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Sea of Gold

Making 20,000 T-shirts for a playoff game

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It's become tradition for fans to collect a free T-shirt at every home Cavs playoff game -- at least for the first round. It's usually gold or blue or red and provides the necessary and supposedly "(insert color)out effect." They're pretty fanatical about it down at the Q. If you're one of the few and lonely fans in the crowd without the shirt, you're likely to appear on the JumboTron, at which point you'll be mocked and bugged until you sling an XXL-size shirt over whatever you're wearing.

Ever wonder where the shirts come from? What kind of time and machinery it takes to pump out 20,000 shirts on short notice? I talked with Kurt, the proprietor of Kurt's Kustom Graphics in Michigan, to find out. They made shirts for the Cavs' playoff run last year and will provide shirts again this year — but not all of them. See, the Cavs have contracts with many different marketing companies. These companies then turn to manufacturers that they have contracts or relationships with. So, not every shirt comes from the same place. Kurt's is just one of those places.

(One last note: It looks like "One Goal" is going to be the "Rise Up" of 2009.)

Q: Are you a Pistons fan?

A: Yeah, I'm a Pistons fan. I don't like Ohio State though — nothing personal, but I'm a Michigan fan. This national company once asked if I wanted to do OSU stuff. I told them, "I'm in Detroit. Why do you want me — who usually does stuff with Michigan — to do it?" Their sales staff had booked all the printers in Ohio, and they were selling to Costco and Sam's. But a couple of places in Dayton or Findlay and one in Toledo had not jumped on board to buy the OSU National Championship design. This was when they were playing Miami. So we did it. Unfortunately, it was the overtime game. Money is money.

Q: What about the "Beat Detroit" shirts the Cavs gave out a while back in the playoffs?

A: We did those. One of our workers came in when we were printing them and wondered what the hell was going on. Why was "Beat Detroit" on the shirts? I told them it was for the Cavs and to look at the press, and instead of seeing a T-shirt roll off, just to imagine a dollar bill. That changed things.

Q: What are the logistics of printing as many T-shirts as you do?

A: Well, put it this way: There's different scenarios. Originally, I started doing shirts on volume when I was doing Bob Seger concert tour shirts in the '70s and '80s. That job is: Print your ass off for six months, 24/6, and ship shirts to every city around the country [Seger and band play] so they're there when they show up. For the Cavs playoff shirts, this is 22,000 or 23,000 — depending on the sponsorship involved. The marketing people sell the idea or product to a bank, and they get their logo on the back of the shirt. We have to have 20,000 or 25,000 shirts in the arena in time for the giveaway to that night's game. We start one or two weeks ahead of time because the sponsorships are a pretty done deal. So they ship the shirts to us. We have an automatic press that can run 500 units an hour. But you have to remember we're printing front and back, and you can't do that at the same time, so double your production number. There are times that we would do a third or half of the order so it goes out in time. But with this, you don't know how far in the playoffs a team's going to go. Instead of going through a seven-game series, they might go four or five. That being said, it hurts us a little because we lose the business.

Q: Any time you printed shirts before the outcome was for sure? Any time you stood to have 20,000 worthless shirts if a game went one way or the other?

A: One instance and one instance only. We are also licensed by the national companies that have royalties or licensing rights with the NFL and NHL. So we were doing Red Wings stuff back in 1995 or 1996 when they were going against New Jersey. The Devils swept the series 4-0. The Wings came back the next year and beat up on the Penguins or Flyers, and they went 4-0. The one year, they were playing the Capitals in the Stanley Cup. The Red Wings went up 2-0, and the agency we were working with said to expect the shirts at 4 or 5 a.m. — 20,000 of them after game three is over. They asked how long it takes to set up for the job. I told them about two hours to line the press and get it rocking. They said to go ahead and start printing. I said, "Excuse me, the Wings have won only three games." They said to start printing. They thought the Wings would go 4-0 or 4-1. Ironically, the Wings won game four, and we were home watching it because the shirts were already done.

Q: You've been printing shirts for more than 42 years. You must have a nice little collection going.

A: I don't have the first one I ever made, but I have about 20 or 25 shirts. With me, after six months, they're old hat. I give it a toss or throw it in the rag box.

vgrzegorek@clevescene.com

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