The Seattle startup will rent jerseys to fans, who too often will buy an expensive jersey only to see that player leave town.
Inside sports business
Longtime Queen Anne resident Brian Watkins knows the frustration of owning team jerseys that quickly become outdated.
Raised in the Bay Area, the e-commerce veteran became a huge Marshawn Lynch fan and bought his jersey when the running back joined the Seahawks. But now, with Lynch coming out of retirement to play for the Oakland Raiders, Watkins feels stuck with an old jersey no longer wearable.
“Not only that, now I think I have a (Jermaine) Kearse situation,’’ Watkins said Friday, after Kearse was traded by the Seahawks to the New York Jets for Sheldon Richardson. “I’m wearing his jersey right now for Blue Friday, and this may be the last time I can wear it for years.’’
And he’s doing something about it.
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Watkins has teamed with a group of investors, including Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin, former Seattle starters Golden Tate and Russell Okung and longtime Mariners slugger Edgar Martinez, to form Rep The Squad, a Seattle startup that lets fans pay a monthly fee to “rent” the jerseys of their favorite players and teams.
Co-founder and CEO Watkins said the company is seeking to disrupt the $18 billion sports-merchandising industry with an “access over ownership” model last week launched in Seattle, San Francisco and Detroit, offering a multitude of jerseys of varying styles from the local NFL squads.
Fans pay $19.95 per month for adult jerseys and $16.95 for youth sizes. They form an online profile, where they can order any jersey from a list of styles and have it shipped immediately from a Sodo District warehouse to arrive in three days or fewer, depending on location.
In Seattle, most jerseys ordered before 3 p.m. can be shipped same day by Priority Mail and arrive overnight.
Once they’ve worn the jersey, fans can return it when they want and have a different one shipped. At a cost of about $120 to rent throughout a six-month NFL season, that’s often less than what one new jersey would cost.
All shipping is free, and Rep The Squad also has the jerseys professionally cleaned. That way, fans don’t have to worry about keeping them clean or putting on dirty ones.
After all, there is still a stigma attached to wearing somebody else’s clothing that not all fans will instantly jettison.
“That was one of the first questions I had, too,” said Watkins, who previously founded the Ritani online jewelry line, held executive positions at Blue Nile and Wetpaint and was a strategy director for Nordstrom. “I think there’s just a real trend right now where all of that’s changed.
“I think we all grew up at a time where we could rent a black tux if we had to. But it’s not something that you did day to day.”
Nowadays, he notes there are multiple companies renting clothing outfits to women three at a time for a monthly fee. He figured transitioning that over to the realm of team jerseys wasn’t as much of a stretch.
“I think in business, it’s more accepted in general that people want that access to a lot of different varieties and options and they’re comfortable with that trade off that they don’t necessarily own it.”
After starting with NFL jerseys, the company — backed by $1.5 million in venture capital from the Madrona Group, Maveron and Aspect Ventures — plans to expand to NBA offerings as the year progresses. The hope is to carry as many local jerseys as possible — even Sonics throwback options — in all sports as the company expands.
For now, it has thousands of jerseys stored at its warehouse, including four versions of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s jersey.
Beyond offering more choice, Watkins said the company will especially cater to younger fans that might outgrow their jersey sizes quickly.
“Our testing showed the two best segments were die-hard fans — the ones who already had jerseys — and the second was kids, which was off the charts,” Watkins said. “We actually have a nickname for that kid — we call him Tiny Timmy — who you buy the jersey that’s two sizes too large for him so he’ll grow in to it.
“But by the time he grows in to it half the time, he no longer likes that player or the player is already gone. So we think this is an awesome offering for kids and people who are passionate. Because kids change their favorite player from month to month, and they keep on growing.”
In addition to their investors, Rep The Squad also has enlisted the San Francisco 49ers’ ownership group as official partners. Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is serving as a “brand ambassador” to help promote the venture, and Watkins said the company also is looking at potential deals with other pro teams.
Much will depend on whether the company’s delivery system is up to the task. Watkins knows the ups and downs of an NFL season can lead to plenty of fickleness and changing of minds about whose jersey to wear.
“If we start getting a run on a jersey, we have to get out and get in front of it,” he said. “It’s the same as being a fan. When (Seahawks running back) Thomas Rawls finally had his breakout game (in 2015), everyone wanted to get that jersey, and you had to chase it to get it. I’m sure we’re going to have the same experience here.”
And if they do, it will be a good problem for any new company to have.