South Side's Little Earth lands big Terrible Towel contract
By Kim Leonard
Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
A South Side company that sells licensed sports products is waving around its latest coup: A deal to make the iconic Terrible Towel.
Little Earth Productions Inc. has turned out women's accessories with National Football League logos, ranging from purses to cowgirl hats and dishwashing gloves, for six years.
“We sell millions of units a year” to Target, Sears, Dick's Sporting Goods, Amazon.com and other retailers, said Rob Brandegee, who owns the company with his wife, Ava DeMarco.
The Steelers said on Tuesday that Little Earth will take over manufacturing and distribution for the team's best-known souvenir, rooted in its 1970s Super Bowl glory. “The Terrible Towel comes home,” the announcement was headlined.
A Wisconsin company, McArthur Towel, made the towels starting in 1998, and WinCraft Inc. of Winona, Minn., inherited the business upon acquiring McArthur a few years ago, said Tim Carey, Steelers merchandising manager.
“Little Earth is a growing company. They're an NFL licensee and know about the Steelers products, and they're very aggressive” Carey said. “Our attraction to them is we think they can market it better than the previous manufacturer.” WinCraft, whose representatives were not available for comment, had no long-term agreement to make the towels, he said.
The late, legendary Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope came up with the idea for the Terrible Towel in 1975, to rally fans for a playoff game against the Baltimore Colts.
More than $4 million in proceeds from sales of the towels and related products since 1996 have benefitted Allegheny Valley Schools, which cares for children and adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities through programs statewide. Carey said “hundreds of thousands” of Terrible Towels are sold each year for about $10 each, but referred questions about exact volumes to the school, whose representatives couldn't be reached.
Carey said Little Earth “thinks young” but understands the towel's tradition.
“It's the towel” that fans wave to urge players downfield and celebrate touchdowns, he said. “They totally got it from the beginning.” The Steelers talked with other manufacturers, and some viewed the product as “just a piece of cloth.”
Brandegee and DeMarco founded their company in 1993. Little Earth has 45 employees now at its factory, warehouse, distribution and design center off Josephine Street, and about 65 in the last few months of each year as demand increases. Five to 10 people likely will be added for the Terrible Towel business.
Towels will be imported from producers worldwide, and Little Earth will add holograms and tags and box and ship them to retailers. “I was 10 in 1975 and a huge Steelers fan,” Brandegee said. “For us to have this (business), it's just awesome.”
Besides NFL items, Little Earth makes women's accessories with Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association team names and logos, and products related to about 70 colleges and universities. It turns license plates and other recyclables into purses and other products.
Before McArthur, Carey said, a series of screen printers made the towels. Some dyed white towels gold before printing them with ink. “Terrible Towels used to be terrible,” he said.
Little Earth will bring in inventory for production in the next two weeks, Brandegee said, and should be making Terrible Towels within two months. About 20 varieties — ranging from camouflage to holiday versions — have been sold, but Brandegee said the line will grow further.
“Think collectible,” he said when asked for hints. Steelers fans are in every city, and some new offerings could be geared for them, he added.
While he had no specific data on Terrible Towel sales, Matt Powell, chief retail analyst for market research firm SportsOneSource of Charlotte, N.C., said the Steelers ranked No. 4 for merchandise sales in 2012, behind the Giants, Patriots and Redskins.
Steelers items accounted for 5.8 percent of the $4.6 billion in total NFL merchandise sales, Powell said, slipping from 6 percent of the 2011 total.
The Steelers hope Little Earth can raise the towel's popularity. Still, “What will increase the sales is when we win the next Super Bowl,” Carey said.
Kim Leonard is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5606 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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