Thursday, October 20, 2011

Et Tu, Knobby?

Who would have guessed that I would have more to blog about during the off season than during baseball season?

Seems people are at it again, always trying to take advantage of the little guy. I got alerted last night to tweets coming from Chuck Knoblauch’s VERIFIED Twitter account promoting an Anti-Boston shirt. The email to me asked if we were partners, which was the first red flag. I logged in, went to Knob’s profile, and clicked the link. I was brought here:

As I am sure most of you are aware, the shirt on the right has been my best seller since 2007. Immediately, I felt the stab in the gut. I was being bootlegged, this time by Chuck Knoblauch. You can see the shirt for sale on my site here (this is the most recent version, produced in 2009. The 2007/08 version was grey with red print)

A bit of background: I was one of Chuck’s first followers on Twitter. Doc Gooden passed his account my way, because I helped Doc get his follower count up when HE first joined Twitter. Chuck and I hit it off right away, and I staunchly defended his identity, way before he became verified. He was so cool, that I sent him a box of shirts. Many of you have seen this pic:

Everything was all well and good. I got a b-day shout of from Knobby, and even sent him custom made baby apparel for the birth of his daughter. Now all of a sudden, I see the name and face I supported/defended/vouched for staring right back at me ripping me off.

First, I felt incredibly betrayed. Here is someone I went out of my way to be nice to, only to get stabbed in the back. I sent him a DM through Twitter asking about it and got the following response (he since deleted the conversation, so I only have screen caps of what he sent me. click pics for bigger versions)

I replied with clarification, and got this:

Now, I don't know about you, but if my name and face (and twitter) are being used without my knowledge, I'd be pretty pissed.

Not sure what the month ago comment meant, but I replied that I have ALWAYS supported him from day 1 and never once said one bad thing about him to anyone. Why would I? To me, my interaction with him was awesome.

After betrayal, I was infuriated. A few tweets and re-tweets later, and all of Yankee Universe has my back and is destroying Chuck's already tarnished reputation.

FOR THE RECORD: I do not think Chuck Knoblauch had any direct involvement with copying my shirt and posting it as his own. I do believe him, because he has no reason to lie to me. However, when your name and image (not to mention verified twitter account) are being used to promote an item, everyone thinks you are involved.

Once he claimed to not know anything, I acted on a hunch that I had all along. Obviously, I am not privy to details, but Knoblauch has some sort of business deal with some self proclaimed “music mogul” named Uncle Louie. I traced back the activity on Knoblauch's page and the Boston promotion all started with a re-tweet from Uncle Louie:

There were several more tweets in the timeline promoting the shirt. All of the bit URL's you see here linked back to the original store page that I posted:

Around this time I got an email from an inside source that shall remain nameless. This person confirmed what I already expected, which was Uncle Louie was bad business. He went on to explain how Louie has spoiled business deals with other athletes and entertainers. Due to advice from council, other details have been omitted.

Since it was getting late, I quickly made screen caps of everyone’s timeline promoting the shirts and went to bed:

The above has Louie tweeting links to the shirt to a ton of people. The one below really makes me laugh because it's sent to the members of New Kids on the Block:

This morning, I awoke to a few veiled threats from Uncle Louie, as well as a tweet to someone claiming to have no beef with me:

Got a message that said we should talk, told him he could talk to my lawyer.

He goes on to tell me that *I* handled this wrong, and he does not know me nor has he ever seen the shirt (which is odd how you can come up with an EXACT COPY of something you have never seen before)

Obviously, this is a flat out lie. When Knobby first started to work with Louie, we had exchanged a few tweets, including a direct message where Louie sent me his email address. I took the opportunity to send out my “Bald Vinny Pitch” in hopes that perhaps some of his connections could help me in some way. He tweeted me back that my shirts were creative and funny. I thanked him, of course.

Fast forward to Game 2 of the ALDS, Yanks getting beat by the Tigers. I get the following tweet (thanks to the site Topsy for being a great search utility)

Clearly, someone isn’t being truthful. Now, I'm no "Social Media Guru" but I'm gonna guess that ruining a clients reputation within his core target market is a no-no.

So, where does that leave us?

