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When Landon Donovan scored that goal to put the U.S. up over Algeria and his team into the World Cup knockout round, Ben Hooper was ecstatic. In 1997 he'd left college to play pro soccer, and he knew a number of the players on this World Cup team. He also knew Donovan's goal would be really good for his business.
Hooper, 33, played just one season in Holland before realizing that a long—and decently paying—pro career was unlikely. So he took a job at The Firm, a talent management company in Los Angeles, where he worked with Limp Bizkit, Korn, and the Backstreet Boys. Within six years, Hooper was looking for bands to sign and marketing megatours. But he missed soccer. He quit his job in 2004 and—along with a friend—created a soccer-themed T-shirt company. They named it Bumpy Pitch, slang for a rough playing field.
In the early going, the name proved all too apt. They had zero experience running such a business and, worse, no contacts in the industry. They couldn't even afford a designer and worked, themselves, on logos that were essentially no more than riffs on the company's name. The only interested buyers were their friends.
In 2008, Hooper changed his game plan by making T-shirts from scratch, forgoing buying up "blanks"—pre-made plain colored shirts—in bulk. He also hired a designer who helped propel the shirts in an increasingly popular retro direction. Hooper wanted to offer "a reminder of soccer's rich history in the U.S.," even if it was less a reminder than a primer for most.
It turned out there was a market for well-made $36 vintage garb. Shirts for bygone U.S. soccer teams such as the Bethlehem Steel and the Fall River Marksmen are consistently popular and appeal to die-hard fans—and their significant others, "who don't want their guys wearing a dumb-looking jersey," Hooper says.
Despite Team U.S.A'.s loss to Ghana in the round of 16, Bumpy Pitch just saw its most profitable month ever. Its blog, TheOriginalWinger.com, which links to its online store, has seen traffic more than double. (Adidas, Nike (NKE), and Puma have all approached Hooper about advertising.) "We've been waiting for a tipping point in North American soccer," Hooper says. "I don't want to go so far as to say this is it, but maybe it is?"
Hooper's 1997 monthly pro soccer salary in Dutch guilders (approximately $2,100)
Approximate average monthly number of visitors to Bumpy Pitch's website
Monthly budget for the company's marketing expenses
Estimated visitors to Bumpy Pitch's website this past month
Data: Bumpy Pitch