NCAA Basketball T-Shirts: Behind the Scenes

Throughout March Madness, we’ve seen NCAA representatives rush courts mere seconds after the buzzer to slap branded hats on players and handout t-shirts to the winning teams.

How is this possible? Where are these shirts coming from? Is the ink still warm?

We can wrap our heads around the idea that there will be customized shirts after every game win; it’s the timing that’s a mind-bender.

As it turns out, major league t-shirt printing is an entire industry in itself. The planning for different tournaments can start up to six months in advance and screen-printing shops dedicate internal teams to their massive NCAA-sized clients.

During March Madness, commemorative shirts are printed for teams that advance to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. Depending on the region where the teams are from, screen-printing shops in that area are hired to fill the massive orders. As teams are eliminated from the tournament, so are the printing shops. In Syracuse, Holy Shirt on Erie Boulevard is a major provider of these commemorative shirts.

Holy Shirt owner John Groat said in an interview with reporter David Lassman, “People like to get their shirts hot off the press, like a fresh loaf of bread from an oven.”

The urgency screen-printing businesses feel as soon as the final buzzer goes off is a hectic, several-hour, second- and third-shift process. After the men’s game last Sunday, when we all dreamt of Lydon making 3s without shoes and the women’s team continuing to make history, the printing press staff is cranking out thousands of shirts to be up for sale at 8 a.m. Monday morning.

Printing thousands of shirts based on one win sounds risky…

Being able to sell the shirts is not a concern of printing press owners; the marketing is already done for them. The NCAA is no stranger to marketing efforts as it approaches the end of its 78th season this March. When teams win and shirts are swung and waved in front of the cameras in celebration, it serves as immediate marketing for the apparel.

Oh, you all thought the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four were just clever alliterations? Assigning specific names to these levels in the tournament is also assigning levels of achievement to the teams that make it, and devout fans all over the country want to shout (and wear) their pride when it’s their team that reaches alliteration status. Whitman marketing professor Scott Lathrop explains why wearing our pride is a marketing game-changer.

“Typically we think of things that you wear as the most personal types of products, and that’s when branding and social badging become most important. Things that are close to your body, like apparel, tell other people something about your personality, what you believe, and how you live your life,” said Lathrop. “With a winning team, you become part of something bigger than yourself and hope that a little bit of that positive aura rubs off on you – you’re a winner because you cheer for Syracuse and they’re the winners.”

That would explain why Manny’s on on the Hill sold out of Final Four shirts earlier this week. On Monday morning, everyone was a winner.

With over 1M Facebook followers and 505K followers on Twitter, March Madness has developed as the fourth biggest sports tournament of the year, right behind the NBA Championship, the Super Bowl and the World Series.

That’s a lot of people who want shirts…

A tournament with that much fan power has some marketing leverage over printing presses, as each wants the revenues their respective teams could potentially bring in. When the men’s team faces UNC this Saturday and when the women face Washington on Sunday, the printing presses are already walking the fine line of jinxing all four teams. Commemorative t-shirts proclaiming each team the winner will already be printed, tightly packed in boxes and guarded by heavy security. These shirts are called “locker room t-shirts,” and that’s how the winning team gets to wear their accomplishment seconds after the clock runs out.

And that’s a lot of shirts declaring the losers as winners…

Luckily, the less fortunate team’s printing press doesn’t completely lose out on revenues. Within the past couple of decades, instead of destroying the shirts that proclaim the losers as winners, they’ve been donated to developing countries through non-profit partnerships. For professional tournaments, these shirts are generally worth around 2M, which is revenue the printing press still gets. Let’s think of this system as a safety net. Just in case these two Final Four games end with the unspeakable, somewhere in the world people will believe we won.

Sarah Graham