Chad Capellman caught up with Jamie Mottram, President of meme-based apparel maker BreakingTThe company leverages real-time social monitoring to design, produce and sell a selection of hundreds of T-shirts in close to real-time. The shirts capture moments and trending memes, have become must-have additions to the collections of sports fans and players alike, and are licensed by college and pro teams, the MLBPA, NBPA, WNBPA, MLSPA, USWNTPA, and most recently, the NFLPA.

Chad talked with Jamie about how his past experiences at places like AOL, Yahoo, USA Today and others prepared him for his current role. They explored the roller-coaster ride of getting from meme to merchandise in a matter of just hours, about his favorite shirt from BreakingT, how the community around women’s SPORTS is like no other, and how to deal with a self-described “bunch of jerks.” 

Podcast Highlights

4:46 – On their process : We say “moment to market in 24 hours or less.” Our tagline is “Wear the Moment.” We want to identify what happens or what’s happening and determine if it’s wearable, if it should be merchandised or not. And then if so, what that should look like creatively? What the color story should be, all that stuff and get the design team rolling on it.” 

“So that we have a finished graphic and a finished product that we can submit to our license holders for approval and go to market all within a 24-hour window. So a lot of times you talk about, night of morning after. Something happens on a Sunday afternoon, we’re shooting to go to market like Sunday night or Monday morning.”

“And you know, in the apparel industry, that’s like absurd. You know, that’s, that’s regarded as just like crazy, fast, too fast. You know, “our buyers can’t cut purchase orders fast enough to keep up with it.” 

“But with my background in the media world, I used to work on websites and podcasts and blogs and social media accounts for newsrooms and with news organizations we’re super slow, you know, like, like creating great artwork, takes hours. Creating like a quick blog, post takes minutes. So it’s just like kind of a different format and a different output than what I am accustomed to over the course of my career. And it’s relatively slow in media content terms, but it’s like blazing fast in licensed apparel terms.”

7:09 – On creating For The Win at USA Today and his sports blog, Mr. Irrelevant: I worked in a division called the USA Today Sports Media Group. And that was like USA Today Sports, plus the sports departments of all of the Gannett papers. Plus this network of digital sports properties that they’ve developed. And For The Win was one that we developed and that was born out of that. You know, probably six or seven years ago at this point. And, and it’s still going.”

“So as this blend of like the fan perspective and opinion and commentary kind of blended in with real reporting and kind of like, you know, trained journalism. And I thought that was a good dynamic.” 

“I think digital sports media in general, as it is now, as it was through the 2010s was very influenced by digital sports media of the aughts where you had this, like, rise of the blogger happening.”

13:06 – On how his past experience with non-traditional digital products prepared him for what BreakingT has to offer: “You hear about disruption a lot in entrepreneurial circles. We’re disruptive, [but] not necessarily just because we’re doing something differently, but we’re disruptive because we’re doing it so fast. You know, there’s really no speed fast enough when there’s a big moment unfolding.”

13:36 – An example with the birth of the “Slam Diego” Padres: “Last summer, the Padres hit grand slams in four games in a row. And when the fourth one happened, they re-branded themselves, “the Slam Diego Padres” [on] their social media accounts. The name was literally “Slam Diego.” So we created a design that night, and we had it licensed by the Major League Baseball Players Association because the players, inspired it.”

“Either that night or the next morning we went to market. But the best possible version of that would be immediately going to market. You know, we might’ve been there like hour eight after the moment, but like we’re just rushing, rushing, rushing, and trying to get to market with the best possible product licensed as soon as it can possibly get there.”

“So we were pretty fast. We beat everybody else for sure. But then it’s like pulling the rest of the industry to act quickly enough to keep up with us. And that could be our retail buyers – they were sold in Dick’s Sporting Goods nationwide – and Dick’s is really fast. But again, you can’t be too fast because we still have to print and ship and get the shirts unboxed and out on the floor.”

“There’s still going to be like a 48-hour window from when we’ve got the product ready, to when they’re actually selling it to customers in-store. So that could be one partner that we’re kind of pulling with us. The Padres themselves, you know, they didn’t have fans in the stadium, but they had pop-up shops, retail spaces across San Diego.”

“They’re used to figuring out what the assortment is going to be for those shops, like months in advance. So here’s this thing that happens like a tidal wave. So they’ve got to act really quick in a way that they’re not accustomed to. Probably the biggest thing like, you know, no joke, like since they went to the World Series.”

