Several readers — some in the comments and others who’ve contacted me via email — have recently noted that I’ve been hawking a lot of Uni Watch merchandise lately. They’ve also said it’s hypocritical for me to complain about merchandising in the sports world, as I often do, when I’m pushing the merch myself.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I don’t think I’m a hypocrite (at least not about this), but the basic point being raised is a fair one, so we’re going to explore that today. In the interests of transparency, I’ll even tell you how much cash I’ve been raking in on my assorted merch ventures.
Let me start with some quick background: For the past 19-plus years, I’ve worked at home, primarily as a freelancer. (A little over a year ago I became a part-time employee of ESPN, so I’m not technically full-time freelance anymore, although I still work at home and pursue a wide range of projects.) This means I survive by hustling and by making things, both of which I enjoy. “Making things” usually means coming up with concepts for media or performance: long-running magazine columns, zines, websites, a museum exhibit, a book, a “band,” lectures/presentations, a storytelling series, and so on. Sometimes, though, I like to make actual physical products — beverage coasters, bowling shirts, theoretical T-shirts — and try to sell them, because capitalism is fun to fuck around with. So I like to do that too.
I file all of these — the zines, the websites, the physical products, all of it — under the heading of creative projects, because they always begin with some sort of creative urge that I want to express. I would never go so far as to call myself an artist, nor would I quite say I’m an entrepreneur, but there are elements of both in the way I work.
For better or worse (probably a bit of both), I’ve always had a somewhat offbeat sensibility, so these projects tend not to be very mainstream. But they’ve often had a certain niche appeal, so I’ve been able to find people who enjoy working with me and have also found a small but devoted audience (or, really, several different small audiences, although they overlap a bit), all of which has let me carve out a living. The phrase “For people who get it” isn’t just Uni Watch’s slogan — it’s an apt summation of how I’ve managed to have a career.
Uni Watch itself began as a creative project. And that’s still what it is, although it’s also morphed into more of a job — a really good job, as jobs go, but a job nonetheless. And as with any job, there are days when things can be a bit soul-crushing, or just tedious. When I feel like I’m drowning in camouflage jerseys, Nike nonsense, and bad uniform design, or when I just get bored with the standard routines, a good creative side project — like, say, making a fun product and putting it out there — is precisely the thing to rescue me from the doldrums, because making things is fun. A creative side project gets me invigorated, helps me recharge my batteries, and gets me excited like a little kid. That’s a big part of why I pursue these merch projects.
Okay, with that backstory in mind, let’s shift into FAQ mode:
You can talk about side projects all you want, but it’s still hypocritical for you to sell merch when you always criticize it yourself.
But I don’t always criticize it. I’ve written “Hey, check out these cool posters” (or figurines, or whatever) literally hundreds of times in the Ticker, and I showcase all sorts of cool merch in my annual holiday gift guide column on ESPN. I’m not opposed to people buying sports-based stuff — I just think a lot of what’s out there is boring, mass-produced, overpriced crap.
Most of the merch I criticize comes from teams and leagues, which already generate revenue from the sale of tickets (which are usually overpriced), concessions (ditto), parking (ditto), broadcast rights, stadium/arena naming rights, stadium/arena advertising, and plenty more. When viewed in that context, a lot of the merch they put out there just looks like junk motivated by greed. That’s my gripe — I object to the merchandise-industrial complex that just keeps pumping out junk with no apparent regard for creativity or quality.
Uni Watch, on the other hand, gives away its content for free and has none of those other revenue streams except the small amount of money that the site generates via advertising. When viewed in that context, Uni Watch merch — which isn’t overpriced, isn’t mass-produced, isn’t boring, and isn’t crap — looks a lot different than team/league merch. And if you think Uni Watch merch programs are motivated by greed, well, as you’ll see in a minute, I’m not doing a very good job of following through on that motivation.
Oh, I see how it works — anything you sell is cool, and anything anyone else sells is crap. Sure.
As I just noted, I happily showcase a wide variety of cool merchandise all the time, so I don’t think Uni Watch products are unique in that regard. But I’d like to think they’re better than most of what’s pumped out by teams, leagues, and their corporate apparel partners.
It seems mighty convenient for you to call your merch programs “creative projects.” Dude, you’re selling stuff! Own up to it instead of trying to dodge the issue.
Duh, of course I’m selling stuff. But if a sculptor sells some of her sculptures, does she suddenly stop being an artist because she’s sold some her work? Of course not. If your favorite local band sells CDs (good luck) or T-shirts, do they stop being musicians? Of course not. And so on.
