There exists no lack of apparel companies that have quickly sprouted up from nothing in the digital age to exploit unique opportunities and print/deliver product with speed. Count 500 LEVEL as one such company. The Austin, Texas-based company is a bit unique, though, due to the fact that it maintains extensive licenses with various sports players' associations, which gives 500 LEVEL the ability to use players' names, images and likenesses without fear of any backlash.
With the NFL season roughly half-way over and still a lot of goals to meet, I spoke to Ryan Totka and Diana Arand, partners at 500 LEVEL, to learn more about how the company differentiates itself from competitors, its strategy and successes.
Heitner: What is 500 LEVEL and how are you different than other sports apparel companies?
Totka/Arand: 500 LEVEL is a creative apparel company focused on capturing key moments in sports history. We're officially licensed and design driven. Our designs are inspired by everything from an athlete's charisma and character to game-winning plays.
We take a game's key moment and turn it around overnight into apparel any proud fan would want to wear. 500 LEVEL puts the spotlight on the player and game changing moments instead of the traditional team/logo based approach that has been around for decades. We work in real-time and print to order to ensure each moment is captured and worn by a fan in just a matter of days.
Heitner: Today's athletes are their own multi million-dollar brand. How do you help athletes build their brands online?
Totka/Arand: We are not only by creating the designs and logos, but also running websites and printing apparel - a one-stop shop for any brand. We work with athletes and legends to provide more than an apparel line; we create an avenue for them to express themselves and be involved as much or as little as they want. Whether it's a great play or a camp where they give back to the youth, we want to be there to support and enable their success.
Heitner: I understand 500 LEVEL is involved in athlete philanthropy. What are some recent charity campaigns they have been involved in?
Totka/Arand: We've had the opportunity to partner with some incredible charity campaigns, and we're really proud of the results we've accomplished. We worked with the SagerStrong Foundation during the national #SagerStrong campaign, building the website, designing and producing the official shirts worn league-wide in the NBA, from players to reporters to fans. Craig [Sager's] fight inspired us on a company level to do more with giving back.
This past baseball season we partnered with Kiki Hernandez (Los Angeles Dodgers) to launch the Puerto Rico Se Levanta campaign benefiting Hurricane Maria relief organizations. Shortly before (and during) we also worked with D'Onta Foreman (Houston Texans) on a Houston Strong campaign supporting Hurricane Harvey relief. Our goal is to keep the focus on the athlete's cause and do everything we can to support it. We create the campaign designs, assist in marketing the campaign and fulfill the orders.
Heitner: How was 500 LEVEL involved in big time events like the World Series?
Totka/Arand: Nothing gets us more psyched than playoffs. Fans want to represent their favorite players and we provide that. This year the [New York] Yankees made their playoff push and our Thumbs Down apparel flew off the shelves. Todd Frazier and Aaron Judge kicked off the movement by wearing our shirts in their clubhouse and on interviews; A-Rod and Big Papi wore the shirts live on FoxSports postgame coverage. Modell's took notice and fans could purchase the apparel in their stores, as well as on our website.
At the same time in the National League we were running the Puerto Rico Se Levanta campaign. Hernandez hit three homeruns in one of the biggest games of his career in the playoffs, and then gave us a shout out in his postgame interview for our partnership with the Puerto Rico Hurricane relief foundation. It was a special moment for us to hear our brand be mentioned by a player who was going through so many emotions.