How did that instantly become a T-shirt? Inside baseball's moment-based merchandise boom

Hannah Keyser
·12 min read

For the most triumphant moment of the Miami Marlins’ 2020 season, the team wore matching black T-shirts with red and turquoise writing that said “MIAMI BOTTOM FEEDERS.”

They had just swept the Chicago Cubs in the best-of-three wild-card series that was tacked on to create an expanded postseason field this year. After losing 105 games in 2019, the Marlins were suddenly dynamic underdogs whose unlikely success seemed to epitomize the pandemic season.

First, they congregated in the visiting clubhouse, but since COVID-19 protocols prevented them from dousing each other in the traditional champagne showers, they decided on a Wrigley Field team photo instead. When they reemerged on the field, everyone — including manager Don Mattingly and the coaching staff — was wearing the same $28 T-shirt that’s widely available for purchase.

That was where their playoff run peaked, but at least they did it in style.

The sentiment reclaimed by the shirt has a rich backstory dating to the first game of the regular season when Phillies broadcaster Ricky Bottalico lamented his team’s inability to beat up on their division’s “bottom feeders.” The Marlins took it personally, and then took it for themselves. “Bottom feeders” became a rallying cry within the team — a motivating reminder that the rest of the league had counted them out before the season even started.

How that phrase ended up emblazoned on a premium cotton/polyblend tee is a good story, too.

In that same opening series, Miami shortstop Miguel Rojas made a leaping defensive play that soon ended up appearing as a silhouette, Air Jordan-style, on a shirt made by BreakingT. Rojas himself noticed the shirt, and reached out over Twitter to request some for interested family and teammates. BreakingT obliged, Rojas thanked them publicly, and the DMs went quiet for a while.

The Marlins clinched a playoff berth on a Friday night in New York City with a win over the Yankees. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, Rojas DM’d BreakingT’s corporate handle with a question: How soon could they design and produce shirts that said “Bottom Feeders”? He suggested a black background with Marlins colors and about 13 hours later, BreakingT sent him some mockups to consider.

The team loved them. To Rojas’ surprise, even the front office staff expressed interest. So he ordered 80 shirts, at cost, to be delivered as quickly as possible to the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field, where the Marlins were headed for the first postseason appearance since 2003.

They got there just before Game 1.

“As soon as that shirt arrived in Chicago, everybody wears it,” Rojas told Yahoo Sports.

“And nobody said, ‘Hey, mandatory, we’re going to wear this shirt for batting practice.’ It just happened, you know, everybody was in the same boat. If someone wasn’t wearing the shirt that day, that person saw everybody else wearing it and he went back to the clubhouse to put it on.”

They got noticed that first day, and again when ESPN showed one of the tees hanging in the Marlins’ dugout mid-game, and then, of course, that celebratory photo shoot after the second win.

Members of the Miami Marlins celebrate after defeating the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of a National League wild-card baseball series Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, in Chicago. The Marlins won the series 2-0 to advance to the division series. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
The Miami Marlins celebrated their postseason triumph over the Chicago Cubs with "Bottom Feeder" T-shirts they had created for the cause. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Making T-shirts for sports moments, not teams

The Marlins’ involvement with the design and enthusiastic embrace was better marketing than anything BreakingT could buy. They sold several thousand “Bottom Feeders” shirts. That might not sound like enough to build a business on — but “Bottom Feeders” is just one of over 900 graphic sports shirts BreakingT will release in 2020. That number is up from around 600 last year, according to BreakingT, despite a heavily disrupted sports calendar and, well, everything else about the 2020 economic landscape.

Founded in 2014 by Alex Welsh and Roderick Carmody, BreakingT raised $400,000 in angel investments in 2017 and hired its first full-time employee: Jamie Mottram, who had a background in blogging and podcasting and no experience in commerce or clothing, as president. (BreakingT is also a Yahoo Sports commerce partner. Mottram is a former employee of Yahoo Sports.)