“The players wanted the shirts. And they all wanted to wear them at batting practice, like the next day or two days later. And again, this is unusual. So what we’re doing is, we have to figure this out and twist arms and, act really quick on the fly. And maybe it’s a Friday night. Doesn’t matter. We do it, we do it over and over again. And the happy ending is Slam Diego ended up being our biggest selling baseball product last year.”

“Fernando Tatis Jr. not only wore it at batting practice for the game two days later, but he wore it after the game for his sit-down interview with Scott van Pelt.”

“So you are kind of a bull in a china shop cause it’s like an emergency situation in a good way when these moments happen. And you just gotta hustle like crazy. But the reward is really special.” 

17:16 – Can you tell the story of “A bunch of jerks?”: “Bunch of jerks is the best. It’s the best. Two years ago, it was a Saturday night. And the Hurricanes had been doing there on-ice storm surge, the Carolina Hurricanes, their storm surge celebration, after every home ice win. And they were getting really creative, they’d pretend they were bowling, or they pretend that they were having a dance party or whatever on the ice, after a win.”

“So that night, that Saturday night Don cherry, you know old, very, very influential, old Hockey Night In Canada that night and called them “a bunch of jerks” and he wasn’t joking.”

“He was like, “this is disrespectful.” So the Hurricanes, they’re awesome on social media. I’ve gotten to work with their marketing team a bit and they took ownership of that. They changed their Twitter bio to “bunch of jerks.”They were really owning it. And again, it was Saturday night and this is just a random hockey occurrence. It wasn’t like we were watching out for this, but we have created a platform, a social data analytics platform called CrowdBreak that identifies these moments.”

“So if something starts over-indexing within a certain topic or a certain market with a certain team, it alerts our team to that. So our team was alerted on Saturday night.”

“Bunch of jerks, what is this? Oh, this is something. This is something really interesting.” 

“So we had worked with the ‘Canes before on some shirts that they sold in, in the arena, and we got in touch with them that night.”

“… They were like, “We definitely want to bring in a shirt or assortment of apparel for this. We want it to be at the next game.” [That] game is on Tuesday. “Give us a bunch of designs and we’ll … this is going to go all the way to the top. We’ll share them with our owner. And let you know.” So that night, we assigned … this out to one of our artists whose skills were pretty well- aligned with what we wanted creatively. And we all woke up to him, he had shared like 10 options overnight for bunch of jerks. “

“So we just forwarded [them] to the Hurricanes. By noon on Sunday, the owner had picked one, like “This is a bunch of jerks. This is what we’re going with.” By that afternoon, that Sunday afternoon, the ‘Canes were putting it out on social. They were pre-selling it in their online store. They placed a big-ass order for us to fulfill on Monday, to have in the arena on Tuesday.”

20:56 – SLN: That’s a technical term, right?: “Yeah. Big-ass order is like the maximum quantity order. That was a huge hit right out of the gate. ESPN and USA Today, SI were writing stories about the shirt, not just the moment, but the shirt. It was like fuel on the fire. We sold over 25,000 of those shirts to the ‘Canes, and then they sold over 25,000 to their fans at over $30 per shirt. “

“That one graphic was a million-dollar retail item. And, it wasn’t just the revenue or all the relevance of teams writing about their response to Don Cherry … it was also a big part of their marketing. That was just an amazing moment and like pretty much like a perfect example of what we do. “

29:15 – On avoiding the temptation to try darker memes: “Yeah, on one side, it kind of compromises you, you know, we’re not going to do something that’s anti-Major League Baseball players because we’re partners with Major League Baseball players.”

“We don’t have like an editorial independence. There’s no wall between our creative team and the business side, like there might be at the New York Times or whatever. So sometimes we rub up against that though and there’s some friction.”

“One example, and I don’t think we’d get anybody in trouble, but when the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, Red Sox fans were livid, absolutely livid.  … So we did a graphic that was unlicensed and it looked kind of like a championship pennant. And it said “Under the Luxury Tax Champs 2020″, or whatever year it was. We put that out there thinking that it was kind of benign and like kind of pro-player, you know, we didn’t think that that would offend anyone. And fans loved it.”

“But we did hear from some of our partners like, “Hey, this is putting us in a tough spot,” you know? So we did take that down. We stopped selling it out of respect for a partnership. It’s not like everybody’s always aligned. “

32:25 – On the growth of its women’s sports business with the WNBPA, the USWNTPA and others: “Women’s sports is a growing business and we’ve been partnered with WNBA players and US Women’s National Team Players and soccer for about three years now, so we’ve seen very steady growth with those partnerships. We’ve had a lot of success and kind of newfound success with our national retail partners carrying these products and serving those, those fan bases.” 

