On a summer night in 2011, with the New York Mets in the midst of yet another season that would end in disappointment, a very tattooed man named Darren Meenan made his way into a field-level Citi Field seat with a sign bearing foot-high letters: "Don't Trade Reyes."
Rumors were swirling that the team was going to trade its star, José Reyes, and Meenan, a die-hard Mets fan, wanted to make his voice heard. Beneath the words were smaller letters: "The7Line.com," the domain name for his young T-shirt company. Strategically sitting within the sightlines of ESPN's cameras, Meenan held up the sign at just the right moment--and his message was instantly broadcast to the country, URL and all.
Meenan then passed out business cards to some curious fans sitting nearby, which prompted security to kick him out. A few local blogs jumped on the story, and when popular sports radio hosts Boomer Esiason and Craig Carton discussed the incident on air the next morning, Meenan called in to tell his side. "You actually get more mileage out of getting kicked out than if you didn't get kicked out," Carton said to him. "Well played, my friend." Esiason wasn't as impressed: "If he didn't have that website on it," he said, "there would be no problem. But then he's out there soliciting for his company and everything else--you know what he's doing."
Yeah, Carton shot back, "being smart."
Four years later, Meenan, 34, no longer needs to resort to such guerrilla tactics. The 7 Line, a clothing company geared toward Mets fans, has a prime-real-estate kiosk in center field at the team's Citi Field. It has grown into perhaps the most successful independent fan-run clothing company in pro sports--and according to sports licensing expert Scott Sillcox, likely the only such company to ink an in-stadium deal with a major league. And, for what it's worth, its name often autocompletes on Google ahead of "the 7 deadly sins" and "the 7 dwarfs"--which prompted one Twitter user to observe, "You're more popular than the Bible and Disney."
Not bad for a company Meenan started in his parents' basement.
As a high schooler in Douglaston, Queens, Meenan designed T-shirts with biking graphics to sell at the weekend BMX competitions he and his friends attended. He enlisted his art teacher for a silk-screening tutorial, then bought the necessary equipment--paint, a press, and cotton tees--and set up a small shop in his parents' house. After high school, he sold the shirts on the side while working a series of part-time gigs: bartending, delivering pizzas, manning registers at Toys 'R' Us and 7-Eleven.
Meenan's love of the Mets goes back much further. Both of his grandfathers worked at the team's stadium. He grew up just a few miles from the ballpark, and was a frequent visitor on spring and summer nights. Today, his ink proves his allegiance: The tats that sleeve his right arm are all about his favorite team, from the blue and orange logo to the beloved mascot Mr. Met.
In late 2009, at the end of one of a string of monumentally underwhelming seasons, Meenan designed a T-shirt to wear to a Mets game. It read, "I Survived," then described, in a few bullet points, the varieties of heartache that had befallen the fan base in recent years. Fellow patrons took notice, asking him where he'd bought it.
Meenan knew he was onto something. He bought a batch of T-shirts and weighed a few titles for his startup, always making sure the corresponding domain name, Facebook page, and Twitter handle were available so customers wouldn't have trouble finding him across the various platforms. He decided on the 7 Line, after the beloved subway branch that goes to Citi Field in Flushing, Queens, and he bought the URL--a total investment, T-shirts included, of $30.
Meenan designed a new batch of shirts, always using Mets colors and fonts but never referencing the team by name. The7Line.com launched on Opening Day 2010. Within weeks, his shirts were springing up all over Citi Field. By the end of that summer, Meenan had to rent space in a warehouse in Queens. He has since moved again, to a shop he can call his own, and fulfills orders for customers across the globe--some of whom have made upwards of 60 purchases and buy every shirt he creates. The company's product line now includes sunglasses, hats, jackets, sweatshirts, car decals, stickers, and beer koozies. Still, the 7 Line only has three employees: Meenan, childhood friend Lizy Saroyan, and a part-timer he recently hired.