Well, I was alerted to the fact that Louie has applied to register the phrase as a trademark with the Federal Government:

Luckily, Federal registration is not required to establish rights in a trademark. Ownership of a mark can be proved by usage in commerce or publication. I have enough supporting evidence that I have been using the mark prior to Uncle Louie’s registration date of October 1st of this year. Last night I filed my own application, submitting dated evidence of usage dating to 5/17/2007. In addition, there are countless photos and witnesses that will verify I was selling the design for years (not to mention two separate, independent printing facilities that have handled my contracting since 2009).

I’m sure this will trigger a flood of unqualified legal advice. If you are a REAL and PRACTICING attorney in Trademark/Patent law and would like to work a slam-dunk case pro bono, please contact me directly through the form on my website, as I do believe I need to file a formal injunction against his trademark claim.

Other than that, I would just like to send a heartfelt thanks to Yankee Universe for always stepping up and having my back. I know I am just a little guy, but it really makes me feel good to know that people wont stand for blatant stealing of ideas.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tell 'Em Why You Mad, Son

I cant stop thinking about this shirt that I spotted at Modell’s this past weekend. And the more I ruminate, the angrier I get.

Why? It’s just some lame Yankees shirt

Exactly. It’s a lame (licensed) Yankees shirt. Which means someone (most likely Majestic) not only paid a designer to re-hash a lame idea for the umpteenth time, but they paid for the licensing as well.

Do I really need to get into the lameness of this? The “Got Milk?” concept was funny 10 years ago. In Yankee land, it should have ended with the “Got Melky?” phenomenon (I wonder who the first vendor on River Ave was that had those…..oh yeah. It was me). The phrase really jumped the shark with the “Got Rings?” interpretation. But no, Majestic had to go to the well one more time for this striking piece of apparel.

(For full disclosure, I used the idea again for the "Got Stache?" shirt, and that was THREE YEARS ago. The idea is old and past it's prime. Time to move on)

Not to mention that the new Yankee Stadium has drawn 50,086 fans to a game maybe five or six (being generous) times? Shirt should read "Got 25,000 Corporate Fans in the High Priced Box Seats Playing with IPhones and Eating Lobster Rolls?"

So, why am I so mad? I’m mad because I can GUARANTEE that a licensed Bald Vinny/Bleacher Creature shirt could outsell this garbage. I would risk everything on that bet. Hell, I would bet that marketing to my Twitter following ALONE would generate enough sales to beat this shirt.

Yet, I find myself in the position I am in, about to close my doors after 10+ years designing ORIGINAL and CREATIVE apparel for Yankees fans.

Why am I so confident? Well, for starters, I post a pic to a lame shirt and get over THREE THOUSAND views in 2 days. I’m sure you are all tired of hearing me toot my horn since my last blog…but come on! Do I really need to spell this stuff out?

Yankee fans, I know you all trust me to represent you in the apparel I create FOR YOU (the fans). I would never call for a boycott or anything harsh like that, but I hope those of you that I cater to would never buy such crap like this.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The End?

Hey gang. For most of you who know me in “real life” you know that I am a pretty direct and to the point guy. I rarely mince words, and I always give it to you straight. This post is going to be no different, though with all of the thoughts in my head at the moment, this could very well wind up being three pages long (I really hope not). Anyway, there are a few things I’d like to go over with you guys so I might as well just get to it.

You may have heard by now that my current plans are to not return to Section 203 next year. While this is one of the toughest choices I’ve ever had to make in my life, I feel that it’s time and there are obviously many factors that are contributing to my decision

The biggest reason for me to not return is the lack of stability my chosen career path affords. When this business began, I was single and living alone. These days I have an amazing wife by my side and two of the most beautiful children one could lay eyes on. It is simply impractical for me to continue under my current set of circumstances. I can not rely on the weather to cooperate or for the Yankees to win in order to bring home a paycheck. That was acceptable in the past, but my priorities have changed. I need to take care of my family.

I’m aware that some of the folks reading this might not know me too well, so maybe I need to give a proper background in order for you to understand my story. In addition to being one of the more recognizable Bleacher Creatures at Yankee Stadium, I run a small apparel company with a point of sale location outside of Yankee stadium. I specialize in “all-original” sports apparel catering to the Hard Core Yankee fan. My main line focuses on outfitting the Bleacher Creatures with branded merchandise (tees, hats, scarves, pins) and my secondary line concentrates on the “rivalry” aspect of baseball in the Bronx. Additionally, I feature original and creative “player themed” apparel. I am the sole distributor and I handle every aspect of the business from inventory management to packing and shipping online orders.

