Masontown company works behind the scenes to speed-print jerseys at NFL Draft

April 25, 2018 GMT

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted T.J. Watt last year in Philadelphia, another Western Pennsylvania team was watching the clock.

In the minutes between when the team made their pick from the “war room” and when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Watt to the crowd, people in a small room behind the scenes grabbed Watt’s name from a folder of all the draftees, stamped it onto a Steelers jersey and hustled it to the stage so it could be presented. Then the clock restarted as the next team made their pick.

For seven years, the mad dash to custom-print new players’ jerseys for the NFL draft has been handed off to the team from Stahls’ Decorating Fulfillment Center in Masontown, Fayette County.

They will be there again for Thursday’s NFL Draft in Arlington, Texas, with 256 jerseys, names of the top draftees in 1,400 different combinations to cover each player in every team’s fonts and colors, and two of the heat-transfer presses the company also manufactures in Pennsylvania.

“We have two minutes, max,” said Lisa Leone, Stahls’ client services director, who has attended several drafts.

But weeks of research and prep work lead up to those two frantic minutes, as staff at the Masontown facility prepare the Nike jerseys by sewing numbers and blank nameplates onto the back and pre-print all the names for each team’s thick folder of potential players.

“One or two guys did two or three weeks solid just gathering all the files and cutting all the letters,” production manager Jon Stange said.

The folders then get laid out in the teams’ first-round order within Stahls’ tiny workspace behind the scenes at the draft — typically only about 100 square feet, Leone said — along with racks of the jerseys. As each team makes its selection, they can pick the right name and font from the folder and use the press to heat-transfer it to a jersey in about 10 seconds.

“Once you’ve done all the work to this point, it’s all about selecting the right components,” said Josh Ellsworth, Stahls’ vice president of dealer sales. “The machine does all the work.”

The exception is the rare occasion when a player expected to go in a later round of the draft gets a surprise bump to the first round, leaving the Stahls’ team to frantically cut and reassemble letters from other players’ names, Ellsworth said.

The team makes three jerseys for each pick — one for the announcement that’s handed to the player, a second that’s given away to a fan, and a third that’s sent to the NFL’s trading-card company to be sliced up and mounted on special cards. They bring eight blank jerseys for each team — they once ran short a few years ago after some trades and had to swipe a jersey from a display case, Stange said.

Headquartered in Sterling Heights, Mich., Stahls’ also prints jerseys and T-shirts for the NFL, NBA and NHL’s official online stores and can make batches of player-name jerseys or singles with a customer’s requested name and number, Ellsworth said. The Fayette County plant turns out between 1,200 and 1,500 shirts per day, five days a week, with a second or third shift getting added when orders stack up. Other plants in Utah and Arizona serve Stahls’ customers in the West.

Their pre-planned orders can be thrown into disarray if a team or a player surges in popularity, such as the Steelers’ Alejandro Villanueva, a veteran whose jersey sales spiked when he stood on-field during the National Anthem at the height of last season’s player protests.

The company also manufactures its heat-transfer presses in nearby Carmichaels, Greene County, for shipping around the world. The presses can travel to special events such as leagues’ all-star games to make custom jerseys, or can be combined with the company’s custom-made transfer prints for making small batches of shirts or jerseys for groups or little leagues.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660, msantoni@tribweb.com or via Twitter @msantoni.