Monday, January 14, 2013

The Race Shirt

 Race-shirt from the Rev3 Quassy Triathlon last year

Have we given away enough free shirts?

According to the Running USA Stats page, in 2011, roughly 13 Million runners completed a running race of some kind in the Untied States that year. If you add in Canada, as well as all the triathlons in North America you might get to 15 million total participants in running and triathlon events in 2011.

There is a good chance that many of those 15 million race participants got a fee shirt of some kind for entering each of those races. This has become the standard or default, give-away for almost all running and triathlon races. That's 15 million free shirts given away. I am trying to imagine what the pile . .  err . . mountain, of 15 million t-shirts looks like!

Many of these shirts in terms of their look, follow a similar pattern - some form of of design or art on the front that's in keeping with a given events logo and look and feel, and then often some array of sponsor logos on the back.

At one time, these were cotton shirts. Now many of these are the so called,"technical shirts" or "tech-T's". I recall a meeting that I convened, when I was the Marketing and Communications Manager at Sugoi back in the late 90's. Polyester technical t-shirts for running were new then. Hard to believe that prior to about '97, most runners ran in good old cotton t-shirts. Anyway, the meeting at the old Sugoi office in Vancouver was between the key people at the Vancouver Sun Run, and the marketing team at Sugoi. We were trying to come up with formula even then, to get a Sugoi technical T-shirt on the backs of the then roughly 35,000+ Sun Run, participants. We couldn't crunch the numbers to make it work. then - the wholesale cost of the fabrics at the time was prohibitive. However, now, the costs of have been reduced to a point, that giving away a polyester technical shirt has become the standard.

When anything becomes this big a default action, it's a wise course of action to at some point start to look into the reasoning behind the action. So - why do races give away so many t-shirts? There is a cost to this, somewhere along the line - either a hard cost for the event or for one of the events sponsors. Someone is paying for all these t-shirts.

The most common answer amongst race directors as to "why", is typically twofold:

1. Adding value and differentiation to the event.

2. A place for sponsors logos to be displayed, with  the assumption when that the t-shirts are worn,  there's ongoing exposure for those sponsors and those brands. Race participants become human bill-boards when they wear the shirts after the event.

However, if every race is giving away a t-shirt, that getting a t-shirt is the default thing, how is that adding value and differentiating the event? To some races credit, they will try and differentiate here and there, by offering some difference, with long sleeve shirts, or a better quality garment, or different style and design etc . .

As for point #2 - this is obviously dependent on if, and how often the race shirts are actually worn in public. Some casual sampling that I did, on the Slowtwitch Forum, via my Facebook page, and at some public speaking engagements that I recently have worked at, race shirts were actually seldom worn in public by the recipients! In many cases, the shirts were dumped, passed on to Goodwill or some other clothes donation organization, or used as cleaning rags for bikes( popular with triathletes). Whatever the end-point or use, I am not sure this is what the event organizers or the sponsors had in mind - that the shirts would end up in the trash, on the back of some underprivileged person, or used as a bike rag!

In my sampling of specifically veteran endurance sports athletes - who compete in multiple and many races in a calendar-year, an overwhelming majority of these athletes, saw no use or value in getting a race shirt - many already had closets full of them or gave them all away, as noted. Typically this crowd, would say, "Give me something else, or give me a reduced price on my event entry".

However, I also know that for many first time participants or very occasional participants in many events, the race-shirt is a prized memento, and is possibly worn with a great deal of pride, many times after the event.

With the costs to put on running and triathlon races starting to mount, many race directors and race management organizations are starting to look at all costs associated with their events and looking where they can cut back. More than a few events are having a hard look at the the "free" race-shirt that they have given away for years, and are looking at ways to somehow get around that line-item cost. Some are asking a specific sponsor to pick up the whole cost of the shirt, while others, possibly with some progressive thinking, are making the race-shirt an option - giving race entrants, the choice at the time of online registration, to buy the shirt, or take a pass completely on the shirt.

The very popular and successful ( it's one of the largest in North America) Recharge with Milk Triathlon Series, produced by Multisport Canada, is considering making the race shirt for their events this year, something that participants can purchase at the time of  pre-event online registration

Other events are eschewing, the race-shirt completely and going with different lower cost give-aways - socks, hats, pint-glasses, coffee-mugs all seem to be popular stand-ins for the race-shirt, and hopefully at a lower cost.

Meanwhile, many other events still believe quite strongly, often based on surveying of event participants that, the race shirt, is a key to the "success" of their event.

