HOMAGE tees are perhaps one of the most celebrated local businesses in Columbus. Slide on one of their comfy, custom t-shirts that pays homage to any one of Columbus’ great legends, grab a Jeni’s Splendid ice cream and stroll the Short North—well, you’ve pretty much arrived in the nirvana of Central Ohio.
And now, the local t-shirt chain is going one step further in their storied history—they’re now part of a Major League Soccer pilot program that’s looking at how MLS clubs can connect better with their respective local businesses through merchandising. And the Columbus Crew made it happen.
“It’s a big deal that the Crew went to bat for us with the MLS,” said HOMAGE director of marketing Nate Ellis at the product launch party in his Easton location Thursday night. “It kind of puts a feather in our cap. When a legacy like the Columbus Crew can let a small company like HOMAGE partner with them and do something really unique—it’s a tremendous honor and a really big deal for us.”
It’s a really big deal in general, according to the Crew’s senior vice president of sales and marketing Mike Malo. What the Crew is doing with HOMAGE isn’t typically allowed in the MLS due to contract restrictions—in this case, with Adidas, the official apparel provider for the MLS. In order to make it happen, the Crew, who had four players model the limited edition line at the launch, had to sit down with the league about three months ago and make a special request.
“Once we looked at options under the guidelines of the Adidas deal, we entered into a dialogue with the league that led to this concept of a capsule line,” said Malo. “It’s a very limited run, where we work with a local retail vendor to put a limited edition line in the market place and target it to a demographic that wouldn’t necessarily compete with the Adidas products.”
The final result is a 1,500 piece line of tees, a child’s tee, a baby onesie, a sweatshirt and a scarf, ranging in price from $20 for the youth tee or the scarf and $28 for the standard tee to as high $65 for the fleece sweatshirt. And with this particular line, available at the Easton and Downtown HOMAGE locations, homage.com and at the gear store at Crew Stadium, once the items are gone—they’re gone. That’s part of the deal that the MLS is watching very closely.
“It’s a pilot program for the league and because we’re the first team to enter into it, they’re really watching to see how it goes,” said Malo, adding that if it’s successful, it’s a program that could be implemented across all the MLS clubs.
The move is something that’s always been in line with the Crew’s way of marketing to its millennial crowd—it’s an organization well-known for tapping into its core fan base and using their ideas for commercials, running the stadium (hello, Nordecke!) and in how the club shapes its future.
“In a soccer culture, fans have a lot of input into the organization,” said Malo. “We’re constantly asking them what they want from our brand and how can we shape our brand to connect with them on what their likes and dislikes are. How do we stay relevant with you? Are we doing things that are meaningful to you?”
So far, so good, as the Crew meets monthly with local supporter groups, who have had a working relationship with HOMAGE for several years. So it’s no surprise that the club wanted to connect as well, given how in tune they are to their young, professional fan base.
“It’s a challenging demographic because you can’t fake it with that group. You have to be authentic,” said Malo. “There’s something very organic in nature with that demographic. They’re a group that is very connected socially. They like to do things in groups. They work hard and play hard and that certainly fits into our core attributes as a brand. Working hard is part of our brand, ‘America’s hardest working team,’ which also ties into our region.”
That’s actually the reason why Crew forward Ethan Finlay enjoyed modeling the HOMAGE limited edition line Thursday—the hard working team tee is one of his favorites.
“That’s our character right there; I love that,” said Finlay, who said his personal style jives well with the HOMAGE brand. “I like a very chill outfit. I like wearing tees. I’m big on a tee with a jacket or a pullover and jeans.”
To have the two brands come together is something even the players were talking about in the locker room before the Thursday night launch, said Finaly.
“It says a lot about the leadership in this community and the passion they have for us that a company is willing to do a whole clothing line for us,” said Finlay. “We get Adidas (gear), but we want something different. HOMAGE—they bring something that is exclusive. That’s what makes it great. When you have a great band that our supporters like, as well as the players, I think it’s a success for both.”
For HOMAGE, the deal is a natural fit. Any time they’ve created a Crew tee with the supporter groups, it “flys off the shelf.” And now, to partner with the club on an MLS pilot program, just goes to show how a local brand that inspires city loyalty can become great.
“The pride (the business community and the residents) feel for this city is something that a lot of folks outside Cow Town don’t really have,” said Ellis. “We’re all about storytelling and paying homage to the past. And really preserving and promoting some of those legacies that maybe you forgot about and needed a reminder. In this case, we’re paying homage to the first MLS team and the first championship in any major sport in the city of Columbus.”
The honor of being a HOMAGE story isn’t lost on Crew forward Danny O’Rourke, who modeled Thursday night alongside Finlay, Dominic Oduro and Aaron Shoenfeld.
“It’s going to bring some pride to Columbus,” said O’Rourke, who described his style as simple. He said bringing the Crew gear to fans is an honor for all involved. And now, the field has to reflect the storied clothing. “It’s up to us on the field to play better, so (fans) continue to support us.”
In the meantime, Malo is working hard to continue to connect with Crew fans in other ways. In fact, the HOMAGE pilot program is something the Crew wants to use with other local businesses in C-Bus.
“We do want to look at brands that we think our fan base would identify with,” said Malo. “When you think of other strong local brands there are some we’d like to partner with, Jeni’s ice cream is a popular local brand—those are the types of discussions and partners that we want to seek out.”
One local trend the Crew is looking at for an upcoming game is the Columbus food truck frenzy.
“We’re looking at doing a ‘614 night’ and bringing in food trucks during the game,” said Malo. “We’re hoping to get details out soon.”
You can catch the Crew in action 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Crew Stadium versus D.C. United or on Fox Sports Ohio.