Becoming an All-Star Uniform Provider

Build the relationships necessary to keep your business running smoothly and your customers happy

Uniforms are one of my favorite things to do in my shop. I love making uniforms. Besides the fact I was a college athlete, I just love sports, and when you are dealing with uniforms, then you are working with a coach. I enjoy that very much.
However, uniforms are very tricky. You really need to follow a few simple rules, and then they can be very easy and enjoyable to produce.

Ty Wilson printing on the number machine. Image courtesy Nathan Craig.

Printing uniforms can be challenging, depending on the materials you are working with. We have been printing them for a very long time. We even screen-printed on Lycra wrestling singlets for many years. Of course, nobody does that anymore since sublimation does such a good job with Lycra.

We still print for many of the smaller YMCA leagues and on some basketball jerseys. We have some old-school coaches that like tackle twill, so we offer that as well. Heat transfers have come a long way, too. We heat transfer uniforms when only a few of them are needed.

Our shop has really changed over the last five years in regard to uniforms. We are the official supplier for most of the local youth baseball, softball, basketball, and soccer teams. Five years ago, we printed all the jerseys in-house. That entails printing a one- or two-color print with the league name on the front, putting a number below the front print, then a sponsor name on the upper back, and a number below that.

Keep in mind the baseball and softball teams have 15 uniforms per team. So, for every 15 shirts we were changing the sponsor name on the back. These jerseys took forever to print and were very labor-intensive.

The local 23-club baseball league is the first league that went to sublimated jerseys. Image courtesy Ty Wilson

We would first print the front and then move them to a new machine. From there, we would print the front number below the design. On the same machine, we would print the sponsor and the number on the back.  We printed them this way for 25 years. Each year, we printed around 1,800 of them in that fashion.

In 2019 sublimation had come a long way and became much more affordable. So, we made it a priority to start moving some of these leagues to sublimation. The first year we only had one league that was willing to pony up the extra cash to order sublimation, and they were so happy with their uniforms. They went from a boring T-shirt to a fully sublimated shirt, creating a drastic difference. The parents and players noticed that right away and so did the other leagues. Of course, they were still wearing a cotton T-shirt.
The next year we switched over two more leagues. The last league to bite was the local soccer league. This is the biggest league we work with. They have over 850 players, so adding $7 or $8 to the cost of each jersey is a huge investment. When all the kids asked why they didn’t have cool uniforms like the baseball kids, they started to consider it. We did manage to move them over to sublimation in 2022, sublimating all 1,800 of those uniforms.

Screen-printed practice jersey for the local community college volleyball team. Image courtesy Ty Wilson.

You may ask why this is so important. To me, it was a game changer. We do the graphics for the jerseys, we email the roster and sponsors to the factory, and nine days later, the uniforms arrive complete. It frees up about two weeks of press time, which obviously means we are printing other jobs that hopefully are making money during those two weeks, not to mention the fatigued staff making all the color changes and sponsor and number changes. Let’s just say my printers love me for making these changes.

The right uniform fit

Now let’s talk about how we go about finding the right companies to work with. We do not do any sublimation in-house. So, I have had to build good working relationships with companies I can trust. This is the most important thing, in my opinion.

Find a company with a great reputation. It is not that hard as there are not that many of them out there, at least ones that only work with decorators. There are many companies out there that will sell direct to the end consumer. I do not deal with them. I struggle with those companies because the quality of work is just not what I expect. The problem is most of the end users have no idea what a good quality uniform is supposed to look like.

I have had a few customers bring in their jersey so we can add a name or a number to it, and I am floored by how bad the quality is. Make sure you work with a company that will make you look good.

Sublimated uniforms for the local youth softball league. The back of this jersey features the sponsors and numbers. Images courtesy Ty Wilson.

My next suggestion is to make the sales rep your new best friend. This is no joke! I searched companies that had a good reputation, of course, but I will tell you that the company is only as good as its reps. What I mean by that is a lot of things happen during the course of an order being placed to showing up in the freight room. The best person to make that go smoothly is the rep.

I am so proud of the relationships I have built with my company reps. Many of them actually stay at my house when they come to see my company. I usually buy them dinner. They rarely have that happen, so it’s a great way to let them know you appreciate them, and that you are dedicated to growing that brand.

I will give you an example of a potential nightmare that ended up making me a hero. The soccer league I mentioned previously placed their orders. Everything was entered and was approved. We had a ship date that put them in my hands two days before the first scheduled games. Everything seemed to be moving perfectly.

Then the league president called and says they are moving the start date back a week. This is perfect, because now we have breathing room. Then I realize I am yet to see a shipping notification. I called my rep and he looked into it, only to find out the order was so large, it put me over my credit limit, so they put my order on hold. All they needed to do was call and get payment. My rep was not very happy about this, of course. I then paid to get them moving again. At this point, my rep is not 100% confident they can be delivered in time.

He then took it upon himself to send me 850 blank performance shirts in all the colors and sizes we ordered for the league. He did this just in case they did not get there in time. At least they would have something to wear for this first week. At the end of the day, 90 percent of the jerseys were delivered on Friday, and the rest arrived on Saturday morning. I was able to get them off the plane and deliver them to the soccer fields.
This is a huge thing for me. He did not have to do any of those things. Many companies would have said, “Sorry, but you were over your credit limit – not our fault,” but he took full responsibility and took very good care of me. I will say this again, you’re only as good as your rep.
Another suggestion I have is to build relationships with more than one company. We work with uniforms for athletes from Biddy Ball, all the way up to colleges. We do not use the same company for T-ball as we do for a college team.

Each company I use is based on how it fits the situation. Obviously, I cannot sell a T-ball team a $75 jersey, but I have a company that makes a nice uniform for $25. I cannot sell that jersey to the college baseball team. They will never hold up to the abuse, so make sure you find companies that are a great fit for the customer.

Lastly, I would like to talk about things you can do in addition to uniforms to really service your coaches. For many of the teams we work with, we provide them with everything they wear on and off the field.

For instance, our local community college baseball team wears all our garb, including hats, uniforms, pants, socks, beanies, etc. We also supply their team jackets, travel gear (hooded sweatshirts and joggers) and workout shirts and shorts as well as team bags. It is a great way to build loyalty all in one place.

Most coaches appreciate only having to go to one place to outfit their team. We also offer an online store for them. We mark the items up a few bucks, and then donate the profit back to the teams. The fans love this because it makes it an easy way to support them by buying fan wear. The coaches love this because they can put a few extra bucks into their budget to help out the players.

I am a stickler for service. You can do all the things mentioned above, but if you don’t do it with top-notch customer service, then you will not succeed. I do my best to make every coach I work with a true friend. It’s the only way I know how to do my job efficiently and successfully.

Shane Wilson

Shane Wilson

Shane Wilson owns a screen printing and embroidery shop in Nebraska that is also a retail sporting goods store, selling everything you need for your favorite sport. He has been in this industry for 29 years.

View all articles by Shane Wilson  

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