Race Directing 101: The T-Shirt Conundrum

Jan Spalding At the Races, Uncategorized 0 Comments

T-Shirts, timing, trophies and toilets. The four T’s of race directing—the quad of variables that place the future of your race somewhere on the continuum of “I’m definitely coming back next year” to “no thanks.” Brutal. And yes, there is route, cause, warm fuzzies, theme and post-race food and festivities to consider. But if you are new to race directing or want to tweak your annual event, these are the basics and  a good place to start.

“I think the majority of races we outfit are not trying to supply runners with their gear. Serious runners have the apparel they want. Race directors know that, so they want to give participants a shirt they will wear around and help market.”

by Jan Spalding, RPM editor

So let’s talk T-shirts. The race shirt–for all the what-color conversation, fabric-feeling consternation it causes in early committee meetings— is worth the fuss. It is a year-round marketing tool for your event. If your participants love it, they will wear it. If they wear it, you have the best walking billboard money can buy.

Celebrating a city or area on your race shirt increases its potential as a future conversation piece.

All About Options Like everything these days, people like to customize. (I blame Starbucks.) Here’s a few of the latest customizing trends we’ve seen in Michiana:

  • Did you notice Sunburst is offering the option to choose your color of shirt this year?
  • Paula Turk, race director and creator of numerous Michiana events, sometimes makes the t-shirt an a la-carte-option, for those who want to participate, but don’t want the cost of a shirt included in their registration fee.
  • Offering a womens cut option is an added race-day headache for any race committee, but one that is often tolerated at the thought that female participants may wear their shirt more.
  • Shirts that highlight a city or area, have a good slogan or even include a stylized map of the route make a shirt relevant and often spark conversation for future wears.
  • The annual Niles-Buchanan Thanksgiving Day Run hosts a shirt-design contest each year to get the buzz going early and keep the design fresh and local.

“We have come a long way from 1990 when race directors would simply order 200, 100 percent cotton XL t-shirts,” said Jamie Rodriguez with Graphie-Tees in South Bend. “They didn’t even ask your size back then.”

The Fabric

If you are a runner’s event, seeking fast, serious athletes, a tech shirt might well be worth the extra cost. It’s fairly common knowledge that more serious athletes no longer train in cotton, opting instead for sleek-looking, moisture-wicking materials that don’t rub in the wrong places. If they like the shirt, they will wear it to train with their friends, at the gym and at other races—your prime target audience.

However, if your event is family-focused and primarily a fundraiser, your participants may be more apt to wear their shirt for leisure, actually preferring the less expensive, looser-fitting cotton or one of the new cotton blends. You can save money for your beneficiary and see your shirt shopping at Meijer, headed to the movies and mowing lawns throughout the year.

“I think the majority of races we outfit are not trying to supply runners with their gear. Serious runners have the apparel they want. Race directors know that, so they want to give participants a shirt they will wear around and help market.”

Enter the Tri-Blend

Soft and catchy!

“Above all, people want soft,” said Jamie. Trending is the cotton blend t-shirt that often has a heathered look to it. “These are soft, fit well and are not hot or cold. They make great race shirts because people love to wear them.”

Jamie explains there is “better”—a 50/50 cotton-poly blend that has a softer touch than 100 percent cotton and shrinks less; and there is “best”—the tri-blend—a 50 percent poly, 25 percent cotton and 25 percent rayon blend.

“The tri-blend is a retail-style shirt. In addition to softness, it has more fitted arm and neck holes, is even less prone to shrinking and works better as a unisex style.” Like anything, you get what you pay for. Jamie suggests taking time to feel and try on the different brands’ offerings.

“Ask your printer for their ideas. We like to wear and try all the shirts we offer, so we can let people know how they fit, feel and wear over time.”

“If you want to brand yourself and want people to wear that shirt long past race day, you will get your money’s worth if you pay a bit more. People will appreciate it.” Likely, your sponsors will too, and may even be willing to make up the difference to make it a shirt people want.

The Graphic, ‘Nough said—In addition to shirt style, your event budget will determine your design and how many colors you can afford to print. If you can, make it pop, make it different, make it memorable. Remember, it will be competing with a drawer-full of past race shirts!

Simple, easy-to-read, clever slogan.

Use the At-A-Glance rule: A graphic should have enough information that a casual onlooker can get a decent amount of information about the event. As mentioned above, stylized course maps, clever slogans or, noting the city or area (such as “I Run Lake Michigan Beaches”) instills pride and creates a future conversation piece.

Eye-catching graphic with simple race info.

However, said Jamie, “Less is more these days. Too much detail or too many words are lost on a passerby. Furthermore, you don’t want to lose the shirt’s breathability because of too much ink.”

The others—There probably isn’t a race committee that didn’t (at least for a few minutes) entertain the idea of forgoing the traditional T for a printed towel, headband or race bag—for the sake of being different. All are reasonable ideas to set yourself apart, but you do lose billboard equity. Long-sleeve and sweatshirts will still serve their marketing purpose and can be a nice something-different if you can make it affordable.

Women’s sizing might not make the cut—Contrary to the trend, which is now waning, Jamie suggests steering away from offering womens-cut shirts. “Every brand sizes t-shirts differently for women, so the fit is not consistent.” This can mean many exchanges at packet pickup, leaving participants unhappy and volunteers frazzled.

Again, Jamie suggests tri-blends that have a more fitted style and serve as a happy-medium unisex option.

Speaking of volunteers— It’s OK to stick with budget-friendly 100 percent cotton, or a less-expensive blend for volunteers. Established races have found that keeping the volunteer shirts to a one or two-color graphic will also keep costs down.

To help keep your volunteer base interested, change up the color each year. Do opt for brighter colors on volunteers so they stand out on the course and for easy identification at the start/finish line.

The Back of the Shirt—The back of the shirt is the sponsors’ home—give them room! You can do this by setting the price for inclusion on the shirt high enough that costs can be covered with just a handful of sponsors, ensuring their visibility. You can still offer signage, race packet inclusion, and promotional giveaways for the lower tiers of sponsorship.

They Have Got to Learn to Register Early —One trend that has emerged by necessity is setting a deadline for guaranteeing a shirt with registration. Make it clear on your website, promotional material and registration form. You order process can be much more scientific and you won’t be left with thousands of dollars of dated shirts—cash that could have gone directly to your bottom line. Keep track of those who missed out and recalculate for next year.

The takeaway of the T-shirt conundrum? Make it memorable and keep it soft!


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