Modeling Starter Jackets

On their debut album cover, 2 Live Crew donned satin Miami Hurricanes Starter jackets. A 1987 Saturday Night Live episode featured 49ers quarterback Joe Montana in a gold Starter jacket. Rapper Chuck D wore a black Raiders one on stage. Even Bill Belichick appeared in Starter gear on the sideline and in promotional ads when he coached the Browns.

So the teenage players, who were already sporting the brand's jackets, on the basketball team at Hamden Hall High School in Connecticut were delighted to wear Starter uniforms in the 1990s.

2 Live Crew Album Cover

"We were the best dressed team in the league," Hamden Hall coach David Beckerman said.

They were dressed fashionably for a reason. Beckerman, who has won 509 games while coaching Hamden Hall and Pine Crest High in Florida, founded Starter.

Embraced by teens, adults, athletes and entertainers alike, Beckerman's sportswear brand became a cultural and fashion phenomenon in the 1980s and 1990s, reporting sales of more than $350 million in 1993.

"I have an emotional connection to it," said former Giants linebacker Carl Banks, one of Starter's first spokesmen. "I grew up with it. I love it. It was kind of the evolution of sports and fashion and sideline apparel and the way you promote it."

Starter was the first to put a logo on the back of caps. Even Major League Baseball, which now places its logo on the back of the official New Era hats worn by its players, didn't adopt that style until Starter did. Beckerman's company was the first to use knit (instead of elastic) on jacket cuffs and the first to market an official locker room hat and T-shirt.

"Starter was very innovative," Beckerman said.

Bill Belichick Starter Ad

Starter, though, ran into trouble in the mid-1990s, declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1999, and the brand was bought and sold several times before Iconix Brand Group, a New York-based company, acquired it in December 2007.

"It was one of the first brands that we purchased that was really in the sports vertical," said Carolyn D'Angelo, Iconix's executive vice president of branding and marketing services. "Prior to that we were in -- really -- fashion apparel."

Iconix has since purchased other fashionable retro sports brands like Umbro and Pony.

But until three years ago, Iconix only sold Starter active wear, which does not feature teams and includes just the Starter logo on mesh shorts, moisture-wicking T-shirts and other workout gear, through Walmart.

By using G-III Sports -- of which Banks is president -- as its licensing arm, Starter can now feature pro and college teams on its attire once again and sell it through multiple outlets.

"To have the brand back," Banks said, "it's a very, very good thing."


Before coaching basketball at Hamden Hall, Beckerman was a salesman at a Duckster sporting goods store.

Carl Banks Richard Sherman

Beckerman then used $25,000 of his own savings and borrowed another $50,000 to open Starter in 1971. It initially sold generic jackets to high schools, softball leagues and bars, but he saw an opening in the market of professional and college sports.

There were no team stores at stadiums at the time. If fans wanted clothing to support their team, they could only buy pro gear at stores like Sears or JCPenney or college apparel at university bookstores. And the professional leagues thought only kids wanted authentic or replica jerseys and jackets.

"There were no adult licensed products," Beckerman said. "They totally underestimated what we were selling, and what we were selling was the emotional bond that connects the fan to the player or to the team by wearing a particular product."

A big break came in the mid-1970s when Tony Amendola, a Starter delivery driver who was also working for another trucking company at Mets spring training, introduced Beckerman to then-Mets manager Joe Torre. The Mets became the first team to wear Starter.

Beckerman had convinced MLB to grant him a license by 1976. The NBA and NHL followed suit, respectively, during the next two years. And after eight years of rejection, the NFL agreed to a licensing deal in 1983.

Starter's popularity soared as a result with sales ballooning from $500,000 in 1976 to $3 million in 1981 to $200 million in 1991.

The music industry, particularly hip hop, revered the product, adding a cool factor for the company and bolstering revenue. Starter outfitted Funkmaster Flex, and director Spike Lee asked for specifically colored hats. DJ Jazzy Jeff appeared in nationally televised ads.

"The inner city does drive fashion," Beckerman said.

Starter became part of popular culture, appearing in Big, Coming to America and My Cousin Vinny, among other films.

But rising popularity had negative consequences. Starter attire became so coveted that people, particularly teens, were mugged and even killed for it. In May 1990, Chicago police sergeant Michael Chasen told Sports Illustrated that his four districts had about 50 incidents involving jackets each month.

Despite those issues, Starter's downfall ensued because of three other reasons.

The pro leagues, particularly some NFL owners, became more avaricious regarding their royalty percentage. Beckerman said it increased to the point that he had to pay a 15 percent rate on locker room T-shirts.

Julius Erving Starter Ad

MLB, whose managers all wore Starter jackets, went on strike in 1994, and the NHL lockout followed shortly thereafter. Those dealt critical blows to the company.