As noted earlier, I’m not claiming to be an artist. I’m just pointing out that creativity (or art, or whatever you prefer to call it) and commerce can happily coexist without negating each other. I think a lot of it has to do with intent, and in my case my primary intent with my merch projects is almost always to have fun by expressing some sort of creative impulse. The commerce part comes later. I generally prefer not to lose money, but maxing out the bottom line is never my primary focus.
Or to put it another way, just because a creative project can be sold or monetized, that doesn’t make it any less of a creative project.
Okay, but you’ve been pushing a lot of these “creative projects” lately. It seems like almost every day you’re selling something or asking us to shell out for something.
True enough. A lot of this is because of the Uni Watch T-Shirt Club, which didn’t exist until this year, but I’ve also had lots of other things for sale. To put this in perspective, let’s take a look at the recent/current merchandise projects, including the revenue they’ve generated:
The 15th-anniversary patch: I forget who suggested this one, but it wasn’t my idea. We already had a 15th-anniversary logo and a reader suggested that I turn it into a patch. This seemed like a natural, plus I thought it would be fun for me to learn about dealing with a patch manufacturer, which was definitely an interesting experience. (Among other things, I learned a new term: merrowing.)
After expenses (manufacturing, postage, envelopes), the patches generated a little over $600 — not bad, and a fair payback for the time and work involved. The patches are now sold out and our 15th-anniversary “season” is over, but I’ve been thinking of getting new patches made, based on our standard disc logo. Basically, patches seem like the kind of merch that totally makes sense for Uni Watch, and that I should have been doing all along.
(Oh, and there was also a run of anniversary stickers. My cut on that, after expenses, was about 90 bucks.)
The membership cards: The membership program, which began in 2007 and now has over 1600 enrollees, is enjoyable for three reasons: (1) I’ve always loved membership cards (I even wrote an article about them for a design website); (2) working with the enrollees and with card designer Scott Turner to get the designs just right is a fun creative exercise; and (3) trimming and laminating the cards — or “arts and crafts,” as I like to call it — gives me a rare chance to work with my hands instead of at a keyboard.
After expenses (printing, postage, laminating supplies, X-acto blades, etc.), the membership cards usually generate a little over $2000 per year, a percentage of which goes to Scott. Considering the amount of time and work involved, I’d say Scott and I are working for a very low hourly rate. That’s not a complaint, mind you (nobody’s forcing us to do it, after all), but it’s an indication that we’re doing this because we enjoy it, not because it’s a huge revenue spigot.
The smart phone case: If there’s one project I feel a little iffy about in retrospect, it’s this one, because I don’t give a rat’s keister about phone cases (my own case is just plain black), and phone cases don’t really fit into the collectability-geekiness niche that characterizes most of these other projects. Still, the idea seemed fun: I’d run a design contest, let the readers pick the winning design, and give the winning designer a $100 cash prize and a free case. It felt like a good way to have some creative back-and-forth with the readership, as opposed to one of my usual top-down projects.
The primary pleasure of this project was seeing all the interesting designs that came in and working with winning designer Matt Beahan to refine his design for the final product. Looking back, I probably should have set the sales window at two weeks instead of three, because running three weeks’ worth of reminders on the site was too much. In the end, we sold 58 cases. My cut, after paying Matt his prize and buying him a case, was a smidge over $300.
The T-Shirt Club: The Uni Watch T-Shirt Club began when Teespring designer Bryan Molloy got in touch and offered to design a new Uni Watch shirt. I was like, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” We went back and forth with a few designs, none of which really excited me. Then he said, “A black design would look great,” to which I responded, “Yeah, but come on — I can’t do a black Uni Watch shirt. I’m always complaining about BFBS!” Bryan then said, “Okay, but what if we did this?” That’s when the light bulb went off over my head and I realized we could have an entire program of jersey-based designs and use the NOBs to offer deadpan descriptions and commentary. I proposed that idea to Bryan and he bought in immediately. (I should add that he’s been awesome every step of the way, even though I think he ended up with a lot more work than he initially bargained for. Thanks, Bry!)
It’s been a tremendously satisfying project. I love how meta it is, I love how programmatic it is, I love the sleeve “patch” on each shirt, I love the different iterations of the Uni Watch script, I love the collectability factor, I even love the debate over the “Pandering” NOB, and I especially love working on the designs with Bryan. From the very start, the whole thing has felt Right. I didn’t know how you folks would respond, but that was, frankly, a secondary concern. The main thing was that I knew from the outset that I was making something good, and I still feel that way now.
