For Detroit Lakes T-shirt maker, it's also March Madness
DETROIT LAKES, Minn.—When Kansas beat West Virginia to win the Big 12 Conference men's basketball title a week ago before their journies to the NCAA Tournament, those pumped-up Jayhawk players appeared on court right after the game wearing blue T-shirts made by Lakeshirts in Detroit Lakes.
The shirts, complete with stickers touting Lakeshirts' Blue 84 brand and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, are for sale for $25 on the University of Kansas website.
Thanks to that hard-to-get licensing permission from the NCAA, the Detroit Lakes company has mastered the art of selling into the "hot market," of just-in-time sporting apparel.
That means Lakeshirts employees have to be nearly as quick-on-their feet as the athletes.
From the sales staff to the art crew to production workers and the shipping crew, the hot market demands a fast turnaround — sometimes as few as four hours from design to shipping.
"They're pretty amazing people," said Julie Bommersbach, art and marketing director for Lakeshirts. "Our whole office, from customer service doing data entry of orders to the art department to production to post-production doing shipping, and all the rest, they are all on call."
That means they can expect lots of night and weekend work, especially during the NCAA March Madness single-elimination basketball tournament, which is now underway and ends with the championship game in Houston April 4.
So how did those blue Lakeshirt T-shirts show up on Kansas players minutes after their victory? For a big conference-title game like that, shirts are shipped in advance for both teams, but only the winners get to have them. Shirts for the losing team are whisked away and never again see the light of day.
The hot market accounts for about 40 percent of sales for the Blue 84 division, but not all products are so deadline-oriented.
Thanks to the NCAA license, Lakeshirts is the official apparel-maker for colleges in four major conferences — Big Sky, Big 12, Big Ten and Mountain West, Bommersbach said.
"We're the 'locker room' provider for all the different sports in those conferences," she said.
And even for its hot market products, Lakeshirts plans ahead as much as possible.
For the 64-team March Madness tournament, Bommersbach said, "already 245 designs have been created by our art department this year and we're just getting started — last year we had about 700 designs, for both the men's and women's tournaments."
Sales can vary widely from campus to campus.
When an up-and-coming smaller college like Florida Gulf Coast cracks the March Madness tourney, like it did this year, apparel sales can spike for fired-up fans there.
Florida Gulf Coast lost, but had they managed to beat No. 1 seed North Carolina, T-shirt sales would have been "huge," she said. "Students at those smaller schools really go crazy — it's a big deal."
More of a challenge for the art department is creating fresh designs for universities like Kentucky, Kansas and Duke that are always part of March Madness.
"Those students want new designs," Bommersbach said.
Most March Madness apparel is printed at the Detroit Lakes facility, but because of the need for speedy delivery, Lakeshirts will use local screen printers for the Final Four games, she said.
"We have contract printers set up around the country. The market demands those shirts within three hours. We send them the order, the artwork, the shirts ahead of time, we send six colors of shirts and designs in advance..," she said.
Of course, just being one of the Final Four teams left standing in the huge March Madness tournament is a big deal, and she said those fans will buy lots of shirts celebrating that "proud to be in the Final Four" accomplishment.
To meet that demand, Lakeshirts will send a semi down to Houston on March 29 with up to 20,000 printed shirts.
When it comes to supporting their teams, some colleges stand out.
"Kentucky and Kansas have an awesome fan base, Bommersbach said. "They're passionate, they buy a lot of shirts," and it's a nationwide fan base, not just local, she said.
Lakeshirts staff will watch the games on a big TV and kick into gear as soon as they know the winner.
The set-up is the most time-consuming part of the printing process, so the design will be set up on the presses as soon as possible.
"We usually wait until the end of the game, it has to be a pretty commanding lead before we start doing anything," she said.
"It's fun," she said. "We usually cheer for whoever has the biggest order."
The whole process tends to turn employees into sports fans. Even at home, she said, "my kids say 'who are we rooting for?" Bommersbach said with a laugh.
As far as she's concerned, the only downside to this year's March Madness is that the championship is being held in Houston, which is not exactly a destination city for tourists.
"If Indy was the host city, it would be wild," she said.
But regardless of the host city, this is the busiest time of year for the hot market team at Lakeshirts.
"March Madness is definitely our biggest event," she said.