Since then, they’ve only grown — a bigger staff of curators and designers and a system called CrowdBreak that monitor social trends in different sports and markets.

“And now it's at the point where I feel like we're still surging,” Mottram said, “but we're also kind of the incumbent in this category, and you've got Rotowear as the insurgent!”

Kenny Tevelowitz and his wife run Rotowear entirely out of their home, with no other employees and no investor money. They got their start in 2017 making shirts about fantasy sports. At the time, Tevelowitz was working at an advertising agency, which gave him the creative skills to design the sorts of shirts he couldn’t find for purchase online.

“It's a lot easier coming up with stuff about baseball than it is about, like, urgent care centers or dentists and stuff like that that I was doing for my day job,” he says.

About a year ago, he quit the ad agency to make Rotowear his full-time job and they’ve since expanded their purview to include shirts memorializing the key play or spicy quote you just watched happen on TV.

It’s part of the small but growing sector in sports apparel that specializes in celebrating the super-specific viral moment. T-shirts for the Twitter crowd, or other people who want to demonstrate a fandom that runs deeper than a broad allegiance to the team logo.

In fact, none of the shirts that BreakingT or Rotowear produce can include any MLB team iconography at all — not even pinstripes. Instead, they focus on individual player likeness. That’s because both companies are officially licensed not by Major League Baseball but by the MLB Players Association. (There are other apparel companies with similar licensing deals — In The Clutch, 500 Level and RSVLTS all have MLBPA collections that focus more on general player merch instead of moment-specific designs.)

Mottram says BreakingT might pursue MLB licensing eventually so they can incorporate logos into their designs. But even if it was an option, it would mean dual royalties and double the approvals, which could potentially slow down the production process. And speed is crucial to their appeal.

“Our mission is to go from moment to market with a licensed product in 24 hours or less,” Mottram says. “So for now, we're licensed by the players. And luckily the players inspire most of the moments.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: San Diego Padres right fielder Wil Myers (4) looks on with a Slam Diego t-shirt on during batting practice before Game 1 of MLB doubleheader between the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants on September 25, 2020 at Oracle Park in San Francisco, CA. The 2020 regular season has been shortened to 60 games due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
After a historic run of grand slams, fans of the San Diego Padres, and even outfielder Wil Myers, had T-shirts commemorating the moment almost immediately. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Is that quote ‘shirty’ enough?

“I’m watching something, or checking my feed, and basically, I see something and I’m like oh my god that would be an awesome shirt. And then I just make it,” Tevelowitz says. “It’s pretty much that simple.”

The curation process is a little more complicated over at BreakingT, where their CrowdBreak system monitors social media posts for each team and sends alerts when a certain trend starts overperforming. From there, the staff banters about whether a particular moment is “merchable” or a quote is “shirty” enough.

If it is, and a concept for a design is determined, it’s quickly handed off to a staff or freelance artist who can mock up a shirt in a matter of hours. The MLBPA approval process might only take a few minutes.

That’s how you can watch Eric Hosmer hit a grand slam for the the Padres in a record-setting fourth consecutive game to the tune of Don Orsillo’s instantly iconic call of “Slam Diego” on a Thursday night, and then buy a shirt with that slogan off BreakingT or Rotowear Friday afternoon.

Slam Diego was a “five-figure moment for us,” according to Mottram, which makes it one of the more successful designs of the season. The moniker caught on, outliving the specific moment to become a beloved nickname for the likable team. Plus, Tatis himself wore one on SportsCenter.

Every shirt that BreakingT makes gets a predictive shelf-life score and Slam Diego’s was high while the explicitly dated diagram of the Tampa Bay Rays’ wild walk-off win in Game 4 of the World Series gets a very low shelf-life score.

(And then there are the truly niche: like a Yasiel Puig Braves shirt that was pulled out of production after some people already purchased it, accidentally creating something of a collectors’ item.)

