On the Popularity of Themed Minor League Jerseys

Mark Appel looks pretty good in a "taco" uniform. (Courtesy of Kiel Maddox, Fresno Grizzlies)

Mark Appel looks pretty good in a “taco” uniform. (Courtesy of Kiel Maddox, Fresno Grizzlies)

Seeing the OT Sports’ world headquarters in Burlington, N.C., for the first time is a bit of a shock if you know anything about the company. The modest brick building is tucked away in a neighborhood of ranch houses on the outskirts of town. The clanging and buzzing from the auto repair place next door only makes you feel more uneasy about being lost. This can’t be the place.

OT Sports should have a much louder presence. After all, it is the company that created and produced 350 different jersey designs for minor league baseball theme nights this year. And in almost every case, from the Pensacola Blue Wahoos’ Guy Harvey jersey to the Norfolk Tides’ Spongebob Squarepants jersey, the designs were nothing short of audacious. So what’s up with the modest digs?

“We’re not out to establish a name brand,” said vice president of sales and marketing Scott Gollnick. “We’re family owned, and we’re keeping it the way it is. We’ll grow with the industry, but we don’t see ourselves servicing the big-box stores and going to that next level. The niche market we have now is that middle tier sports of the minors and semi-pros and so forth.”

The truth is the OT Sports offices look a lot like those of the minor league hockey and baseball teams it does business with. The furniture is mismatched, and the offices are small and crammed with trinkets and posters and piles of papers. There is no receptionist. It’s very much an all-hands-on deck situation, in which everyone does whatever is needed to get the job done. The company has been that way ever since Gollnick and his brother, Chris, launched OT Sports in 1993. In a way, its growth explains the runaway popularity of themed jerseys.

It started in the Czech Republic, where Gollnick was attending college in the early 1990s. Two things happened that changed his life — and the future of minor league uniforms — forever. One, Gollnick, a hockey fan, could never find decent souvenir jerseys at the Czech Extraliga games he attended in Prague. Meanwhile, he was taking business classes at Charles University that gave him the motivation and know-how to start a business.

Gollnick roped in his U.S.-based brother, and the two began producing souvenir hockey jerseys and other goods for European teams. Chris made inroads with U.S. teams, and eventually Gollnick abandoned the European market to move back home and run their fledgling business from their parents’ attic in Atlanta.

They handled design, sales and a few phases of production, outsourcing the rest. Their main production partner was in Burlington, an old North Carolina mill town about halfway between Greensboro and Durham. The brothers decided to move OT Sports there instead of constantly making the drive up from Atlanta.

“Eventually, that company went out of business, and we purchased their assets and equipment,” said Scott. “That allowed us to bring in all aspects of manufacturing.”

All the magic has been happening in that little brick building ever since. OT Sports specializes in a production process called sublimation, in which pre-printed designs are transferred via heat onto polyester-based fibers. It’s a relatively quick and efficient process that frees designers to do different things with apparel. Like putting a giant chihuahua face right in the middle of a jersey.

“The technology was commonplace in Europe in the 1990s, mainly for soccer and hockey uniforms,” said Gollnick. “That’s where I became familiar with it. It was not at all prominent in the U.S. yet.”

We Americans were snobby about it.

“People were skeptical about the quality,” said Gollnick. “The market is very traditional here. The mindset was, the heavier the hockey sweater or baseball jersey, the better it was.”

Quality-wise, however, sublimated designs are no less durable than stitched-on panels and lettering. In fact, they’re more durable. Without getting too technical, the heat transfer process bonds dyes into the fibers, creating precise designs that don’t run, crack or fade over time. Designs not only have photographic clarity, they’re permanent.

The Gollnicks began their campaign to change perceptions by targeting markets that were more open-minded. OT started doing themed jerseys for minor league hockey teams as early as 1996. The ugly Christmas sweater jerseys that are now part of Christmas in July theme nights in baseball? That came from hockey. Lacrosse teams got on board early, too, liking the durability and relative light weight of OT’s sublimated jerseys.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The company wasn’t able to get its foot in the door with baseball until 1999, when it acquired the license for replica team jerseys from Minor League Baseball. Game-worn uniforms remained the realm of the big boys — Wilson, Rawlings and Majestic — but the Gollnicks had the in they needed.

From their experience with hockey teams, the Gollnicks knew minor league baseball executives were always looking for novel promotions. Teams were already hosting church Sundays, granting free entry to fans who brought their church bulletins. “Bark in the Park” nights were popular. So were Thirsty Thursdays. Also, they were starting to wear special red, white and blue jerseys on the Fourth of July. That’s where the Gollnicks first planted their sublimated messages.

“It took a couple of teams and a couple of guys to think outside the box and say, ‘You know what? We could be the first to have a flag go across the entire jersey,’” said Gollnick.

A couple teams wore flag jerseys in 2000, and kaboom! Like an Independence Day fireworks show, demand exploded. Word spread further at Minor League Baseball’s annual postseason marketing seminar.

“What really took sublimation to where it is today is the technology,” said Gollnick. “It was very expensive to do 20 years ago. As more people got involved with it, the prices went down, and it became more affordable.”

Even large companies such as Wilson are producing sublimated theme jerseys now. But what is setting OT Sports apart is its ability to respond quickly to jersey ideas as they come in from the teams.

That became crucial last year, when Minor League Baseball began allowing teams to use films, television shows and other pop-culture references for theme nights. Before, that was a no-no, a distraction from minor league leadership and individual team brands. Now, a team is seriously behind if it doesn’t have a Star Wars night somewhere on its calendar.

Generally, OT Sports likes to have a month to produce and ship jerseys. The process begins when a team calls the company’s Arkansas-based pro baseball sales rep, Elaine Gastineau. Occasionally, said Gollnick, a team will have a design ready to go. But most of the time OT’s design team takes an idea and runs with it.