When I started the company back in my parent’s basement, I set out with a simple mission statement: “Make the Bleacher Creatures a legitimate Brand extension of the Yankee franchise”. I’m sure if I dug around I could find the original legal pad with that statement, as well as amateur doodles and drawings which would ultimately become the first Creature logo.

Since those days, I have seen my business evolve with each season. I started out with two shirt designs: the original Section 39 tee and the grey distressed RF Bleacher tee which I still carry to this day. As of this very moment I carry thirteen different designs in six sizes and there have been over thirty five (yes, I counted) all original Bald Vinny creations over the years.

There is one thing, however, that has been holding me back and limiting my growth potential and that is licensing. Unfortunately, I do not have any of the resources needed (money, manpower, time) to secure the proper endorsements for the Bleacher Creature brand. Without licensing, I can’t get distribution. Without volume distribution, I cannot see any significant growth to my business.

In those first few seasons, I was convinced that I would get “picked up” by a corporation or investor (read: The Yankees) that would help take my brand to the next level. Our group was often featured in local media and even nationally during big post season games. I felt, and still feel, that because the “parent company” is the biggest name in sports – the media coverage alone would be enough to provide a return on investment. In this market, a little bit goes a long way and coupled with my hard work, success is all but guaranteed. Heck, at this point just the buzz of helping the little guy should provide decent return. To me, and I guess to all small business owners with a dream, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Every year showed steady growth in sales and popularity until I took the year off in 2005 to pursue reality television in YES Network’s Ultimate Roadtrip. In a way, it was a terrible decision. I had just turned 30. Just moved in with my then girlfriend (and now wife) and had a thriving business that I completely put on hold so I could chase the Yankees around for a summer. Financially, it almost crippled me, and for a long time it was a decision that I struggled with immensely.

But that year helped me in a different (better) way, one that would help me focus my vision and hone in on my business goals. Being on the road taught me just how incredibly passionate Yankee fans are. I met people that lived in Middle America and who would drive for 10+ hours with the whole family packed in a tiny car just to watch the Yankees play baseball in person. I met grown men who could recall to me every little detail of their one trip to the big ball park in the Bronx as if they were little kids seeing it for the first time.

It was that kind of passion that taught me the real driving force behind sports is the fan base. And I’m not talking about the seat fillers behind the plate. I mean the real tried and true fan. It’s the kind of fan that lives and dies with every game. One not afraid to get up and make a little noise to inspire a rally - the kind of fan who will take their one week of vacation during the summer to see The Yankees play halfway across the country. It’s the kind of fan that, in my eyes, is personified in the brand known as “The Bleacher Creatures”.

From that point on, my singular focus was on fandom. How can I be a passionate fan? How can I get others to be inspired from my passion? What did it mean to be a fan?

Those were the questions that drove me creatively with the apparel I produced and also with the outlook I had in the bleachers. Being located outside of the stadium gave me the opportunity to be at pretty much every home game (with a few notable exceptions) since 2001. That kept my face out there, and made me more recognizable (and the sunglasses on ALL the time was certainly part of that). It helped me establish credibility with Yankee fans, because they all know I am one of them. We share the same passion for this team, and they know the apparel I make represents that passion.

Since the beginning, my only form of marketing has been word of mouth. Fans telling fans about a cool shirt they saw at the stadium, or about this crazy bald guy screaming his face off at the beginning of every game. With the explosion of digital media, we (The Creatures) soon began reaching a wider audience through YouTube. Since there is a roll call every night, there are literally hundreds of videos posted. Social networking sites have played a huge part in growing the brand, first with MySpace and now with Twitter and FaceBook. Not only does it allow me as a business owner to be in direct contact with my customers, it also lends to a feeling of being in a unique sub-culture. Sure, there are Yankee fans everywhere, but it’s only this special group of fans that know what the Bleacher Creatures and Bald Vinny are all about.

In business terms, this is known as a Niche Market. I am not interested in the corporate fans that sit in the pricey seats. I am not interested in attracting the fan going to Modell’s to get their first Derek Jeter shirt. My target market is the obsessive Yankee fan, plain and simple. Luckily for me, those types of people are in great abundance across the country. I am fully convinced that the Bleacher Creatures would not have achieved the notoriety that we have if it was any other team besides the Yankees. In the same breath I also have to admit that if it was any other team, a marketing/licensing deal probably would have been achieved already.

