but when creating ideas to show to teams, some standards must be followed. If decorating high school uniforms isn’t your business’ forte, it may behoove you to consult the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) website ( to see the latest rules for lettering and numbering.

In short, there are size requirements specifying that the number on the back of a jersey be at least 10 inches in height and the numbers on front be at least 8 inches in height.

While some shops use 12-inch numbers for football, I advise first considering
the construction of  the jersey being sourced for decoration. Today’s jerseys often don’t allow for room between the seam structure for a double-digit 12-inch number. For this reason, and for the simplicity of stock, a 10-inch number is a good median size that works for both front and back placements.

Some other key decorating components include a minimum gap outline that must be used when doing two-color numbers and a ¼-inch offset of a color contrasting the main number color is required. There is some room for leeway in design, but you still should be well apprised of the rule book to ensure the jerseys can actually be worn in a game.

With some of these concepts in mind, let’s find some areas in which to take well-thought-out risks in design and create something for the field that doesn’t look like “business as usual.”

1. Numbering Sheen: While the rules reject the use of patterns in numbers, there still are a  variety of products that can be different. One trending design style that is allowed is metallic and reflective material in numbering. As a decorator, be cautious of the types of metallic and reflective material you’re using, as you don’t want to compromise the overall durability of the garment by using foil. However, there are some products available in the heat transfer film world that will outlast the jersey.

2. The Top Shoulder: Most of the
design restrictions for any high school sport leave a little canvas for creativity. In the case of football uniforms,  the top shoulder usually is the location for the TV numbers; however, you may recall the Oregon Ducks’ collegiate jerseys and their knack for incorporating design risks.  
While I wouldn’t advise a full gamble on the actual team jerseys, incorporating a unique shoulder design such as wings, scratch marks, stripes, etc., is a great way to add value and distinction. Try using the same material type for the shoulder decoration and the player’s name.

3. Complement the Jersey: While jerseys are the most obvious opportunity for players on the field, cleat decoration also is an interesting opportunity. With the right heat press, a shoe platen and the proper heat transfer film, the addition of numbers on cleats is easily achieved and it’s a high-margin opportunity. While the concept has been around for a number of years, kids still light up at the possibility of having their numbers, names or even Twitter handles on their cleats. Once again, reflective and metallic shades seem to stand out.

Next, let’s look just off to the sideline and take advantage of decorating for cheerleaders, who represent a large opportunity on Friday nights — and a high-margin one.
You don’t have to divert very far from the game jersey to find a concept that is unique and worth pursuing. More and more cheer coaches are opting for something other than a cheer shell and skirt for cold-weather games. Consider outfitting the cheerleaders with fan jerseys and leggings. Design restrictions are null and void when decorating fan jerseys, and decorators are finding much success with team colors done in a full glitter-flake finish.

Glitter-flake heat-transfer films will stick and stay on polyester-based fan jerseys and have the durability to last many seasons. Whether this is positioned as an outfit for the entire season or a single game, it can be lucrative.

If the school would rather stay traditional, there also is a lot of opportunity in decorating the cheer shell. With new shell styles comprised of stretch fabrics,  a basic stretch heat transfer film often is a good choice. For the non-stretch shell, new techniques that incorporate glitter heat transfer film with a sewn satin stitch are trending. These same products can be used on warm-up jackets as well, so leave no opportunity unexplored.

The largest potential opportunity of all could be customized fanwear. There is a finite number of participants cheering and playing in the game, but each athlete
 has a large number of supporters in the stands who wear product that represents their team.

Some of the hottest trends in game and cheer apparel translate to the bleachers. Try coupling the fan jersey with a hooded sweat shirt to net a high-dollar sale and versatile look for female fans. For male fans, create replica jerseys of what is being worn on the field.

This is a great way to tie in the experience for fans and perhaps give them something personalized with regard to the player or players they are supporting. Mom shirts can be made from the fan jerseys, and dad shirts can be made from the actual jerseys being used on the field. It works in professional and college sports; why not at the high school level?

On-site printing works on any level and, if done correctly, can be fairly easy and very profitable. My favorite part of on-site printing is that it gives you access to an entire stadium of contacts that you may not have otherwise reached.

A heat press is very portable and should be the staple of any on-site printing endeavor. A good way to keep things flowing efficiently with an event is to have some parts of the decoration predetermined and pre-done with a customization element available. Many decorators offer the fan jerseys with glitter names and numbers on site. Stocking a simple font in the team color in precut numbers and cutting the name to order with a vinyl cutter is an ideal way to organize workflow. Often, the same is available in basic colors for the less-adventurous fan.

Be sure to pick a blank garment that fits the climate. Whether you’re decorating a T-shirt or a crew-neck sweat shirt, another viable opportunity for on-site printing is to have a pre-done screen printed transfer on hand, which gets committed to the size of garment upon ordering. This method alleviates the risk of returning from the game with loads of decorated items that didn’t sell.

On-site printing is a great way to get your foot in the door with a school, as many decorators are unwilling to do this. Consider a profit-sharing model that acts as a fundraiser for the boosters.

There are many more printing opportunities for Friday nights. Where you are able to break in will be determined by how creative you can get and how well you can sell. However, the aforementioned trends and decorating processes should help deliver business this fall.
Josh Ellsworth is general manager for Stahls’, a direct-from-manufacturer source for heat-applied films. During his 10 years in the industry, he has helped large apparel personalization businesses in the United States get set up with profitable technology and efficient production floor layout. For more information or to comment on this article, e-mail Josh at or visit