“I’ve done it both ways,” said Blue Wahoos team president Jonathan Griffith, whose team usually auctions off three specialty jersey designs a year. “The toughest one we did this season was the one honoring the Coast Guard. I had no idea what to do. All I could think of were life vests.”

Griffith and his staff researched online for ideas, but still couldn’t find anything.

“A lot of times when we go to OT we have the ideas,” he said. “They’ll tweak it to make it a jersey. But on that one, I Googled the logo, sent it over to them and said, ‘Good luck.’”

OT developed a design based on the Coast Guard crest. The fans loved it. More importantly, many of the 500 or so Coast Guard men and women who attended that game made a point to tell Griffith how much they liked the design.

Griffith said one of the best things about working with OT is its design capabilities. He also really likes how Gollnick and his staff are able to bend to meet even the tightest deadlines.

Because when you’re talking about the crazy world of minor league sports, things don’t always go as planned.

“There have been balls dropped on our end or their end, and we’re pumping stuff out in a day, like actual production of finished uniforms,” said Gollnick. “Those things do happen, and that’s what makes us the company we are. Our ability to say, ‘Hey, no sweat. We’ll have to make a few changes here, but we’ll get it taken care of for you.’”

But that’s been the exception to the rule. In fact, Gollnick said teams already are putting in design requests for 2016. The biggest trend he’s sees for next summer?

“I think Star Wars will be huge,” he said. “I think the whole buzz about it will still be strong early next year. If the movie is being released in November or December, you’ll still have people going to see it months later. That’s the most anticipated movie in a long, long time.”

He said teams have not only put in artwork requests to have the first R2-D2 jersey or Han Solo jersey of 2016. A few also want to sell the replicas in the gift shop for Christmas, long before the team even has set the date for its Star Wars night.

“It’ll get burned out like anything else,” said Gollnick. “People aren’t going to be wanting to do it because everyone else is, and it’ll start that trend of, ‘Let’s find that next cool thing we can do.’”

Griffith is already onto the next thing. No Star Wars jerseys for the Blue Wahoos next season, he said. Instead, its players will wear a special jersey design honoring the 70th anniversary of the Blue Angels, the famed squadron of stunt pilots that is based in Pensacola.

The Wahoos’ coolest jersey-related promotion of 2016, however, is a nod to the team’s fifth anniversary. In addition to a throwback jersey, the Wahoos will have a number of “What If” nights on which it celebrates name-that-team ideas that didn’t make the cut. OT will get to create a jersey based on one of those names, whether the Turtles or Pilots or whatever.

“We’ll have fun with it all year,” said Griffith. “We tend not to do what everyone else does. With three other teams within 100 miles of us, we just want to stand on our own.”

Gollnick said he thinks other teams will use the Presidential election to do stand out.

“If teams aren’t focused on the election, I think they should, because it gets everyone’s attention,” he said. “It comes around every four years, and it’s a monumental event.”

Minor league teams won’t be the only ones doing themed jerseys next summer.

“You’re starting to see it carry over to college baseball,” he said. “We’ve seen college summer wooden-bat leagues that are starting to get into it. It’s becoming bigger and bigger.”

But Gollnick understands the whole phenomenon is just a bubble, which brings us back to those humble headquarters in Burlington. There’s a reason OT Sports hasn’t moved from that old brick building even though it probably could afford an upgrade.

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I know there’s definitely that roller coaster of ups and downs,” he said. “It was very difficult to sell sublimation back in the mid-90s, then all of a sudden the 2000s hit, and it was the new wave. Then there was a period there, maybe eight years ago, when everyone wanted to go conservative, and we had a hard time again.”

Gollnick may be erring on the conservative side, though. Themed jerseys appear to be here to stay regardless of pop culture trends.

“You see a lot of Throwback Thursdays, when teams have dollar beers or prices you paid for beer in the ’60s or ’70s,” he said. “Then the team will wear its old jersey from that era every Thursday for the season.”

There are also the Hispanic theme nights and the countless charity nights, after which the OT jerseys worn by the players are auctioned off by the teams. Actually, themed jerseys are almost always auctioned off. If it’s a Star Wars theme, they have to. LucasFilms won’t grant its licenses unless all proceeds from jersey auctions go to charity.

“My favorite is a children’s hospital night,” said Gollnick. “We give the hospital a blank template, and any kid can actually draw a design on our template. We scan in the winner and make the jersey look exactly like the kid drew it.”

Often, the winning child attends the game to throw out the first pitch or drop the puck.

“You can see who the jersey is for, who it’s helping,” said Gollnick.

The work OT Sports did with the Fresno Grizzlies this summer may represent yet another way the company is changing the uniform game. It created a whole new (and temporary) identity that was so popular the Grizzlies continue to sell more of that product than its everyday souvenirs. On Aug. 8, the team became the Fresno Tacos to celebrate its popular Taco Throwdown night.

Usually, it’s all the local taco trucks that gather inside the ballpark that generate all the buzz. Not this year. The nearly 17,000 fans were all about the hats and uniforms, cramming into the team gift shop to buy whatever Tacos merchandise they could find. Meanwhile, Taco Bell offered to give everyone in Fresno free tacos if the team made the name change permanent, giving the Grizzlies national media exposure.

As of today, the Grizzlies haven’t made the switch — yet. But the team did end up wearing its Taco uniforms for its remaining Thursday home games.

“Our biggest thing is trying to adapt to what people are looking for and trying to change some of our ways of manufacturing to stay up with those trends and markets,” he said.

But the resourceful and creative ethos that has seen OT Sports through cycle after cycle of sports fashion trends? That, and its modest home base, will never change.

Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.

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