Scoring with sports fans
Fenway sports apparel retailer takes designs national
Mahlon Williams, owner of I Love Boston Sports apparel shop, left a cushy job in finance in 2010 after hawking T-shirts near Fenway Park. They were original designs, created by Williams, with slogans like, “New England vs. Everyone” and other quick-witted sayings that only Boston sports fanatics would understand.
Williams had been working at Fidelity Investments for the past eight years and had spent a total of 20 years in finance when a colleague convinced him to start his own company, promising to be his partner.
Originally from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Williams has roots in New England, having gone to prep school at Northfield Mount Hermon and then Wheaton College. After working in Wall Street for five years, he moved to Boston with his wife, solidifying his love for Boston sports teams.
Williams put down an initial investment of $15,000 to produce his product and start Boston Sports Apparel Co. in 2008. But then his colleague called. “[He] said he couldn’t do it. He oversaw accounts for GE Capital and they got spun off. His job wasn’t safe,” says Williams. “I didn’t want to take the loss and went out in Fenway to sell the shirts.”
Working in the office by day and hollering out his T-shirt sales pitch by night, Williams paid attention to what sold and what didn’t sell, as well as what other T-shirt sellers were doing. “I could see further down the road than others could,” he said. “I saw what was beyond and what my next step would be.”
His next step would be introducing his designs to other local stores. “I was scratching and clawing, introducing myself to owners of stores.” The stores were receptive. Then, the company grew even more after Williams hired a sales representative “who tripled our business overnight because he had an existing list of customers.”
Today, the business has three brick-and-mortar retail stores with the name I Love Boston Sports, with 20 employees across all three stores. I Love Boston Sports stores are located at Legacy Place Mall in Dedham, South Shore Plaza in Braintree and Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
The first retail location was in Dedham, when Legacy Place first opened 10 years ago. “We didn’t have a tremendous amount of product, only four shirts, and the economy was bad, but I wanted to jumpstart our growth,” says Williams.
Although Williams only had four designs at the time, they were wildly popular ones. His shirt with “McHale, Parish and Bird” emblazoned on the front was a huge hit, and was even worn on an episode of “Saturday Night Live.”
Last year, I Love Boston Sports had the opportunity to start as a pushcart retailer in Faneuil Hall, the tourist spot in Boston with the most foot traffic. “We became the number one pushcart and they worked out a deal with us to open a store here,” says Williams.
His designs have become more elaborate and include cheeky inside jokes and references to pop culture and U.S. history. The “Crossing the Charles” T-shirt, a parody of the famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting, depicts the New England Patriots team on the Charles River with quarterback Tom Brady leading the way.
Although Williams comes up with the idea for each design, he hires experienced artists to make his visions come to life.
“The unique part about all of our artwork is that there’s the stories inside of the art, there’s hidden things,” he says.
Not every business deal worked out for the best. “One aspect of our business is trying to grow beyond the region. And as a hedge to what we do for the Boston teams, to be able to replicate this on a national level,” says Williams.
In 2013, Sports Authority approached Boston Sports Apparel to be a national vendor of hot market items. However, Sports Authority went bankrupt in 2016, owing Williams’ company several thousand dollars.
“It was not fun, but experiences like that are good because it shows you what you’re made of and what fortitude you have,” he says.
Fortunately, soon after the Sports Authority setback, Boston Sports Apparel was able to revive an earlier business relationship with Olympia Sports and sell their products through them.
According to Williams, at the time Sports Authority went under, the sports apparel industry was going through abrupt change. Fanatics Inc., a large apparel company, struck a deal with the major leagues for exclusive access and license to sell professional team apparel online. “With the Fanatics deal and websites like Amazon, small mom-and-pop stores weren’t able to carry official apparel on their websites,” says Williams.
The Fanatics deal served to wipe out local competition for I Love Boston Sports, because Williams had never had the apparel licenses. He used only original designs. “The fact is [Fanatics Inc.]’s product is so mundane, ours looks refreshing to fans.”
Williams says he thinks of design ideas before falling asleep every night, staring at the wall above his bed. “I look at it as a blank canvas and come up with a framework of an idea. Usually I grab my phone and start typing it out, too, and put it into effect.”
Although I Love Boston Sports has a number of longstanding designs such as the Beatles “Abbey Road” album cover parody with Boston team players, Williams knows he has to think about the next thing that will capture customers’ short attention spans. “I know at some point, people might say, ‘Eh, I’ve seen that before,’ so I have to think now about what’s next, to keep it moving.”
But for now, Williams isn’t threatened by the big corporations. “The beauty of what we do is we are more nimble and more connected to what fans want,” he says. “We’re fans, just like they are.”