Local ‘jersey boys’ give you the shirt off their rack

Josh and Zach Ellsworth grew up in Fairchance, and among their childhood duties was to tend to the grounds of a property off Route 21 in Masontown. They cut grass and helped clean the commercial buildings.

Little did they realize that, as adults, they would establish careers with the company located there, one that mows down the competition.

The Brothers Ellsworth are members of the management team of Stahls, a heat print technology company that specializes in replica sports jerseys. It is a global firm, based in Sterling Heights, Mich., with about a dozen locations in the United States and nearly a half-dozen abroad.

Three of those domestic operations are local, in close proximity to one another: Cumberland Township, Uniontown, and Masontown.

Stahls is one of the few companies to be a licensed provider for North America’s four major professional leagues: National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association. Major League Soccer is a client as well; most college sports teams are not.

The firm made an industry-wide splash the day before Thanksgiving, when it released its limited-edition NBA City Collection jerseys.

It may be under-the-radar, but a peak company operating at an opportune time, the holiday season. Stahls is striving to complete the manufacturing and distribution of jerseys to sports venues, teams and sporting goods stores for on-site and online sales.

“We’re the largest provider of jerseys to arenas and stadiums (nationwide),” said Josh, vice president of dealer and enterprise sales. He nodded toward small stacks of New York Knicks and Rangers jerseys, explaining Stahls is shipping them to Madison Square Garden. “Every venue orders for its teams.”

The Masontown facility is the largest provider.

“This is our only location that does this type of business,” he said.

That location is designated a decorating fulfillment center, where workers take unfinished replica jerseys, hot press a pro player’s number on the front and his name on the back. Manual or machine sewing also may be necessary.

From October through December, three shifts are deployed there around the clock to accommodate pre-Christmas demand. Shoppers generally prefer a star athlete’s name – Crosby on a Penguins 87 jersey, for example – but can request their own surname on the back.

Stahls, according to Josh, also is the largest provider of personalized tops.

A devoted fan, at additional cost, also can request an autographed jersey. “We do the name and number, send it to the team, the player autographs it and the team sends it back,” said Zach Ellsworth, director of fulfillment technology and the younger brother.

At times, speed is an integral element of Stahls’ operation. Like teams embroiled in a tight, high-stakes game, the company has to respond at crunch time.

Take NFL Draft night, when there is uncertainty as to which college player a franchise may choose in the first round. Stahls has to quickly print an appropriate team jersey for Commissioner Roger Goodell to hand to each first-rounder following his selection.

Josh, however, said “it takes two minutes to make a jersey for the draft,” the heat process taking the heat off the commissioner, draft choice and his new general manager.

Speed also is vital when a marquee athlete is traded or signs as a free agent, making the new team jersey coveted merchandise. And a breakout star can become a quick marketing commodity.

Devlin “Duck” Hodges, the Steelers’ backup quarterback sensation, has inspired some late-season orders.

“We actually get the standard Hodges jersey nameplate, and some personalized jerseys that just say ‘Duck’ (instead of Hodges),” Josh said.

Each of the local Stahls facilities serves different functions, with various sized workforces. The Hotronix heat presses are operated in Paisley Industrial Park in Cumberland, outside Carmichaels, where about 50 are employed. An estimated 20 work in the Uniontown sales office.

Masontown, by comparison, is gargantuan. The DFC has about 130,000 square feet of space in two large, attached buildings.

“We keep about one million garments here,” Zach said.

About 150 work full time there, 85 year-round and 65 seasonal. There is some turnover with production jobs, Zach acknowledged, but there are a number of longtime employees like Faye Paull of Uniontown, who hand sews and has 23 years of service.

Stahls is certainly an established company, one that launched in 1932. It has had a presence in Western Pennsylvania since 1984, and has been in Masontown since 1994, following a relocation from Connellsville. The firm has been producing sports jerseys “since the late 1990s,” Josh Ellsworth said.

He is upbeat about the future.

“Our business is growing,” he said. “This is a healthy market to be in.”

The grass he and his sibling used to cut appears to be greener.

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