Happily, you folks have responded very positively, which is a nice bonus. All of the designs have sold well over 100 shirts, with several of them topping 200 and one of them — the Jackie Robinson design — topping 300. (The sales of that one were likely inflated because I announced from the outset that I’d be donating my share of the proceeds to charity, which probably encouraged more orders than we would otherwise have gotten.)
And yes, those sales have generated a nice chunk of change — usually between $1000 and $2000 per month, which is much more than I expected. Woo-hoo! I could make even more if not for the sleeve patches, which add about $300 per month to my costs, but it seems worth it, at least to me. I’ll be spending some of that money on the year-end prizes for the “Collect ’em all”-ers, but in the end I’ll be left with a nice windfall. We might extend the Club into 2016, but it’s hard to see how it can be sustainable beyond that (we’ll run out of designs), so this revenue bump is a temporary bubble.
As is the case with many creative professionals, the projects I like the most don’t always correlate with my biggest paydays (I was paid almost nothing for the Permanent Record articles on Slate, for example, even though I’m sure that’s the best and most important work I’ve ever done), so it’s nice that the T-Shirt Club, which I feel really good about, has been a financial success. But again, that’s just a bonus — I launched this project for the creative satisfaction of it, not as a businessman. As I noted several times during the “Pandering” debate, I could have sold a lot more shirts if I’d gone with a different NOB, but maximizing sales was never the goal.
The Purple Amnesty Day shirt: I did this as a lark, mainly because Bryan, the Teespring designer, had been very keen to do a purple shirt. (At one point he wanted us to do it as an April Fool’s gag, but I vetoed that.) Tying it in with Purple Amnesty Day, which has been an annual feature of the membership program, seemed like a good idea.
The design was 100% Bryan’s concept, with no input from me. We made it available for one day and I figured we’d sell, like, seven or eight of them. To my surprise, we sold 42 (which means a distressing number of you actually like purple — shudder). I readily acknowledge that this was basically zero work for me, so my cut, which came to $335, was basically found money.
The Zazzle stuff: If you click on the “Merchandise” tab at the top of this page, it will take you to the Uni Watch shop on Zazzle, which sells an assortment of T-shirts, coffee mugs, and items of that ilk. How often do I promote this stuff on the site? Answer: Almost never. Why? Because, frankly, the Zazzle merch bores me. There’s no creativity to it — it’s just dropping/dragging our logos into a web interface and selling the same old crap that everyone else sells, whoop-de-whoop. (One Zazzle item that did get me excited recently was the Uni Watch watch, because the name itself is funny, but that’s an exception to the rule. In any case, only two of those have been purchased.)
We don’t sell much of the Zazzle stuff (maybe because I don’t promote it, or maybe because everyone else finds it as boring as I do), and it generates only $200 to $300 per year for me. I’ve often considered just scrapping it, but then someone will get in touch and ask, “Where can I buy my boyfiend a simple Uni Watch T-shirt?,” and I’ll point them toward our Zazzle page, so I guess it serves a small purpose.
I think the disparity between how I promote the Zazzle stuff and how I promote the other projects is a pretty good indicator of my approach to merchandising: I like projects that provide me with a sense of personal involvement and allow me to flex my creative muscles, as opposed to merch that just feels rote. Yes, there’s revenue involved, but the amounts are usually small and the dollars are never my primary motivation.
You can try to rationalize it all you want, but I still think you’re a hypocrite.
That’s a pity, for both our sakes, but I’m comfortable with my positions and my actions on this front. We’ll have to agree to disagree.
I don’t think you’re a hypocrite, but I’m not interested in buying any of this stuff and wish the site didn’t have so many sales pitches.
That’s fair. As I said above, I regret the lengthy “reminder” period for the phone case — sorry about that. I’ll try to be more judicious about such projects in the future. But the nature of the T-Shirt Club kind of demands a one-week promo push each month, so that will continue for now. (And like I said, I love that project, so I like promoting it too!)
Try to think of it this way: When I promote one of these merch programs, to me it’s the same thing as when I tell you about a new PermaRec entry, or a new design article I’ve written, or a new Candela development — it’s just another way of saying, “Look, here’s this other thing I’ve been working on!” I realize not everyone cares about my other projects (merch-related or otherwise), and I certainly don’t mind if you scroll past them. I hope you won’t mind when I keep calling attention to them, because it’s fun for me to share what I’ve been making.