"I get offered to buy ads all the time," Meenan says, "but I don't pay for any advertising." By attending about 70 games a year, always with a backpack of goods to give away to fellow fans who stop to chat, he lets the brand grow organically. "Which is great," he says. "I'd rather get a loyal customer instead of someone I paid to acquire."
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Meenan's shirts appeal to Mets fans' collective mentality, which mingles an expectation of doom with a dash of self-loathing. The team hasn't won a World Series since 1986 and has missed the playoffs in eight straight seasons. But if Mets fans are cynical, they're also willing--eager even--to poke fun at themselves. "This Team Makes Me Drink," reads one old shirt, in unmistakable Mets typeface.
"I Miss Shea," reads another, referring to the team's old stadium. "It Was a Shithole, But It Was Our Shithole."
During the run-up to baseball's 2014 season, the big guys realized they couldn't ignore Meenan any longer, and he signed a licensing agreement with Major League Baseball. It allows him to use the Mets logo and player likenesses in exchange for a royalty fee. That deal is also why Meenan steadfastly refuses to confirm any sales or revenue figures, but an executive familiar with selling such memorabilia estimated that Meenan easily sold a thousand orders per month (during baseball season, that is) even before he moved into his Citi Field kiosk--and noted that die-hard fans often buy in quantity.
That deal with MLB got him his share of grief from fans, worried that Meenan was selling out and moving away from the company's edgy roots. But as Meenan points out, the envelope-pushing shirts weren't ever the big sellers--and the change was coming anyway.
"There used to be a middle finger to Philly shirt," Meenan says of an old design that took a stab at the rival Phillies. "It didn't sell. People think those things are funny to look at online, but they don't actually buy them."
The company's latest designs, which feature the Mets logo and players' names, would've been impossible before. They make up much of the 7 Line's current list of bestsellers. Accordingly, the haters have backed off. "I think people were just nervous," Meenan says. "Now we're a year in and they realize nothing's changed, except that we have the ability to make cooler stuff." One post-licensing deal design: the Mets logo displayed next to the exhortation "Take Back New York"--a jab at the far more popular Yankees and their fans.
Perhaps most integral in catching the attention of MLB--and of his fellow fans--were the 7 Line's group outings to Mets games. Meenan organizes around a dozen trips per year, buying several sections' worth of seats and then reselling them to the public at face value plus the cost of an outing T-shirt. The 7 Line Army, as it's become known, packs fans into the center field stands at Citi, bringing life to the stadium--and giving the beer vendors some of their busiest days of the season. The group has ventured to road games in Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco, among others. For some games, Meenan's lot of 1,000-plus tickets sells out in under an hour.
And some of the biggest fans of the company's tees? The players themselves. Ace pitcher Matt Harvey recently bought "Believe in Harvey" shirts for his sisters, and standouts like Lucas Duda and Zack Wheeler can be seen wearing prints around the clubhouse before and after games.
"Here's this thing that started in your basement," says Meenan. "You were just messing around making some shirts, and a couple years later the players are wearing it. It's such a crazy feeling."
True to its roots
Some have suggested to Meenan that the next logical step is to expand into other markets--meaning other teams. Meenan has a strong opinion on this matter.
"Brand suicide," he says. "Especially in this market--a T-shirt market where you're so specific to one team--if you try to appeal to everyone, suddenly you're just like every other company. And that's not what I'm trying to be."
For now, Meenan is happy with the 7 Line remaining what it currently is: a fan base within a fan base, a wildly popular subculture of a preexisting niche. Maybe most promising for the company is the fact that it's grown hugely over a five-year stretch during which the team has remained, on a fairly consistent basis, pretty terrible. If the Mets should live up to the considerable hype for 2015 and--for once--not disappoint? "There's no ceiling to what this can become," Meenan says.
He doesn't discount the possibility of the 7 Line's apparel showing up in retail stores someday. But that day isn't here yet. "The brand will grow as needed," Meenan says. "But I guarantee this: I'll never sell this company as long as I live.
"Why would I? This doesn't feel like a job. This doesn't feel like work. This is fun."