Obviously the Yankees are an incredibly successful franchise with an amazingly rich history. They also have a terrible stigma attached to them as being “untouchable”. Anyone who has waited for autographs as the players whisk in and out of their private underground garage will attest to that. From my perspective, I see this as an opportunity. Some of the successes I have been afforded, especially the last two years, have given me a little bit more “access” to the players. Mostly through charity events that I have been graciously invited to participate in, but also in a more professional level, as when I was invited to spend some time at Steiner Sports. I almost feel like it is part of my job to be a conduit to the fans and share those experiences with them because it is so rare for an average fan to be having those experiences in the first place.

I have been encouraged in this regard by the feedback I have been getting from Yankee fans across the globe. When I blogged for Steiner over the winter, my very first post garnered more hits and comments than any other blog they’ve had, combined. Photos I uploaded from signings routinely attracted several thousand views. Even today, when I don’t have an active blog but only Twitter followers and FaceBook friends, the interaction is at a level that is sometimes baffling. How can there be such a thirst for the content I can provide, but no real way or means of providing it?

It almost seems silly to me at this point. I am basically forced to walk away from a business I love, from a business that I poured over 10 of the best years of my life into, because I can’t get anyone else to believe in its potential but me.

That’s probably the worst part of this whole thing, the feeling that I failed. I failed to take my ideas where I wanted, I failed to achieve what I thought was possible. Sure, I can give it another year, but after 10 years selling shirts on River Ave, how much longer am I supposed to try? More importantly to me, how do I convince my family that this next year will be “the year”?

It’s certainly not for lack of effort. I have made my pitch to a lot of high ranking people within the organization as well as other businesses that are closely tied to the Yankees and MLB in general. I have tried to elevate my status within the Yankee Universe and have worked diligently with my fellow Bleacher Creatures to improve our public image and standing within the community. Looking back now, it’s a shame that it all seems to be a waste.

In recent days, there has been a lot of activity on both my FaceBook and Twitter feed about my decision to move on. There is even an online petition to get me a job with the Yankees. I sincerely appreciate the outpouring of support from fans and friends, but I want to make it clear that I am not looking for a hand out. I have a legitimate business with a good revenue stream. I’ve just fulfilled the potential that I am capable of under my current set of circumstances.

So really, where does all of this stuff leave us? Well, for starters, I don’t think I will be renewing my tickets for next year. I need to find a job, and take care of my family. It’s not fair for me to go to a potential employer and look for a full time job knowing I am going to abandon them come April. As I said earlier, it’s the desire for stability that I seek. If I want to go to a game, I am sure I can score some tickets. But in all honesty, I think I would really need to distance myself from the stadium for a good length of time. The place just means too much to me for me to go as a casual fan. It’s an unfortunate side effect, but one that I think I’ll need for my own sanity.

Of course, this leads to the next big question of what happens to Roll Call. Honestly, I don’t know, and truthfully, it’s not my decision to make. Roll Call was there before I got there and I expect it to be there when I leave. I was given the job by bleacher elders and I would expect they would pass it on to someone else. Obviously, there are very few people who make it to each and every home game, so perhaps the duties will be split amongst the regulars. I really don’t know what will happen on that front.

Regardless if I am there or not, the spirit of the Creatures will never die because as fans our passion for the Yankees will never die. I have always said that being a Creature is more than where you sit. It’s a way of life. It’s what makes you the kind of fan that you are. It’s the feeling of pride you get when we see your team perform and succeed. It’s the tingling you feel when you witness an historic moment. It’s simply something that will never cease to exist.

Perhaps the thing that means the most to me is the respect I’ve gotten from other Yankee fans. We are a very tough bunch and I’m incredibly humbled by your admiration. It truly means the world to me to be even considered by some to be some small modicum of a fraction of this glorious franchise. It has been an honor to represent you and I can only hope my achievements thus far have made you proud.

I owe a great deal of thanks to the thousands upon thousands of Yankees fans that have supported me through the years. All of you guys that religiously bought all of my creations (even the crappy ones), I thank you. Even if you never bought a damn thing, but just stopped by for a picture, a chat or a handshake, I thank you too because without you guys there is no me. And for that I will always be grateful.