Speaking of which: I have another merch project in the works. It won’t be lucrative (small-ish quantities, low margins, and two collaborators with whom to split the pie), but I’m really excited about it all the same, because it’s clever and fun. I think you’ll like it too. More details soon.
That’s it. Thanks for listening.
PermaRec update: A Wisconsin couple began dismantling an old building on their property and, as you can see above, found that it had been built around an old trolley! Get the full scoop over on Permanent Record.
Attention BOSTON readers: As some of you may be aware, the Brooklyn Beefsteak is coming to Boston next Saturday, June 20, with two seatings — 1pm and 5pm — at the Cambridge Masonic Hall in Porter Square (further info and tickets here).
I’ll be on hand for the event, and I could use an assistant — you can probably guess what for. My assistant will have to be on hand from about noon through 8pm and will need to be alert, friendly, and helpful during that period. On the plus side, the actual work will be easy, you’ll get a break about halfway through the day, and you’ll get to partake of the beef and beer at no charge. If this sounds appealing, shoot me a note and tell me why I should choose you instead of all the other applicants. Thanks.
In addition, there’ll be a beefsteak here in Brooklyn this Sunday, June 14, at the Bell House (tickets here), and I’ll be on hand for that one as well. No assistant needed for that one. Hope to see lots of you there.
IMPORTANT ”” “Collect ’em all” reminder: In case you missed it yesterday, I’m taking a show of hands to see how many of you have purchased all seven of the UnI Watch T-Shirt Club’s designs so far. Knowing how many people are eligible for the year-end prize will help me determine what the prize will be. So if you’ve collected ’em all so far (and didn’t already check in yesterday), please use this link to shoot me a note. Thanks.
Baseball News: Phillies 1B Ryan Howard’s cleats have Velcro on the back, presumably to help keep his pant legs pulled down (from Jason Ricles). … Jurassic Park jerseys upcoming for the Cedar Rapids Kernels (from Sam Bevins). … Larry Brunt has created a digital collection of his Mike Trout baseball cards. “I included ‘jersey’ as a filter when creating the sortable metadata,” he says. “So using the advanced search, you can narrow the results down to cards showing Trout in his alternate red, home white, and road grey jerseys, plus minor league jerseys, BP jerseys, throwbacks, and ‘other.’ This is what happens when a baseball card collector who loves watching Mike Trout gets a master’s in library and information sciences.” … UCLA has been tweeting faux baseball cards of some of the Bruins who’ve been drafted by MLB teams, showing the player in a UCLA uniform but with the logo of his new MLB team (from Chris Cruz). … Spectacular unis on this 1911 Denver team. Note that the guy in the middle row, second from right, has a dog in his lap! (Big thanks to Tyler Maun.) … Also from Tyler: The Denver Bears had awesome cartoon bear sleeve patches in 1957 and ’69, with the latter year also featuring the baseball centennial patch. I’d forgotten that minor league teams wore that patch in ’69. … In a related item, did you know there was also a minor league centennial patch? Here is it (thanks, Phil). ”¦ After I tweeted those patch photos yesterday, Todd Radom responded with a color close-up photo of the ’69 patch. … The Ogden Raptors will be wearing Hawaiian-themed jerseys for Sunday home games this season (from Sean L). ”¦ Jeff Seager — father of Kyle Seager (who plays for the Mariners), Corey Seager (Dodgers), and Justin Seager (Bakersfield Blaze, a Mariners affiliate) — wore a T-shirt referencing all of his sons’ teams (from Dustin Semore). ”¦ Mets radio play-by-play man Howie Rose is a longtime Uni Watch supporter, so it pains me to report that during last night’s game he said that a home run was hit “right near Gil Hodges’s retired No. 41.” Ouch. ”¦ Speaking of last night’s Mets game, a reader who prefers to remain anonymous was at the game and ended up with a ball that the outfielders were tossing around before an inning. Interesting, it had Bud Selig’s signature and a “Practice” stamp.
NFL News: At the bottom of this page, SI writer Andy Benoit says he thinks adults shouldn’t wear football jerseys unless they’re attending a game. ”¦ Whoa, the numerals on the Eagles’ QB practice jerseys look seriously bloated (from Brandon Tyrrell). … If you’ve been waiting for a comprehensive history of players who’ve worn No. 96 for the Cardinals, today’s your lucky day (thanks, Phil). … Bengals WR Mohamed Sanu is expecting a baby boy and posted a photo of a Bengals jersey in baby blue (from John Alexander).
