“It was really great until they shut our little operation down.”
That’s what a friend of mine said on Facebook after he and a buddy were told to pack up the t-shirts they made and were selling outside of AT&T Park where the San Francisco Giants were about to start playing in the World Series last week. He was one of a few dozen people selling unofficial shirts using the team logo. It was a letdown for their business hopes, as well as for the throngs of people who loved their fun, original shirts. And it really didn’t have to happen that way.
For years there have been unofficial merchandise sales around big sports teams and events. I remember camping out for basketball games at Duke in the early 1990s and having guys carrying big bags duck their heads into our tent to ask if we wanted to buy the latest anti-UNC t-shirt that somebody pressed in their dorm room. But today it’s getting much easier to brew your own, thanks to online design and printing businesses such as CafePress and Zazzle. Come up with an idea and within minutes you can bring it to life, buy it, and create a virtual store where other people can discover and buy it–with a percentage of the sale going to you.
But the times are a changin’ for trademark enforcement, too. At the Giants game, plainclothes Major League Baseball officials walked around town with federal agents and inspected hawkers’ merchandise. Anyone using the name “San Francisco Giants,” the interlocking “SF,” and even the words “World Series” was told to pack up. My buddy’s stash of shirts was confiscated and his name was taken down. He was warned that, despite it being a felony to use the team’s logo without permission, “it won’t go on your criminal record this time.” The MLB warns that it must police its trademarks to maintain them, and protect the official sponsors and vendors who have spent millions of dollars for the right to be the real thing.
I fear that the San Francisco Giants and scores of other professional and college teams are missing an opportunity to build their brands and fan bases by automatically cracking down on such efforts. Fans love shirts like this because they are the product of creative thinking and fast timing. The “official” merchandise is designed months in advance and takes a slow boat from China. The shirts are boring and generic in order to appeal to the widest fan base and limit unsold inventory. But clever designers and rapid printing tools allow for much more timely, relevant, and fun shirts than what the official process allows for. Fans love the chance to buy “game day” shirts like this, and it gives them a pleasant memory that a simple “Official World Series” shirt doesn’t always allow for.
I think there may be a solution that keeps everyone happy: Why not create an “official” partnership with an online t-shirt store such as Cafe Press to encourage these shirts, ensure that some taste level is retained, and share the profits? Teams could allow people to create their own shirts, even providing people with team graphics and colors. There could be a “license fee” of something like $5 per shirt, and there are quick and simple ways to make sure the shirts are not offensive. Designers and entrepreneurs get the chance to see if their idea will take off, and the teams get a flood of original equipment with none of the inventory costs.
A store such as Cafe Press could even encourage the success of such an effort by shipping in bulk directly to stadium parking lots, and even putting a truck-sized printing press on location for last-minute surges. Teams could even take this idea to the next level by, say, holding a contest for the best fan-created shirt. The best sellers could be made into shirts that are sold in stadium stores, essentially letting the marketplace decide which shirt designs are best.
Overall, I believe that sports teams continue to lag behind their fans in terms of adapting to new technology and social media. They fine players for using Twitter and black out home games on local television when a sell-out isn’t reached. While sports often have a special place in our hearts, the competition for fans’ attention is only increasing–and many sports are experiencing falling TV ratings (including this year’s World Series). Sports teams should not leap to fearing new technology and its use by fans to adapt the game to their liking. Instead, sports brands–and all brands for that matter–should leap to cherish any time fans make the brand their own, and find ways to create new win-wins in the marketplace.