Among Friends

Feature photo by VC Ultimate

When Don Cooper, Ben Unsworth, and I first started VC Ultimate in 1998, we thought we’d be a more casual, street wear brand for ultimate players, similar to skate boarding brands in the 1980’s or snowboarding brands in the 1990’s. It wasn’t long before we realized that what teams really sought were uniforms – high-tech, professionally designed and highly customized performance apparel. As a sport, ultimate was maturing and wanted to look as serious as the players and teams took it.

Back in the beginning, it was really just VC and a west-coast company called GAIA vying for team and tournament orders. Both packing vans to the ceilings and driving for days and weeks to meet players and teams across North America. There were only a handful of us working tournaments in the early 2000’s, and we soon became the crew of slightly older friends having fun in the corner of a college party in San Diego, or the last few people left at a tournament site helping each other fold tents and pack up boxes in Baton Rouge.  Although we represented different companies, we were colleagues, in a sense, as there were so few of us working full time in ultimate. Anything one of us did had an effect on the other. When one company decided to blow out extra stock on a Sunday afternoon, players came to expect that at every tournament. When one company sent out a sponsorship offer, the other released one slightly better the following week.

It was a very small world, and the odd thing was that the only two ultimate-focused companies were based in Canada. Not for long. In the mid 2000’s, a handful of companies launched onto the ultimate scene in the United States.  Breakmark built a strong local following of teams in the Northeast; Five hit the scene with a funky and spirited vibe on the West Coast; Spin started setting up at every event in the South; and Savage started fighting to have a presence in the same area just a couple of years later. In just four years, the market had tripled. Then, inevitably, a bigger player came knocking on ultimate’s door: within a year, over half of the teams at Club Nationals were wearing Patagonia, having been offered the benefit of heavy discounts on both jerseys the rest of their catalogue. It was getting crowded, and competition for the limited amount ultimate business in North American was getting fierce.

Competing with Friends

Over the years, we’ve all gotten to know each other pretty well, and I think there is a genuine respect and quite a few real friendships among the owners and staff of the various companies. We’ve played against each other, eaten meals together, and met each other’s families. We all share an understanding of what it’s like to run a small business in a community we love. There is a lot of common ground shared between the companies and customers. I’d be surprised if there was a single person with a professional career in ultimate who doesn’t know what it’s like to cleat up for Nationals or cope with a serious injury, even if it’s been a while for some of us. VC is the oldest of the bunch, and we’ve witnessed some of our best customers become our biggest competition. During the early 2000’s, a number of our job files read “Titcomb, Zahlen/Xtehn/Vehro/Rohre”. I remember thinking how nice Xtehn was when he came to our hotel room after President’s Day had been rained out to make a deal on a bunch of swag. I met Rohre at the 2003 High School Championships when she volunteered to mudslide through a massive puddle in exchange for free, bright orange t-shirts.

No matter how much you like your competition, the bottom line is that we’re all in business because we feel as though we can offer something better than the others, or at least do it in a better way. When VC merchandised our first UPA Club Championships, we had no idea what to expect. In years past, we had heard, cotton t-shirts had been sold out of boxes at picnic tables. Being a music lover, I wanted to set our area up like a concert merchandise store with long tables and shirt examples hanging behind us and the inventory folded on tables below it. Apparently GAIA had done this in the past with some success, too. While it looked good for the first 15 minutes, it was a mess to sort through when the mad rush hit. It was also the first time anyone had made sublimated jerseys for official merchandise, and we were sold out in four hours. The next year, GAIA won the contract, and they brought in rolling racks and set up a lot more inventory on hangers, creating a retail store environment which gave customers the ability to shop at their leisure and feel/try on the gear. Genius. Even when we think we’ve improved on how things are done, we are still constantly learning from each other, and pushing each other to come up with new ideas and better ways of doing things.

The Competition’s Focus

I’d like to pretend that I don’t pay attention to the competition, but that would be a lie. It’s important to know what your customers think about your competition, and a main part of that is figuring out each one’s focus. The key, in our relatively saturated market, not to avoid getting hung up on what other companies are doing. If one of the main Ultimate companies starts to copy or assimilate to one of the other’s, they’d lose their competitive advantage and get swallowed up, or drown out.

Too Many Players?

People frequently ask if the ultimate market can support so many ultimate apparel companies, as well as what happens when a big company like Nike comes and starts throwing big bucks at leagues, associations, and events. I don’t think we have to worry about either of those scenarios playing out negatively quite yet.

First, as long as ultimate continues to grow at the rate it’s growing, and more and more youth players are brought in to support that growth, there is more than enough business for everyone currently involved. Second, if a sports apparel industry giant, like Nike or Reebok, comes along in the next few years, a couple of the smaller companies would have a hard time maintaining the market share they need to support their businesses, but ultimate doesn’t yet warrant the relatively large investment that it would take to “take over” the sport from its current merchandisers.

Finally, big companies don’t really want to bother with all of the risk and effort that goes into customizing your 15-jersey team order. Patagonia, for example, doesn’t offer screen printing because they don’t need to in order to win customers. Instead, they provide a solid product quickly and inexpensively, and without any of the mess of customization. The same goes for event merchandising, which requires a lot of coordination, risk, time and upfront cost.

Ultimate still needs support from companies who sponsor tournaments and service the creative and unique uniform and swag requests. By supporting the smaller ultimate companies, teams are supporting the companies who support their community. I call this The Ultimate Factor. I truly believe that, for the foreseeable future, The Ultimate Factor will keep the current merchandise companies around and growing healthily. Whenever we lose business to another ultimate company, I’m disappointed, but I’m not upset. As long as it’s staying within the community, it’s good for all of us in the end.

Issue No. 3 | Business

January 10, 2014