College Football News: Here are the new ACC patches on the new UNC jerseys. ”¦ New uniforms for LIU Post. … Twin brothers on a 1993 California high school team had double-decker FNOBs (from @SomeEQguy). ”¦ News flash: Oregon’s uniforms have been highly influential. You don’t say. ”¦ One observer’s take on Oklahoma football: “A few more Thursday night games could rejuvenate the fan base. New uniforms certainly didn’t do that.”
Hockey News: I’m not a Rush fan. But if you are, you can have yourself photographed while sitting at Neil Pert’s hockey-themed drum kit in exchange for a donation to his preferred a cancer charity (from Leo Strawn Jr.).
NBA News: Last night’s Cavs/Warriors game was color vs. color. ”¦ Twitter freaked out last night at the sight of Cave G Mike Miller wearing LeBron James’s shooting shirt. Oddly nobody seemed to freak out when he did the same thing prior to Game Two. ”¦ Babies being born in Cleveland this week are being put out in Cavs onesies (thanks, Phil).
Soccer News: New logo for the German national team. ”¦ New home kit for AS Roma (from Conrad Burry). ”¦ Kit preview for Hertha BSC. … After Man U fans complained that the team’s latest retail jerseys were too small, the team is now ofering XXXXL sizes (thanks, Phil). … Several of the USWNT players are wearing padded/protective headbands. Here’s one being worn by one of the Mexican players, too. ”¦ Interesting observation from Gabe Cornwall, who writes: “Spain’s women’s team has used a star atop its crest on its Adidas uniforms (or at least their coach had one on his windbreaker), and Brazil is wearing five stars on their Nike kits. The problem? The stars are there for winning World Cups. And in those cases, the men won the cups. The women didn’t win any of them in either case. Contrast this with the U.S., whose women have won a pair of World Cups and have indicated such on their Nike women’s kits (as opposed to the American men, who have yet to win one and do not put stars on their kits). Germany has two stars correctly displayed on their women’s Adidas kits. I don’t know if the final call on these things is made by the national federation or the manufacturer, but it’d definitely inconsistent.” ”¦ The South Korean women’s players are all wearing FNOB, but with the family name in all-caps followe by the first name in cap/lowercase (from Seth Shaw).
Grab Bag: Once upon a time — not that long ago, in fact — you could go to the supermarket and buy a Sack o’ Sauce in a Can o’ Meat. Would love to have been privy to the product-development and marketing meetings that resulted in that one (big thanks to my old zine pal Tom Lupoff). ”¦ Another old zine pal, the great Lynn Peril, has written a cool piece on how women had to resort to “leg makeup” when nylons were unavailable due to the war effort during WWII. ”¦ We recently talked about the tricky question of how to handle an apostrophe on a vertically lettered sign, but here’s an even thornier issue: how to handle a hyphen, as in the case of a company called Hi-Wire (from John Freeman). ”¦ The McLaren/Rotten social experiment appears to have reached its logical conclusion now that the Sex Pistols logo is being featured on a credit card. ”¦ New rowing uniforms for Drexel (from Kevin Mueller). ”¦ “Tinkoff Saxo Bank is going with a neon/camo look for its Tour de France kit,” says Sean Clancy. “Heavy, heavy sigh.” … Not sure how I missed this, but Herman Zapf, one of the most important typographers and symbol designers of the past century, has passed away (big thanks to James Gilbert for letting me know). ”¦ 1975 throwback can design for Narragansett beer. When I posted that photo on Facebook last night, Scott Davis quickly noted that that design had a prominent moment in Jaws. ”¦ The Queensland Reds and Melbourne Rebels — those are Australian rugby teams — have some cross-promotion jerseys coming up with DC Comics. Queensland’s is with the Flash and Melbourne’s is with Superman. “I usually have a strong stance against buying $100+ polyester shirts, but, the kid in me is probably going to sell out for that Flash-themed jersey,” says Joe Alvernaz. ”¦ A few years ago I wrote a piece about pizza box lid supports — those little plastic table-like thingies placed at the center of a pizza box. Now Pizza Hut has upped the ante by creating a lid support whose top surface is actually a lens, which can be used to turn the pizza box into a movie projector for your smart phone. Pretty clever. Further info, including a video, here (from Jeff Mayer). ”¦ Due to a manufacturing error, a runner in the SEA Games competed with an upside-down Filipino flag on his uniform. ”¦ Hillary Clinton’s much-discussed campaign logo is looking better as time goes on. … New Rugby World Cup jersey for Australia (thanks, Phil). ”¦