The United Soccer League has signed a deal with recently launched cap maker Official League that will see each of the USL’s 200 clubs be able to create limited edition, fashion-forward caps. The deal expands on Official League’s individual work with USL clubs including Orange County SC and FC Tulsa.
“We’ve been independently working with a number of teams leading up to this announcement, just because they loved what we’ve been doing,” Official League co-founder Alan Miller said in a phone call.
The licensing deal isn’t exclusive, but provides teams a way to access highly tailored caps in a system Miller says is faster and less capital intensive than working with traditional cap makers. “We’re focusing more on the Championship, League One and the women’s league—we have a hat that will be released for the women’s league [Minnesota] Aurora this August. There will be releases coming from all those levels in the next few months as well.”
The USL operates three professional leagues: the USL Championship in men’s soccer, the USL Super League in women’s soccer and USL One, another men’s league. The organization also operates two “pre-professional leagues” and two national youth leagues. The soccer league has been taking a long-term view of building its fanbase, recently retaining Legends for a 10-year sales and marketing effort.
Official League launched in February with backing from investment fund Top Tier Sports, formed by Texas Rangers president Neil Leibman and Sports Advisory Group’s Bill Yates, as well as NFL veterans Myles Jack and Jon Ryan. The Los Angeles-based outfit designs and produces limited runs of high-end caps—a typical run is 100, with each cap hand numbered on the leather closure.
To date, Official League has primarily produced caps for minor league baseball clubs, including the Sydney Blue Sox of the Australian Baseball League and the double-A Cleburne Railroaders. The company has also done caps with punk band Social Distortion, summer hockey circuit Da Beauty League and Major League Rugby’s Dallas Jackals. Miller is best known as the principal at creative agency Collide and is owner of minor baseball teams including the Portland Pickles. Official League, he says, is able to fill a need for fan merchandise currently not being met.
“As an owner of the Pickles for seven years, we never had one company in that time reach out to us and want to work with us. If we want to do a hat, I’ve got to go and try to find who the rep is, I gotta find out what their timing is, I gotta find out what their minimums are… It has turned into a volume business, it’s a commodity,” Miller said.
The company works with teams to design unique caps and can turn around orders in four to eight weeks, compared to the six-month lead time and much larger order volume required by traditional cap makers. “People sell really cheap hats or give them away to their fans, eliminating the ability to sell them into better hats,” Miller said. “Don’t spend $5 to make a hat—make a great hat for $15 wholesale and sell it for $35 to $45 and you’ll sell through just as well or better.”
As an example, he pointed to Collide’s relationship with the USL’s Orange County club, which has tripled gross merchandise sales in recent years.
Filling a demand for unique fan merchandise is part of the reason Top Tier invested in Official League at its launch, said Yates in a January email. “We’ve realized that even though fans want this type of offering, it doesn’t currently exist,” he said. “We also know that Collide’s teams have been among the top merchandise sellers in minor league sports. Alan’s methodical approach to trendspotting is probably the biggest reason for our venture into the fashion world. His data-driven analysis shows that sports team identities are becoming more prevalent in fashion worldwide.”
It’s a belief that the USL has, too, according to USL chief commercial officer Court Jeske, in a press release to accompany the announcement later today. “This long-term relationship with Official League, a lifestyle brand that provides unique, high-quality, comfortable headwear, will help connect USL teams and their fans in innovative ways.”
Looking ahead, Official League expects to announce deals with more European sports organizations, with an eye toward offering U.S. fans access to international team hats without the fees of foreign shipping orders.
“We differentiate ourselves in the market because we feel we are an art collective and our real goal is to help teams elevate what they are doing,” said Miller. “There are a lot of pain points with larger companies that just make it very hard to work with smaller teams and even larger teams. We’re trying to create this partnership that… there is a better way to do this.”