Firm Had Something Up Its Sleeves : Marketing: Founded in ‘71, Starter Sportswear has seen sales of team jackets mushroom to $200 million a year. ‘We sell fantasy,’ says the company founder.
Those team jackets really are a rags-to-riches story for David Beckerman.
Beckerman’s Starter Sportswear Inc., which began in 1971 by selling to tavern teams in Ohio, has become a $200-million-a-year business, and its jackets seem to be everywhere.
They’re as popular on the streets of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as they are in middle America. They’re big on the silver screens of Hollywood, and even the fashion runways in Paris and Milan have copied the style.
“We sell fantasy. We sell an opportunity to dream the dream,” said Beckerman, the company’s founder and president. “We’re giving you an opportunity to show your allegiance, your support, your friendship--all the things that make you part of a group.”
The company grew from $500,000 in sales in 1976 to $3 million in 1981 to $200 million last year. Starter has led the revolution in sports merchandising.
“I’m not suggesting I’m Margaret Mead. I’m suggesting society has changed,” Beckerman said. “Sports and identification have become important. As crazy as it sounds, people want to belong. The opportunity to wear a piece of apparel that identifies you with a sect is an important thing.”
Beckerman, 49, and his family control the privately held company. Movie studios call him now for the right to use his jackets on screen. He helped supply 10 films in the last 18 months alone, the latest “My Cousin Vinny.”
“David has achieved the ultimate. People are knocking off his logo,” said John Bello, the president of NFL Properties. “That means you’ve arrived.”
Starter has also helped teams in redesigning outerwear. The Chicago White Sox were 18th among the 26 baseball clubs in sales in 1989. They shot to No. 1 nationally last season after switching to black-and-silver colors. Rob Gallas, the team’s senior vice president for marketing and broadcasting, said sales of apparel at Comiskey Park went from $100,000 in 1989 to $4.5 million last year.
Beckerman was a salesman for Duckster, a sporting goods firm, when he decided to go off on his own.
“I hocked everything I had, which wasn’t enough, and found a local man in the community, Ruby Vine, who co-signed a note for me,” Beckerman said. “Several years later I bought him out.”
With the $25,000 Beckerman raised and the $50,000 from the note, Starter Sportswear opened for business with six employees in February, 1971. Why Starter?
“People always tend to remember one word,” he said. “And No. 2, in sports, everyone strives to be a starter.”
The company started with one salesman, Eddie Bushel.
“In the first year, we didn’t ship to anyone but Eddie’s accounts,” Beckerman recalled. “They were in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana. Places like Koenig Sporting Goods in Cleveland, Danny Rodgers in Toledo, Ohio. These were old-time sporting goods firms. They sold the jackets to high schools, or slow-pitch softball or bars and grills.”
Starter grew slowly until 1976, when it persuaded Licensing Corp. of America, then baseball’s marketing agent, to grant it the right to produce replica jackets.
“Nobody knew what to do with them,” said Rick White, the current president of Major League Baseball Properties. “In retrospect, it seemed like such a simple, elegant idea.”
Beckerman almost laughed when recalling how difficult it was to pitch the idea.
“I got sloughed off. The concept really wasn’t important,” he said. “They gave me a young guy who was at the beginning of his career, Ralph Irizarry, now a vice president of Time Warner Sports. When I first met him, he was at en entry-level position. Here were two guys at the beginning of his career trying to make good with a strange idea.
“The concept of licensed products for adults was not well received initially. Everybody thought it was a kids product category that didn’t make sense. Ralph visualized that this thing made sense. I’m not sure we both recognized how big this would be.”
Beckerman said the NBA signed a licensing agreement with Starter in 1977 and hockey joined the following year. The one holdout was the NFL, which didn’t sign until 1983.
“It created one-stop shopping,” Beckerman said. “It allowed us to go to a retailer and say you could buy baseball, football, basketball and hockey.”
Since then, Starter has grown to 500 employees. Besides its main office in New Haven, Conn., the company opened a factory in Pensacola, Fla., in 1988 and added another three months ago in Century, Fla.
Why do fans want these jackets, even to the point where gangs commit crimes to get them? Some sociologists say the phenomenal increase in team apparel in the past decade is a result of alienation with political and other social structures.
“It roughly parallels the coming apart of the other institutions,” said Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at George Washington University. “It’s one of the various, perhaps the only, socially acceptable ways to bond.”
The company has expanded the business overseas in the past few years. Starter, which distributes to approximately 4,000 retail outlets in North America, co-owns Starter of Canada Co. and has 12 overseas distributors.
Starter has signed up approximately 200 colleges in the past few years, giving it a presence on campuses around the country. It hopes to add the U.S. Olympic team after its current agreement with J.C. Penney Co. Inc. expires this year, and wants to get involved with the 1994 World Cup.