David Beckerman decided he was done peddling plaid golf pants. The 1966 University of New Haven graduate had been a salesman at a Duckster sporting goods store when he realized that the bland clothing on the racks held little interest for casual sports fans. So he borrowed $50,000, used $25,000 of his own savings, and opened Starter, a licensed sports apparel company, in 1971.
It took over 10 years, but when Starter hit, it hit big. Annual revenues eventually reached $400 million; musicians and athletes grew attached to the company’s iconic breakaway and satin jackets with their pro league emblems; demand was so high that kids were regularly being robbed—even killed—for them. Nike told Beckerman they’d buy him out. He refused.
Starter had all the pieces in place to become a merchandising giant. It wouldn’t last.
Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut, Beckerman was obsessed with basketball. He played throughout school and into college, even participating in multiple leagues at a time. That love of athletics led him away from his initial plans to become a teacher and into the sporting goods business. By 1971, he had convinced an investor named Ruby Vine to help him launch Starter. The name was chosen for its simplicity—Beckerman thought all great brands were just one word—and because every athlete dreams of being a starting player.
Beckerman hired one salesman to peddle goods in three states: Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. Satin jackets were made for bowling leagues, bar leagues, and high schools. Beckerman’s real goal, however, was to trade in on team loyalty. At the time, it wasn’t easy to find licensed sports apparel in stores. Beckerman thought it was silly a fan of the Chicago Cubs couldn’t walk into a store and buy a team jacket or hat.
After convincing Major League Baseball’s Licensing Corp. to grant him a license in 1976, Beckerman began producing jackets: Sales were a healthy $500,000 for that year. But Beckerman didn’t want to settle for official apparel—he wanted it to be what he defined as “authentic,” meaning players and coaches would wear the same goods a customer would see on the racks. Joe Torre, then-manager of the New York Mets, was an early convert: He was friends with a Starter truck driver, and began wearing the brand regularly.
Licenses for the NBA and NHL quickly followed. But Beckerman’s real coup came in 1983, when the NFL finally agreed to a deal after eight years of rejection. By this time, Starter had every major professional sport in its lineup, along with hundreds of colleges that were gathering fans thanks to televised games. The company also became a clothing consultant that could radically improve a team’s bottom line: When the Chicago White Sox switched to a Starter-branded color scheme, annual revenues for apparel sold at their stadium went from $100,000 to $4.5 million.
Having teams wear Starter was only part of Beckerman’s strategy. He knew consumers were brand-loyal, turning their nose up at anything that didn’t carry a familiar logo. Picking up on the trend of young adults wearing their hats backward, Beckerman applied Starter’s star logo to the back of the caps. Part of his time was also spent fielding calls from movie producers looking to secure permission to feature the jackets in films like Coming to America and My Cousin Vinny; his son, Brad, was plugged into the music scene and got Will Smith on board. Starter was everywhere.
In 1991, the brand was doing $200 million a year in sales. The demand for Starter merchandise was so intense that the company’s media mentions started to bleed into police blotters.
Speaking to The Baltimore Sun in 1993, 12-year-old Damien Burgess said he owned and treasured a $69 Syracuse Starter jacket. And he knew better than to wear it after dark.
In the early 1990s, Starter’s appeal was a major factor in a string of robberies. The jackets, which were priced at up to $300, were so coveted that some incidents turned fatal: A 17-year-old in Ohio was shot dead for a Georgia Bulldogs jacket.
The morbid publicity capped a tumultuous few years for Beckerman, who had suffered a bizarre string of misfortunes in the late 1980s: a warehouse fire, hurricane, and tornado all caused major inventory losses; a shipment from overseas contained 250,000 pieces of lice-infested merchandise; some thieves skipped the ponderous effort of robbing people individually by hijacking entire trucks.
The Biblical-scale damage barely made a dent in Starter's success: In 1992, Nike CEO Phil Knight offered to buy the company outright. Instead, Beckerman chose to take it public the following year while racking up over $350 million in sales.
In 1994, Major League Baseball canceled its postseason due to a players' strike. Traditionally the hottest time of the year for apparel sales, the lack of televised games hit Starter hard. Company spokesperson Ian Gormar told press the financial losses would be “significant.” The NHL lockout followed shortly thereafter. Suddenly, Starter was without the sports that drove its business—nothing could be “authentic” if players and trainers weren’t showing up for work.
After treading water for a few years, Starter declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1999, citing over $120 million in debt to their major league creditors. The company changed hands several times before landing at Nike in 2004. By 2007, Starter was owned by Iconix, which currently issues limited-edition apparel for nostalgic Starter collectors.
Beckerman got out of the business, moving into real estate. The jackets may not be as common as they once were, but the love of the game never left him: now 72, he’s coaching basketball in Connecticut.