The whole endurance sports event business is growing at a healthy pace right now. This year, that 15 million figure sited earlier, will more than likely be over 10% more, and that means more and more race-shirts given away.

What do you think about race-shirts? Have we given away enough free shirts or is this something that is here to stay?

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Alison said...

I really like it when a race has a novel souvenir, such as a beer mug or something fun and different. If their promo item is a t-shirt, I appreciate it when participants are given the choice on their registration form as to whether or not they want the shirt. If it's not a shirt I want for whatever reason (perhaps traditionally that event shirt has been ugly IMO and I don't think I'd wear it, or it's not an event that I feel I need a shirt to remember it by, etc), I opt out. Even better if there is a corresponding reduction in entry fee - say $5-10 if you don't get the shirt.

it's all about pace said...

anything *but* a scratchy ill fitting "tech" shirt.

cotton shirts are okay (I'm earing one as an undershirt today)

I really like long sleeve tees

mementos and giveaways are fine...

but the bane of my racing existence is a friggin medal... If I'm handed one I normally just hand it back

Steve Fleck said...

Great comments. It's challenging to get the whole story in a blog like this, or other Forums like Slowtwitch, or even other social media streams like Facebook and Twitter, because generally it's the keeners, vets and hardcores who are reading blogs like mine (Thank you for reading), on the forums and paying attention on social media. Newbies are scarce! Hard to hear their views, but buy and large they are pro-race-shirts and it's understandable.

When I talk to Race Directors, many are still adamant that the race-shirt is a valuable part of what they have to offer at an event, so I don't thunk that 15 million T-shirt mountain will be getting any smaller any time soon!

Anonymous said...

The only race shirts I wear are from the Toronto Triathlon Festival (2012) which I didn't compete in due to injury and the Peterborough Half-Iron shirts. Only because they're amazing fabric, anything else I've told the peeps a the kit p/u desk to keep. I tresure my race bibs a lot more and have most of them in large frames close to the bike trainer.

Steve Fleck said...

That race shirt from the TTF, was a very nice one. It was a high quality shirt from Nike, and the design on the shirt did not scream "Race-Shirt". It's one of the few race-shirts that I have seen triathlon participants from the TTF, in the GTA wearing!

Uclamutt said...

When I first began racing a couple years ago I thought the "free tech t-shirts" were awesome! They were a badge of honor for me to wear at the gym while training.

However, after having done numerous running and triathlon races I've realized what a wastes of money, resources and time the free t's are. I recently gave a couple dozen shirts away to the goodwill a month back. I didn't wear them at all.

I like your idea of making the t-shirt optional. It would allow people new to the sport the opportunity to get one, but not force them upon everyone. I know I'm not the only one that doesn't need/want the shifts. Make the entrance fees a little cheaper and make the shirts optional!!

Steve Fleck said...


It's a bit of a micro trend, but some race are starting to go that route.

The largest triathlon series in Canada, went to a optional race t-shirt program this year.


Anonymous said...

I wrote the original of this back in 1998 for the now defunct triathletes-uk website. It's been copied and ripped off many times since. Here is the original reposted, with permission on the tri247 website

I'm sure you are aware that it's only us "oldies" that question the race t-shirt, or otherwise. The problem with endurance events is they attract a largely similar personality type. That type, whether via facebook, slowtwitch or t-shirt in the real world is predisposed to "talking" about their event they've just done.

When I ran a triathlon club in the UK we tried numerous ways of getting off the t-shirt bandwagon after one year when a rogue t-shirt design nearly bankrupt the club. We've even done racebags, aka printed laundry bags but the first timers expect, and some demand and bad mouth your event if you don't provide race t-shirts.

I'm intrigued by the Zoca Gear website where they have small minimums and must have some form of print on demand process. If we could commercialize this and redirect towards race t-shirts, with events giving single use coupons to competitors who wanted t-shirts than might be a useful compromise. Especially if the shirts could be ordered and delivered pre event. That would allow people to show up for the race in the race t-shirt. See rules #1,2,5.

Steve Fleck said...


Sorry for the delayed response. You are right. The expectation now amongst many at almost all events is that they get a t-shirt. Cancel that, even with ample promotion, and their is typically howls of protest.

Some brave Race Directors have tried this, and after a year of enduring much protestation, have gone back to the free-T. For the time being, it's here to stay. That, mountain of free race shorts keeps getting bigger and bigger every year!

Annaleice Bertrand said...

Dung Sport
Quan Ao The Thao