The Puppet Master Behind NBA Playoff T-Shirts
- There's nothing NBA fans love more than free t-shirts. There's also nothing quite like the process behind NBA teams creating those shirts. Meet the man decking out every arena.
In the wee hours of of April 29, shortly after the Clippers defeated the Jazz to force a series-deciding Game 7, Todd Schneiderman’s phone buzzed and blinked. As Clippers coach Doc Rivers compiled his team’s gameplan for the Sunday contest, Schneiderman engrossed in preparations to blanket the Staples Center in white XL t-shirts.
Point guards like Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, James Harden and Stephen Curry have dominated this postseason. Schneiderman runs point for a company called SomethingInked, a Nashville-based promotional vendor that creates the majority of free playoff t-shirts given out by NBA and NHL teams. SomethingInked has supplied t-shirts for four of the last five NBA champions and Schneiderman, the company’s vice president of sales, has attended the last four NBA Finals. He has built a reputation for maximizing teams’ flexibility and their imaginations. “We try to not print until we actually know there’s a game,” he said.
After breaking in with the local Grizzlies and Predators, SomethingInked permeated the NBA and NHL by incessantly dialing team after team. “Called ‘em, and and called ‘em, and called ‘em, over and over and over again until they finally gave us a shot,” Schneiderman said. Bill Feldberg, the company’s vice president of business development, played an integral role initiating relationships with teams. Schneiderman's father, David, manages all of the company's vendors and negotiates pricing. Jason Rockhill heads the customer service team, and serves as Schneiderman’s right hand conductor during the postseason. Oliver Landry owns the operation.
SomethingInked first began its affiliation with the Clippers during the 2015 postseason. The team had ordered tens of thousands of red shirts to print that year’s slogan upon, only to learn that their second-round matchup would be against the cherry-colored Houston Rockets. A Clippers executive phoned Schneiderman seeking advice, only to learn SomethingInked had stashed truckloads of blue shirts congruent with the team’s color scheme and primed for printing. “We’re very aggressive in buying the material and being ahead of the curve,” Schneiderman said.
When the Warriors defeated the Trail Blazers to advance to the second round last month, Schneiderman impulsively purchased 100,000 more gold shirts from his network of vendors for the stretch run of the postseason. “And I also have those gold shirts hidden to where no one can take them from me,” he said. A mad dash for supplies can ensue at any moment. When Michigan and Wichita State reached the NCAA Final Four in 2013, gold shirts became as sparse as Warriors postseason losses. Owning an in-house trucking operation and having partnerships with eight screen printing shops around the country, in addition to owning two others, has proven an invaluable asset. With shirts typically selling for a little over $3 per unit, the printer at the company’s Nashville headquarters runs 24 hours a day. “It does… not… stop,” Schneiderman said.
Which brings us back to the whirlwind between Games 6 and 7 of Clippers-Jazz. A horde of white shirts had been waiting at a printer in Camarillo, Calif. that Friday night, and the shop sprung to action after the final buzzer. The staff emblazoned the Clippers’ "It Takes Everything" tagline onto the shirts, complete with blacklight ink. A truck arrived at 8 a.m. Saturday morning and drove directly to downtown Los Angeles. By 4 a.m. Sunday morning, the shirts arrived at Staples Center waiting to be planted across each and every seat inside the arena. Schneiderman was also responsible for the Grizzlies’ rapid production of the David Fizdale-inspired "Take That For Data" t-shirts.
A gigantic whiteboard in Schneiderman’s office boasts SomethingInked’s entire playoff strategy, just like coaches scribble their pregame notes inside team locker rooms. On the left, he’s etched the list of teams, the dates of their games and the status of those game-by-game orders. In the middle, Schneiderman has drawn a calendar depicting every contest the company is responsible to outfit every single day of the month. On the right, he keeps a running log of the company’s available inventory, should another team call last-minute, desperate for a reservoir of colored shirts unavailable anywhere else. At the bottom, the company’s owner, Landry has jotted, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Providing hundreds of thousands of postseason t-shirts began a laborious battle to even connect with teams.
Once the playoffs began, SomethingInked was accountable for playoff shirts for at least one game every day from April 12-30. “It’s a very time sensitive exercise,” said Warriors CMO Chip Bowers, a longtime collaborator with the company. “But when you work with the same people and they’re a trusted source, I think it makes things a lot easier.” Even still, havoc always arises.
In the 2014 NBA Finals, SomethingInked provided giveaway t-shirts for both the Spurs and the Heat. San Antonio originally had no plans to provide shirts for that Sunday’s Game 5, but after the soon-to-be champions emerged victorious in a Thursday-night Game 4, Schneiderman promised the organization he could have 22,000 shirts printed and in the Alamo for the ultimate game. “The next thing you know, I got handed a large amount of money to go find different items,” Schneiderman said. Mathematically, however, time would not allow for printing the massive order in Nashville and trucking the shirts to San Antonio.
Schneiderman put them on a plane. He phoned Southwest, which deemed they had to divide the hundreds of boxes onto four separate aircrafts. That’s when true bedlam ensued. Two portions of the boxes landed in Dallas, another in Los Angeles and the fourth in New Orleans. “So, you can imagine the call I got,” Schneiderman said. He hired a truck to ship the shirts from NOLA and Dallas to San Antonio and, without other options, chartered a private plane to deliver the batch from L.A. The entire order arrived by 8:30 in the morning on Sunday. The Spurs’ cast of 300 people finished laying the shirts out on each chair by 11 a.m., three minutes before doors opened. “A little crooked,” Schneiderman said. “but they were there.”
The Rockets spent years honing what the organization now deems “t-shirting” the arena. It takes about four hours for the staff and volunteer groups, ranging from 70-100 people, to completely lay out each collector’s item. The Rockets divide their army into groups of three. One person opens a box at the end of an aisle, counting out however many seats makeup that specific row. A second places each shirt onto every chair and a third neatly fits the item on the back of the seat. “We’ve perfected the process over the years,” said Ken Sheirr, Houston’s vice president of marketing.
Golden State helped create the t-shirt giveaway fad 10 years ago with the "We Believe!" Warriors. This season, Golden State has continued its "Strength in Numbers" campaign on the back of each shirt, but has also crafted four additional taglines for the front—one for each round.
Each team’s playoff slogans must be approved by the league office by March 1, allowing Adidas ample time to print the taglines and be able to outfit 15 players on court. Many teams now employ in-house creative departments to concoct the phrases. Schneiderman has literally sat down with clubs to devise the mantras. It will be hard to ever top the Cavaliers’ slogan a season ago. "All In To 16" not only represented the number of wins required to capture a title, but the year ('16) and Cleveland’s (216) area code. “It was kind of a triple entendre,” said Tracy Marek, the Cavaliers’ chief marketing officer.
Should Cleveland and Golden State rematch in this year’s Finals, it will be another championship run for Schneiderman and SomethingInked. Not only is the company responsible for the Warriors’ gold, PMS 123C, giveaway t-shirts, but it also prints a portion of the Cavaliers’ in-arena merchandise—the shirt pictured above was created by Merchandise Agency BDA. “This is playoffs, there’s no other word for it,” Schneiderman said. “You work all year to get to these two months.” Two months of dry-erase calculations and endless minutes on the phone. Take that for data.