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Volume 23 No. 24
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A trip to Liverpool was just the kick this entrepreneur needed

What Kleenex is for tissues and Xerox is for copiers, Jeff McIntyre thinks Ruffneck can be that for soccer scarves.

That lofty dream for McIntyre’s company, Ruffneck Scarves, started with a trip in 2007 to see a match at Anfield, Liverpool FC’s home stadium.

McIntyre, then a sales analyst at Microsoft in Seattle, was a die-hard soccer fan. He was an avid supporter and season-ticket holder for the Seattle Sounders during their days in the USL. He and a fellow Microsoft employee, Erin O’Brien, had a small TV in their shared cubicle where they often watched European soccer broadcasts.

Ruffneck Scarves customers include the Emerald City Supporters (above), U.S. Soccer and chapters of the American Outlaws supporters club.
Photo by: RUFFNECK SCARVES (2)
Walking the streets of Liverpool before the match, McIntyre was blown away by how many different scarves were for sale, with designs not just for the club and its supporter groups, but also for the day’s specific matchup and for the club’s stars.

He bought a few that day, immediately sparking an interest in acquiring scarves from teams across Europe. But back in Seattle, he quickly realized how difficult it was to collect them in the United States, between $30 shipping fees and lack of inventory and

selection.

McIntyre started reselling scarves he bought from overseas, which prompted requests if he could do custom work. Noticing how quickly soccer was becoming a hit in the Northwest U.S., he and O’Brien decided to start Ruffneck later that year with designs on meeting that demand.

Their first high-profile customer was the Emerald City Supporters, the Seattle-based independent Sounders supporter group that was behind the team when it was averaging about 3,000 fans per game in the USL. Two years later, Ruffneck was tabbed for the season-ticket-holder scarves for the Sounders as they were entering their inaugural MLS season.

At that point, McIntyre left his job to focus on the company full time. O’Brien joined him full time in 2010.

In the crowd for the team’s first home match at Century-Link Field, McIntyre and his son were among the 35,000 fans holding that Ruffneck-designed scarf above their heads.

“It was a huge deal for us as a company simply because of the size of the order,” he said. “But looking out and seeing all those scarves, knowing we made them: It still chokes me up.”

Since then, Ruffneck has produced more than 3 million scarves. Designing them in Seattle, McIntyre and his team of six work alongside another 10 global employees as the scarves are manufactured throughout Europe. With near double-digit revenue growth every year since its inception, the company has gone from roughly $50,000 in revenue in its first year to expectations it will clear $5 million in revenue by the end of this year.

That successful debut with the Sounders caught the attention of MLS and Adidas. Ruffneck in 2009 signed an agreement to become a sublicensee to the apparel company and an official scarf provider for the league, enabling it to produce scarves for all of MLS’s teams. It has gone on to sign deals with USL and the NCAA and has been a scarf provider to clubs like Manchester United and Barcelona for their U.S. tours, as well as chapters of the American Outlaws supporters club.

In January of this year, Ruffneck announced a deal with U.S. Soccer to become the official scarf provider for the national soccer federation, with its products now available in stadiums, at retailers and online for the run-up to this summer’s Women’s World Cup.

McIntyre credits the company’s success to its supporter club roots and the connection it has found with fans. When the company signed the deal with MLS and Adidas, it faced the challenge of having to connect with fans far from Seattle. Rather than trying to collect market research or correspond with club officials, McIntyre took a different approach.

“We decided to travel around the U.S. and visit every MLS stadium,” he said. “We reached out to supporter groups in each city and found out what pubs the supporter groups went to and told them we’d buy the first round of beers.”

Maribeth Towers, senior vice president of consumer products for MLS and Soccer United Marketing, said that type of approach has made Ruffneck a terrific partner for the league.

“Instead of counting on us to provide a style guide or just using the same basic applications from team to team, they’re the type of company that does a deep dive to genuinely get to know the properties that they get to work with, understanding what makes each team and supporter group different,” she said. “For me, when you have a licensee like that, it’s gravy.”

Towers said American soccer fans have quickly developed as much appreciation for the scarf — what she calls “the quintessential soccer item; our baseball cap” — as European fans have. Jerseys are the No. 1 consumer product in terms of revenue for MLS, but scarves have become a firm No. 2, Towers said. In some markets, based on unit sales, scarves rank ahead of jerseys.

In the space, both Nike and Adidas produce their own scarves, and several other U.S.-based companies — including SportsScarf and Global Scarves — also compete for business. Those other companies, however, often seek deals beyond soccer, drawing licenses in other sports as well.

Erin O’Brien (left) and Jeff McIntyre (right) with Ruffneck Scarves production manager Sertu Serhan
Photo by: RUFFNECK SCARVES
Liam Hoban, director of sports marketing, soccer, for Adidas America, said that being fanatical about scarf culture sets Ruffneck apart from others.

“In soccer, there is a culture that is built up around the scarf and what it means,” he said. “Jeff completely understands that culture, and he’s built a business on knowing what’s going on and being said in the stands.”

Hoban said Ruffneck has helped build out a “scarf of the month” concept in which the scarf area in team stores is changed frequently to build up collectability. He credited the designs of the scarves for building up interest, playing off local themes. “A blanket approach to designing merchandise might work on a T-shirt or a jacket, but not with a scarf. Guys like Ruffneck help to fan the flames of supporter culture.”

For McIntyre, while the company has dealt with supporter groups for other sports on a limited basis, it has generally resisted spreading into other leagues, a decision that he thinks has been beneficial. “We’re so ingrained in the soccer community that we feel like we’ve become family with different soccer groups in North America,” he said.

It’s that type of sentiment that drives McIntyre and his team.

“The scarves that mean the most to me aren’t the big-name team scarves but the ones that enable us to connect with our customers closely,” he said.

Last fall, after learning that the teenage daughter of a customer was battling cancer, Ruffneck designed and donated scarves to the family. Each pink scarf had #CAMILLESTRONG written on it, a rallying message started by the family. In the process of being shipped to the family’s home in Dublin, Calif., the box of scarves was lost in a train yard in Oakland, more than 30 miles away. But when a mother and daughter stumbled across the box and realized what was inside, they drove it the rest of the way themselves.

Ruffneck has continued to supply scarves for the family, with President Barack Obama even supporting the hashtag.

“When you’re running a company that makes scarves, you don’t think you’re able to touch people in that way, but that’s the beauty of the passionate fans that love soccer,” McIntyre said.