When it comes to printing fabrics, the wide world of sports is beginning to live up to its name.
By Jeff Moravec
In sports, it’s always about competition—and revenue. As sports teams have established new revenue streams (such as sponsorships that require stadium advertising) and worked to enhance the game-day experience for fans with splashy promotions and activities, the need for quality graphics has exploded. And these days, quality means bigger, better and bolder.
At the college level, for example, the graphics need to be cutting-edge and professional, conveying an aura of prestige to potential recruits and their families and coaches. Professional teams need to convince couch potatoes that the stadium experience is glitzy enough to forego watching at home on TV.
For those who make equipment for wide-format printing, or produce and distribute the resulting products, it’s a job to keep up with the demand for bigger, better and bolder—and to do so cost effectively.
“Everything is so price competitive, it’s all about efficiency,” says Kylie Schleicher, product manager at Ultraflex Systems Inc., which develops and produces digitally printable textiles and flexible substrates in Randolph, N.J. “It’s about how big the rolls are, how much time it takes to change out a roll; the game is how much you can print in an hour.”
What is wide-format?
Wide-format is generally considered anything over 30 inches, although that requires some explanation. Lily Hunter, product manager of e-commerce and supplies for Roland DGA Corp., located in Irvine, Calif., explains that the category is generally defined based on the width of the printer, with wide-format being anything from 30 to 64 inches. Any printing wider than 64 inches is often called a grand format, but we’re including those sizes here as well. Ultraflex and other companies have long been printing PVC products with machines that can go five meters wide (197 inches), but 10- to 16-foot machines are now being used on softer fabrics as well.
At the most basic level, wide-format printing allows large products with fewer seams, says Schleicher. But there are other advantages as well.
“Wide-format gives you a lot of versatility in the production footprint,” explains Leonard Marano, vice president of product management and marketing at Gerber Technology, which makes production hardware, including printers, in Tolland, Conn.
“From a throughput standpoint, wide-format makes a lot of sense,” says Marano. “You can bundle like jobs together, optimizing material usage. So it’s not just about being able to be bigger and bolder—it’s about better efficiency too.”
Complex customer needs
Perhaps the biggest challenge, however, is meeting the increasingly complex needs of the end customer.
“At big sporting events, such as the NCAA Final Four, everything is branded—the floor and everything else,” says Schleicher. “The goal is to create a whole environment, a feel, as opposed to just standard banners and signage.”
“Floor graphics have become an especially big way to market,” adds Schleicher, “because with everyone these days carrying a cell phone, people are always looking down at their feet.”
“Customers are really pushing the envelope,” says Tom Clarke, owner of Georgia Printco LLC in Lakeland, Ga. His company started out printing for a billboard operation and evolved into printing for sign shops, which got him into the sports and entertainment markets with signage at NASCAR tracks. Today, the company provides banners, signs and other graphic treatments for a variety of venues (both inside and outside), including National Football League stadiums, for its clientele.
“Whenever you think you’ve seen everything, someone comes along with a whole new thing,” says Clarke. “It’s always changing.”
One aspect of the business is that most venues serve many “clients,” not just the main tenant. For example, pro football stadiums often host marquee college games or other sporting events, including outdoor professional hockey games; a college football stadium may schedule an outdoor wrestling match. The result is a constant need to change out signage.
“We often travel to the arena and execute a full-scope assessment to make sure we flag anything that might be in conflict with the sponsor of the upcoming event,” says Heidi Katherine, senior vice president for global design and development at Moss Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., which develops, manufactures and installs “brand environments” in sporting venues, retail stores and workplaces around the world. “We have to be ready to act with sizes and plans for attaching graphics when a customer decides if they want to brand over something or block it out.
“In some cases, just a few of the sponsors change year over year. We set up the system graphics so that we can replace just one logo and not have to reprint a giant section,” says Katherine. “For example, if we’re putting dates on things, we’re putting the dates in places where we know the client is likely going to reprint and we’re not putting dates on larger, more costly activations. We’re being strategic in the design approach to reduce costs and make budget planning easier.”
The growing variety of brand components creates challenges, but opportunities as well.
“Print is great, and it’s our bread and butter,” says Mike Dudek, senior designer at Britten Inc., a Traverse City, Mich.-based creative production house that provides customers with innovative signage, displays and event branding. “But we love to use different forms to create complete solutions, whether it’s 3D signage or foam sculptures people can take selfies in front of.”
Fabric grows as print choice
In the world of wide-format printing, change also has come from the materials being printed and the ink that’s being used.
