Entrepreneurship in Soccer
First Published on Soccerex
Business of Soccer’s Entrepreneurship Series examines individuals and companies that transformed their passion into their profession through entrepreneurship. The first installment of the series looks at Bumpy Pitch, a clothing label anchored by its partner site, The Original Winger, both of which deliver American soccer culture and identity to consumers across the world. Business of Soccer traveled to Downtown Los Angeles to meet up with Bumpy Pitch Co-Founder, Ben Hooper, to take a closer look.
History + Operations
Founded in the early 2000s, the Bumpy Pitch Family is operated entirely out of Los Angeles, California, from strategy and planning to production and logistics. The network of companies consists of Bumpy Pitch, a clothing label, The Original Winger, a pop-culture/soccer blog, and 90+, a newly formed soccer marketing unit designed to offer the Company’s experience and understanding of the soccer market to corporations and other third-parties. It’s a tightly knit operation spearheaded by Ben Hooper, Brian Dunseth, and Stevland Turner, friends and teammates from their high school and college days, with various levels of experience and interaction with the world’s game.
Operations began with Bumpy Pitch, a clothing label that sells off-the-field apparel in the form of comfortable, simple, and stylish apparel. In a Bumpy Pitch tee, you can expect that vintage feel you might have from a shirt you’ve had for years. Every piece is subtly inspired by the culture and history of the game without screaming out an affiliation with the sport. It’s an approach that yields a smart product, which appeals to a broad audience based on its design, fit, and comfort, but with a deeper meaning based on its inspiration rooted in soccer. Bumpy Pitch’s aesthetic widens its customer range beyond just the soccer crowd; you don’t have to like soccer to like Bumpy Pitch gear.
The rise of Bumpy Pitch is a feel-good story, encouraging, and a little bit unconventional. It began with an idea in 2004 to start a clothing label. In my sit-down with Ben Hooper, one of the founding fathers of Bumpy Pitch, he described how growing up in Southern California, his teammates would play a game of pickup, and change into surf or skateboarding apparel afterwards. There was nothing in the marketplace that reflected their identity as American soccer players, a challenge to which many soccer fans in America can relate while growing up in the 80s and 90s, when the sport was often out of the spotlight. It’s this void that ultimately brought Bumpy Pitch to life. By 2008, the Company released their first collection, featuring approximately 12 shirts revolving around the now defunct North American Soccer League, and heritage teams like Bethlehem Steel FC.
From an operations perspective, design is conducted almost entirely in-house with the exceptions of collaborations with companies like Nike, Port LBC, and WeSC. As noted above, the owner-operators are small in number, but the Company enlists the services of 5-6 freelance artists, as well as a few clothing services that perform their screen printing and vintage treatment. Through their long-running relationships and rapport with these entities and freelancers, Bumpy Pitch has established a tremendous asset in creating a team that can turn an idea into a product with a quick turnaround. It’s a great entrepreneurial strategy which minimizes costs and overhead by only paying for what is needed à-la-carte, while still having their business partners at their service, ready to act quickly, deliver, and manage a global sales base.
Growth & Brand Awareness
In addition to creating a great product, the Company possesses a structure and simplicity that allows its moving parts to align and drive revenue, build the brand, and expand the Company’s reach. It is an essential element to the Company’s success and a model for start-ups in any market.
Just after Bumpy Pitch’s launch, The Original Winger, the Company’s blog, soon emerged as a natural extension of the clothing label and, over time, established itself as one of the leading voices in American soccer culture. At its core, The Original Winger is a soccer blog, infused with pop-culture references in style, music, and art.
On any given day, you might see Major League Soccer weekend highlights, followed by a feature of a new Jay-Z song, a peek into the release of an upcoming pair of Nike cleats, and the latest US Men’s National Team news. It’s a one-stop shop for soccer fans to stay in touch with a variety of their interests. While the clothing label was growing and expanding a customer base, The Original Winger helped spread the ideals of Bumpy Pitch, all while attracting customers based on their content offering.
Daily, writers compile blog posts for The Original Winger. Through the site’s content, the writers establish the Company’s brand and positioning, which is reflected in Bumpy Pitch’s apparel, just a click away from the reader’s eye. As a business model, it’s genius. The owners market through their branding: as they’ve built a global following on The Original Winger, they’ve established their perception in consumer minds through their content selection, commentary, and analysis. Their products are the concrete representations of that perception and embody the culture of both the organization and soccer in America.
Oftentimes, if a reader likes The Original Winger and its content, there’s a good chance they’ll like their product lineup, and naturally be swayed to make a purchase of a product that shows an affiliation with the culture that the clothing represents. Built into the brand is an element of Southern California that’s part of the American experience – it’s admired across the country and world – a cool, laid-back mentality that makes you think of surfers and parties on the beach. It’s by no means the essence of the label, but there’s definitely a trace of it baked into the Company’s apparel. It adds to their global appeal and a definite success factor, which has led to international sales accounting for about 20% of their business.
In addition to using The Original Winger as a marketing tool, Bumpy Pitch has managed to reach more customers through partnerships and associations with professional athletes and media features. The former refers to the Company’s joint ventures with Nike in apparel collaborations and events, while the latter includes the likes of Clint Dempsey and Sacha Kjlestan sporting the brand while off the pitch. Their gear has also been spotted on the popular FX TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
These are guerilla marketing tactics, simple, low-cost techniques, capable of reaching the masses through channels like social media. For the Company, it’s as easy as posting a picture of Clint Dempsey going fishing while wearing his favorite Bumpy Pitch tee. When Companies can find unofficial spokespeople that embody the brand and represent a segment of their target market, it brings exceptional value at a low cost. It’s a common practice among successful, entrepreneurs taking advantage of their surroundings to build their ventures.
The brand continues to innovate and diversify, with the latest member of the Bumpy Pitch Family, 90+, a marketing company designed to translate the owners’ understanding of the game to benefit other companies looking to connect with a soccer audience. For example, 90+ might work with a major corporation trying to attract a soccer audience around the World Cup, serving as a connector between suppliers and soccer consumers.
Similar to the formation of The Original Winger, it’s a natural extension of the knowledge the operators have built over their lives through soccer and business, now available to other companies who might not have the expertise but nevertheless want access to the soccer demographic. The marketing company sparks a new revenue stream for the Bumpy Pitch Family, which should lift every aspect of their businesses. Simultaneously, cash flow should increase without a significant rise in their operating costs, since 90+ is primarily selling expertise and know-how (as opposed to tangible products), two extremely valuable resources in an exploding soccer market in America. The new unit is still ramping up with a few projects under its belt thus far, but should prove to work out well, and provide further means for growth.
The Bumpy Pitch Family is an exemplary exhibition of a global reaching entrepreneurial venture that started out small and local with seeing an opportunity in their everyday world. A void in the growing soccer market was noticed, so the originators stuck to what they knew, and stayed within their means to grow a global brand. It’s a very American, “can-do” approach to the world’s game. Additionally they leveraged their relationships in soccer and business to help establish the Company as an industry leader in the niche market of casual off-the-field soccer apparel, a market which they helped create and within which they continue to set the pace. All of this was achieved while contributing to the development and emergence of the American soccer identity and culture. As in any entrepreneurial venture, success comes down to the operators; for Bumpy Pitch, you have a few old friends, devoting themselves to something they’re truly passionate about.
By Phillip Cunha, Staff Writer, Business of Soccer