A string of banks also were bought out by larger banks. The bank consolidation became problematic for Starter's operating procedure that required them to excessively borrow cash in amounts that reached $150 million. Because of the World Series, the NFL/NBA seasons and Christmas, 65 percent of its business occurred in the fourth quarter between October and December. That meant Starter had to borrow huge sums of money in the spring to have goods made in the fall.

Starter treaded water for several years before declaring Chapter 11 in 1999.

"After I had personally put in millions of dollars to keep it afloat," Beckerman said, "I was left with no choice."

In the ensuing years, several different companies, including Nike in 2004, purchased Starter. Nike had actually offered to buy Starter in 1992, but Beckerman declined and took the company public in 1993 instead.

But if he had accepted that offer, he not only would have lost control of his product, it also likely would have meant the layoffs for hundreds of his workers as operations moved to Nike's Beaverton, Oregon, campus.

He does not kick himself for passing on the opportunity to sell to one of America's most post powerful brands.

"I don't regret it at all," Beckerman said. "You know, how many bottles of wine can you drink?"


Coming To America Starter Jackets

About three years ago, G-III Apparel Group was releasing a limited edition Coming to America line, and the company wanted to include the Mets Starter jacket worn by Eddie Murphy and the Jets Starter jacket worn by Arsenio Hall in the film.

To be able to sell them, Banks approached Iconix and agreed to provide the fee to license the brand for the various sports leagues.

"What does it cost?" Banks said, laughing. "I'm not at liberty to say, but it's not cheap."

With that expensive licensing deal in place, Starter can now feature team logos and script on its merchandise, but it remains unlikely that Starter will outfit pro teams' uniforms and sideline attire again. Higher-valued shoe companies like Nike, Adidas and Under Armour currently do that.

"Might it be interesting for us at one point down the road to work directly for the league?" said Bill Hackett, senior vice president of Iconix's sports division. "It's a dream of ours but not in our direct line of sight today."

Today, Starter is a nice fit for Iconix, which owns 32 brands, including fashionable ones from the 1980s and 1990s like Ocean Pacific, Mossimo and Joe Boxer.

Emmitt Smith Starter Ad

"Retro-inspired brands couldn't be any hotter," Hackett said.

Iconix, which had a total revenue of $461.2 million, according to its 2014 annual report, declined to provide numbers for Starter, but D'Angelo said it was a "healthy brand for us in our sports portfolio, which is growing. It's done wonderful business."

When it first owned Starter, Iconix employed Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who has since signed a deal with Under Armour, as a spokesmodel.

Starter's current spokesmen are Jets wide receiver Eric Decker and Texans defensive lineman Devon Still, who led a memorable public awareness campaign as his toddler, Leah, overcame a battle with cancer.

"It's an inspirational kind of message that we're using for our new marketing," D'Angelo said.

But just like in the golden era of Starter, the best driver of sales may be the entertainers.

Big Sean wore a black satin Lions Starter jacket during his performance at halftime of Detroit's Thanksgiving game, and Justin Bieber wore a New York Rangers Starter jersey to the iHeart Radio Music Awards.

Starter also provided attire for the movie Straight Outta Compton.

Justin Bieber In Gretzky Starter Jersey

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton posted Instagam pictures of himself in Starter attire, including ones in Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Braves jackets. Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins wore a Redskins breakaway jacket at the press podium during the week before Washington's 2016 playoff game.

Starter jackets are sold through semi-regional specialty stores like Detroit-based Elite Mr. Alan's, Villa (located in the Northeast) and Fanatics, a national internet retailer of authentic sports apparel.

The active wear, which does not feature pro teams' logos, is still sold exclusively through Walmart.

The best sellers during Beckerman's tenure were both satin and breakaway jackets, which he deemed "the epitome of hip hop and music." The satin line now has a slightly different cut to reflect a more modern silhouette and has become the marquee item for Iconix.

Beckerman no longer receives any money from sales of Starter products, but the 73-year-old said he is living comfortably despite Starter's bankruptcy in 1999.

In addition to coaching Hamden Hall basketball, which plays its games at the Beckerman Athletic Center, he works as a real estate developer at the New Haven, Conn.-based Acorn Group.

In his closet remains breakaway jackets for the Celtics and Knicks and New York Giants and Jets. He has a Sports Illustrated cover of Tom Seaver wearing a Mets Starter jacket.

More than memorabilia, though, he holds on to the memories, emphasizing that he had the best marketing people around who pushed Starter to become an iconic company in sports and style.

"It is a powerful brand even today," Beckerman said.

More By Jeff Fedotin
-- Will McDonough's Uniquely Accomplished Three Sons
-- When Packers Considered Putting Dome On Lambeau
-- Why Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms

Follow Jeff Fedotin on Twitter @JFedotin.