Schleicher says a significant part of her job is keeping up with evolving ink technology and making sure Ultraflex has the materials to cover that full gamut, especially as solvent printing has given way to latex printing “and now the big push toward dye-sublimation.”
“Printing with latex covers a wide range of materials,” she says. “You can do PVC, mesh and wallpapers but also have the ability to print on some softer fabric. You can get close to dye-sub without transitioning to that type of technology. Dye-sub takes space, time and money, and especially if you’re a small operation, the latex really gives you a good start in fabric. You can eventually make that transition once you’ve built up a portfolio of customers.”
Vinyl is still widely used in many outdoor applications for a variety of reasons, including durability and the ability to clean it.
Polyester (and natural fiber) fabric, however, continues to grow in popularity and not just because of its ability to display more sophisticated graphics.
“A big factor is the ability to be able to put the signs or banners away, pull them back out and still have them look good,” says Schleicher. “You can fold fabrics, so storing them is a lot easier. If you fold PVC banners, they crease and you can’t get the creases out.”
“Fabric is easy to ship, you don’t have to crate it, and it’s much more convenient to put up and take down,” adds Geoff Kilmer founder and CEO of PhotoWorksGroup Inc. of Charlottesville, Va.
“It’s a growing industry,” says Kilmer. “More print service providers are getting into it all the time because there’s a lot more companies making use of it—there’s so much more media in people’s faces. Marketers want to get ahead of the clutter to get a message out.”
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.
SIDEBAR: Catching up on sustainability
Sustainability in the world of wide-format printing is the same as it is in the rest of the printing universe—a work in progress.
“Sustainability is really important to us,” says Heidi Katherine, senior vice president for global design and development at Moss Inc., Elk Grove Village, Ill., which develops, manufactures and installs “brand environments” in sporting venues, retail stores and workplaces around the world. “I wish more of our customers would be more transparent about when it’s important to them; the more we know, the more we can support their goals.”
Moss does have customers for whom sustainability is a critical aspect of their work. “Levi Strauss has developed a full sustainable program with us,” she says, “where the fabric, the packaging, the cardboard and everything else is either reused or recycled. That was important to them and we worked together to develop the right solution for their program.”
For other customers, adoption of more sustainable practices may be hindered by cost constraints or a lack of the proper culture, Katherine says.
“I think the market has a strong desire, but the behavior adoption isn’t there yet on a real consistent level,” she explains. “We have a full complement of sustainable materials, we recycle all of our waste, and we have ongoing green initiatives within our organization. One of the things we do when customers come to visit is point that out and start the dialogue—because we have to get better about prioritizing sustainability as a society.
“Our industry’s inherent behavior creates waste,” Katherine adds. “We have to buy smarter, ship smarter and do what we can as an organization while driving the adoption of our sustainable materials to our customers.”
SIDEBAR: Bigger isn’t always better
Just because the equipment exists to print materials 16 feet wide doesn’t mean that equipment is necessary for all companies that print graphic materials.
“Yes, there are 16-foot machines out there, but we don’t plan on getting one,” says Geoff Kilmer, founder and CEO of PhotoWorksGroup Inc. of Charlottesville, Va., who remembers when the limit used to be 50-inch-wide photo paper. “They are so darn big to handle, and there’s a limited market. There is a market, but you better know if that’s yours before buying this kind of equipment. Big production wide-format machines run hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“It can actually be into the millions for a complete automated print-to-cut solution,” adds Leonard Marano, vice president of product management and marketing at Gerber Technology, which makes production hardware, including printers, in Tolland, Conn. Such a system would include high-end direct-to-textile printers, automated digital finishing machines, and necessary software, he says.
“Print technology turns over very frequently; every couple of years there are advancements,” says Marano. “You want to make sure that investment is going to last you, so you have to outfit your entire operation to where you want to be four years from now—not just where the industry is today.”
What many companies want when buying a printer is “more bang for the buck,” says Lily Hunter, product manager of e-commerce and supplies for Roland DGA Corp., located in Irvine, Calif. “They often want a printer that can print on a variety of materials. That way the business owner can be as much of a one-stop shop as possible.”
Choices can be dictated by the size of a facility as well, adds Hunter. “A lot of the businesses we deal with are limited by space,” she says. “They need a printer that can do 80 percent of their business. And with a dye-sublimation printer, for example, you’re not just adding the printer, you’re adding a heat press, and a lot of spaces don’t have the footprint for that.
“Actually,” concludes Hunter, “the biggest thing I hear? ‘We want something that’s a workhorse, something that just keeps going.’”