“It’s just it’s a wildly different dynamic. When you were licensed by the NBA players, it’s almost like the market is so saturated and the players are so … they have so many off-the-court deals that it’s almost like they can take it or leave it. But with the WNBA players, it’s not like that at all.”

“These are players that are, the median salary is, five figures. So this is meaningful, and they’re much more involved and much more supportive. And what I think is wild and, crazy respect to these women, they’re so much less compensated to their male counterparts. They’re so underpaid. Yet, they are so generous with their earnings and the causes that they support. It’s inspiring. It’s awesome to work with them.”

“If we do something in the WNBA, all the fans care, they’re all into it. And we’ll see a shopping cart with like three different teams represented. So this is kind of an interesting dynamic. It’s more like kind of a blanket support. And we see much more social engagement, you know, at least for our products. Again, because I think there’s just like less noise. So, you know, the signal cuts through.”

34:51 – On how using metrics helps them determine what to create: “Everything we’re doing is quantifiable and that kind of quantitative aspect of it is what elevates things to reach our kind of judgment level to begin with. Anything that we’re doing has already got attention or potential to kind of snowball. We’re just kind of amplifying it and monetizing it.”

“On dealing with the pandemic It was really hairy there from like last March 12th … the Rudy Gobert night, when the Jazz didn’t play. From that moment, all through into the summer was a very dicey situation for us because we had no live sports and we had no brick and mortar retail.”

“So live sports fuels our business from a product standpoint. Brick and mortar retail, historically leading up to that point a year ago, was like 60% of our sales. So we were just used to going up and up and up and up.”

“I joined in 2017. 2018 was our best year ever. 2019 doubled 2018. 2020 was looking great, and then COVID hit and Q2 of last year, it was just brutal. But we got creative. Our whole team stayed intact. We kept everybody on board at the levels that they were at leading into it. And we just kind of tried to figure out new ways of doing things. One of those things was how do we keep going to market with fresh products when we don’t have live sports? How do we keep sales afloat? When we don’t have a wholesale business to retailers? And what we came out of that was with a much stronger evergreen business. Evergreen is what we call our products that aren’t necessarily like flash moments that are inspired by current events. And we bolstered our direct-to-consumer online business, our e-commerce business above and beyond where it ever was before.”

“We came out of last year, Q2 was really tough. But we rallied up and up. Q4 ended up being our best quarter ever and 2020 ended up being our best year ever. We were still able to grow almost 40% year over year. We didn’t hit our goal that we had set, but I was just glad we still had a business.”

“2021 is off to a great start. This quarter is again our best quarter ever. We’re used to each quarter being our best ever. So it was nice to get back on track these past two quarters with that sort of cadence. We didn’t make one hire in 2020 because of the pandemic. We kept everybody intact, but we started hiring again and we’ve already added a few new people to the mix.”

“If you had told me a year ago that we’d be where we are now in March, 2021, I would have been thrilled. It was a roller coaster, but we’ve ended in a good place.”

40:17 – On how they train new licensing partners to take advantage of opportunities: “We’re doing this right now with some of our college partners for March Madness, both men’s and women’s tournaments. We’re kind of new to the college space. We started more focused on pro and we’ve kind of transitioned into college. With pro it’s wonderful that they have players associations, you can get group licenses, players inspire most of the moments.”

“If you’ve got a group license, it doesn’t matter which player inspires the unexpected delightful, surprising moment. We’ve got it covered. So those group licenses are great. But with colleges, it’s institution by institution. You have to go one by one and you can’t do anything with athletes, of course.”

“It’s a much different dynamic and we’re onboarding a bunch of schools for the NCAA Tournament. A big part of that onboarding is like, you know, when your moment happens, you know, when UMBC beats number one seed UVA, that’s not like a, “Let’s do something next week” situation. That’s like a, “Let’s do something tonight” situation where we’re going to market by dawn while people are freaking out and waking up, hung over, you know? And that’s really, the big thing is, let’s cut down the friction. Let’s set up a chain of command where a quick response is insured, so that we can go to market. Not only with a great product that fans are going to love, but a great product that the schools can participate in as well.”

42:18 – How many BreakingT tee shirts he has and which one is his favorite: “I certainly have more than 50 BreakingTs at this point. We put out probably 750 different graphics last year. I think my favorite one might be “Do the Soto Shuffle.” We did a shirt for Juan Soto and the kind of batting batter’s box shuffle that he does after every pitch. It’s been very popular. I love Juan Soto. I just love that shirt. It’s totally unlike anything on the market. And yeah, it’s very BreakingT.”