A low shelf-life score is not necessarily a bad thing in this market. The ability to offer instant reaction shirts that will quickly become relics — especially in an everyday sport — allows BreakingT and Rotowear to seem like they’re in on the joke. Their immediacy mimics the way modern fans consume content around the game. The slogans don’t feel watered down by aiming for universal appeal because they’re explicitly not.

“A lot of these shirts are so inside baseball, that if it wasn't your team, you don't even know what it's about. I think that's part of the allure,” Mottram says. “It's like an inside reference for the fans that really care about that player, or that team.”

Will this merch have lasting appeal?

While the influence of social media is new, rabid sports fandom is not. T-shirts that go beyond the team-sanctioned messaging, in the spirit of what Rotowear and BreakingT sell, have their roots in the unlicensed merch of earlier generations.

Zach Goodman is a self-described lifelong sports memorabilia and merch collector who has owned and operated the Felt Fanatic store in the Boston area for the past five years. He likens this modern trend of viral T-shirts to the vulgar bootlegs that capitalized on the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry in the early aughts. He remembers when Boston brand Sully’s "Jeter Drinks Wine Coolers" was a classic (that has since been replaced on the now-mainstream Sully’s site by more pro-Red Sox and less anti-Yankees sentiments).

The influence of nostalgia on the aesthetic zeitgeist (as propagated and perpetuated by Instagram) and the rise of resale sites has made vintage sportswear more popular than ever. Their ability to literally print referential tees on-demand allows places like BreakingT and Rotowear to offer a vintage aesthetic at a more accessible price point.

“Not every collector wants to spend big money on a 1984 ‘I hate LA’ shirt,” Goodman says.

But, as is true elsewhere in the fashion industry, economic accessibility on the consumer side often comes at a cost to the environment. Granted he has a vested interest in promoting cyclical consumption since he sells vintage items, but Goodman levies a salient criticism of what he considers to be the fast fashion of the sports world.

“I kind of just had this mixed reaction,” he said about places like BreakingT and Rotowear. “Yeah, it's really exciting to catch these moments, but then also, as someone who is concerned with the environment and conserving stuff, where does all this extra inventory end up? Because I see it on the other end at rag houses and in thrift stores. You know, this stuff does get discarded and then what comes of it?”

There’s a necessary component of guesswork in the scale of production for any particular shirt at Rotowear or BreakingT, extrapolating based on the initial burst of orders in the first few hours of listing an item. BreakingT recently added digital direct to garment printing so they can make a single unit of an otherwise sold out shirt instead of relying on full batches of screen-printed designs, but neither are a particularly sustainable model. (Since the fashion industry is responsible for 20 percent of global wastewater and 10 percent of global carbon emissions, according to United Nations reports, it’s a fairly dramatic issue that likely warrants even more attention that it currently receives.)

But setting aside the environmental ethics, there’s a demonstrable market for this kind of merch that reflects something about the way buyers are engaging with the game.

“As a collector, do I think they're cool and exciting? You know, I think that's really debatable. As an expert collector I would say probably not,” Goodman says. “But as a fan I would say that there's certainly some appeal.”

That appeal is probably the same thing that drives fans to make these moments go viral in the first place — a desire to interact with the game in a way that feels less prescribed, more mutual.

Some of the slogans or images or moments that inspired the screen-printed graphics would have become part of that particular fan base’s lore without a commemorative T-shirt. Probably not all 900 from this year, but certainly some of them. It’s not clear if BreakingT and Rotowear are reflecting that reality or creating it — or if that can even be parsed at this point.

We’ve always watched sports in hopes of seeing an iconic moment. The kind of thing that could be immortalized on a shirt you hunt for in a thrift store 30 years from now to remind you of that particular team or player you loved back then. There’s something incredibly savvy about cutting to the chase, and just selling people immediate validation that what they just watched will be worth remembering.

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