SBJ/February 6-12, 2017/Marketing and Sponsorship

Custom designs give sock brand a leg up on the competition

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It’s not often you hear of a race car driver who doubled as a budding sock entrepreneur, but Justin Wilson was just that.

“Get off the phone, Justin; quit talking about socks,” Justin’s widow, Julia, used to jokingly holler to him, as recalled by Justin’s business partner, Michael Waddell.

USWAG

Launched: 2015
Headquarters: Franklin, Tenn.
Number of Employees: 7
What they do: Maker of custom designed athletic socks

KEY EXECUTIVES:
Michael Waddell, co-owner
Julia Wilson, co-owner

KEY CLIENTS:
English Premier League teams
College teams
Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar
Wilson, the open-wheel driver who was killed in an IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway in mid-2015, was co-owner of Uswag, which makes custom-designed athletic socks. Uswag, founded in early 2015, is licensed by teams in the English Premier League, U.S. colleges, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar, which Wilson competed in.

The company continues today despite the tragedy, with Julia taking over as co-owner alongside Waddell. Just like it has in the IndyCar paddock, Wilson’s death left a void in USwag. But with the support of Julia and Justin’s younger brother, Stefan, Waddell has soldiered on to build the company into one that generated low- to mid-six figures in annual revenue in its first full year of business in 2016. It’s living out Wilson’s legacy and providing the family he left behind with income.

“Justin was not just an investor that was going to kind of give the money and check in every once in a while; anything Justin did he went full force into,” said Waddell, whose background is in merchandising. “He went to all of the meetings, he wanted to learn more about the business and licensing, and he was wanting this to be a real part of his life for the next 20 years.”

Wilson and Waddell, who were introduced by Waddell’s brother, created Uswag “because like any business, we said, ‘Hey, we think we can make a better mousetrap,’” Waddell said.

The sock category has become a hot one in recent years, said Scott Bouyack, co-founder of Fermata Partners, one of Uswag’s licensors, in no small part due to the rise of the Nike Elite sock. That sock was introduced in 2008 and brought extra levels of aesthetics and comfort to athletic socks at higher price points.

The company received exposure when the Tennessee Titans’ Brian Orakpo wore a pair
of its socks during a game.
Photos: COURTESY OF USWAG

“It’s frankly become a fashionable item,” Bouyack said. “You had the rise in popularity from the Nike Elite sock where every 12- to 18-year-old kid in America was wearing them and they really became a core fashion item. Kids were paying these new price points that no one had ever saw before — $15 to $20 for a pair of socks rather than the $6.99 that you had when I was growing up — so I think that established socks at a higher price point as a fashion item. And then the sports licensing side of it — the fan side of it — came in and followed that.”

WADDELL
Waddell had connections from his past business dealings with Fermata, and leveraged those into signing deals with EPL clubs including Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool. Fermata represents the North American licensing rights for a number of EPL clubs. Next up was IndyCar, followed by colleges. Uswag now works with about 20 colleges including the University of Kentucky, its biggest money maker in that space, plus Baylor and the University of Miami. Top sellers last year in IndyCar included a special sock commemorating the 100th running of the Indy 500.

Differentiating factors include working with its licensors, Fermata Partners and Legends, to create unique designs for every sock. Waddell looks for relevant traits of a team or person as the company creates designs for the socks.

Deals with EPL clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur make up about 30 percent of the company’s business.
For example, Uswag worked with patriotic IndyCar driver Graham Rahal to make a design that resembles the U.S. flag with stars and stripes along with his car number. IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves’ sock perfectly matches the helmet he wears during races. And the sock being made this year for IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe will feature the words “Stop” and Go” for “Team Stop and Go,” the name of the dance duo that Hinchcliffe was a part of on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” last season.

Raeann Suggs is merchandise buyer and visual planner at Legends, which manages Uswag’s relationship with IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Suggs said Uswag has focused on higher-quality materials that prevent the fabrics from “pilling,” or making the fabric strands ball up and break apart upon washing.

Uswag also weaves designs into its fabrics rather than dying or printing them, which allows the design to last longer.

The company makes its products in North Carolina, which provides for a quicker manufacturing turnaround compared with foreign factories. That’s especially important when the company wants to quickly react to emerging trends.

The company made mid six figures last year and is eyeing a jump to the high six figures this year. Waddell said IndyCar represents about 25 percent of its business, EPL is 30 percent and colleges and miscellaneous represent the remaining 45 percent.

Uswag’s socks typically cost $15 to $18 per pair. Suggs said Uswag had a sell-through rate of 85 percent last year, which exceeded its benchmark rate of 70 percent. The socks are sold at the shops of the properties it works with and online at sites such as Amazon. In addition to Nike, competitors to Uswag include For Bare Feet, which has deals in MLB, the NFL and colleges.

Uswag plans to make 13 to 15 designs this year in IndyCar, and the company is eyeing an expansion into high school sports.

High school sports are another growth opportunity.
With Wilson’s passing, Uswag has effectively become a one-man band with Waddell handling the bulk of operations on a day-to-day basis, though the company just hired its first sales rep for high school athletics. Marketing is mostly done through word of mouth and social media, like when Tennessee Titans linebacker Brian Orakpo wore a pair of the company’s socks during a game, or when IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan wore them during his appearance on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior.”

“When Justin passed away, he had thousands of friends that after a couple weeks were asking, ‘How do you honor or keep what he was all about in a professional manner?’” Waddell said. “Lives go on, and as tragic as it’s been, I feel fortunate because this is a way to keep part of Justin’s legacy going.”

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