T-shirts are an essential part of establishing the identity of any Union supporters group, let alone any Union supporter. Bark Tees is a local company that has become an essential part of the local Union supporters scene. Founded by Mark Concannon and Ben Lee in 2009, the company specializes in very cool, very unofficial Philly sports team shirts, the kind of shirts that make you say “That’s awesome, why didn’t I think of that,” and then, “Where can I get one?” Ben Lee talked to the PSP about his love of Philly sports, how Bark Tees got started, the help the Sons of Ben have given them, and more.
Philly Soccer Page: How do you and your business partner Mark know one another?
Ben Lee: Mark and I met about ten years ago while working at the same mortgage company. We hung out a few times but really became good friends when a bunch of us went to St. Louis for the Eagles NFC Championship game in 2002. After that we realized we loved beer, music, tailgating, and Philly sports. We’ve been like brothers ever since.
PSP: Your website says that you and Mark “are two guys, just like you, that realized that we were no longer happy doing the daily grind living inside of a cubicle every day.” Tell me about life in a cubicle? Were you doing t-shirt design and printing on the side before starting Bark Tees?
BL: Ha, no not really. We were selling mortgages during the boom in a cubicle and working for corporate America. But all through it we were always pitching each other stupid ideas for a business. We wanted out of the grind of having people telling us what to do, where to stick it, and what time to do it. Eventually we knew we’d have to go after one of our ideas. Finally the light bulb just went off with the printing and t-shirt thing and we’ve never looked back.
PSP: You offer a huge selection of designs for a variety of Philly sport teams—you guys have to be massive Philly sport teams fans. Tell me about growing up supporting Philly sports teams?
BL: Without a doubt, I was that kid that followed Philly sports teams a little too much. Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, Sixers, all the local college teams, etc. There was probably a stretch of time between the ages of 7 to 10 when I didn’t miss one second of one game. My parents were saints I guess. To this day I still love Philly sports way more than what is considered normal. My wife knows this. My kids are learning. It’s who I am. And now with the Union added in there? I need a DVR to stop and rewind my life just to have time for it all.
PSP: Did you play soccer growing up? If so, do you still play?
BL: It’s funny, with all the love I had for the four major sports in Philly at that time, soccer was always the sport I loved to play the most. I remember playing on tennis courts, basketball courts, neighbors’ yards, and pretty much anywhere we could stick two nets. I remember just kicking a soccer ball against my garage door for hours until there wasn’t a square inch left on it that didn’t have a ball mark. I played all through middle school, on our high school team, and coached kids at summer camps while in college. But somewhere along the line I just kind of gave it up. I still miss it though. If I ever get back in shape it will be one of the first things I get back into playing.
PSP: Have you followed the Union from the beginning? Do you have season tickets?
BL: We’ve always been pretty big EPL fans and big MLS fans, so we were very excited when we finally got our own team. I had just had my youngest daughter right when the Union came into existence, so season tickets were kind of out of the question at the time. Now that she’s a little older, I’m trying hard to get into the supporter section for life, and sell my wife on the idea.
BL: Actually, Mark came up with the “Philly is Unionized” idea and we just ran with it on our site. The president of the Sons of Ben, Bryan James, saw it and contacted us with some other great ideas for shirts. The rest is history I guess. We just kind of became friends with all of those guys and got into that market. They invited us to sell shirts at their tailgates and it seemed to grow from there. They set up a tent for us, gave us ideas for shirts, invited us to other events, had us print custom shirts, and helped market us. Their vice president, Matt Ansboro, is even helping us redo our website. Not sure what we did to deserve it, but Mark and I are very grateful for the business relationships and the friendships we’ve developed with those guys in the last year or so. It’s been a lot of fun and I hope to continue it for many years to come.
PSP: You guys have become something like a central marketplace for Union supporters group t-shirts. Do you belong to any of the different supporters groups?
BL: I think we’ll always associate ourselves personally as Sons of Ben Supporters, but we also fully support the other groups and sections as well. There is no wrong way to support the team you love. We want to have a website and a company that proves this and shows that no matter where you sit, and no matter what shirt you wear, we are all rooting for the same eleven guys on the field. That’s really what it’s all about. The guys with the IllegitimateS are awesome. Same with the Tammany Saints and the Bridge Crew. We’ll never refuse any Union supporters who want to work with us and make gear to support a common goal.
PSP: It’s gotta feel cool seeing pictures of people like Sebastien Le Toux, Jack McInerney and Zach Pfeffer with shirts you made?
BL: Funny, I didn’t even know that any of those guys were wearing our stuff. Very cool.
PSP: Are your Union t-shirts available in any local soccer shops or only through your website?
BL: Right now only on our website. We are working on getting some of our Union stuff in stores though. Anyone who would like to work with us can contact us and we’d be happy to discuss. We plan on coming out with new stuff constantly.
PSP: Easily available, high quality, fan-designed sports shirts have come a long way from what is usually flogged outside of the stadiums. Why do you think this is so?
BL: My only guess is that people like wearing stuff that is different from the normal stuff that everyone else wears. It’s cool to be original. Maybe people like giving money to people rather than large corporations? Your guess is as good as mine.
PSP: Do you do all of the design work yourselves?
BL: Not at all. We invite designers of all shapes and sizes to work with us. Really, we’re trying to create a family where we can involve a lot of people and have everyone feel like they are a part of Bark Tees. We look at ourselves as more as a group and less as a company. Design work we pretty much leave to designers who want to work with us, unless we have a great idea for a shirt. Then we just motivate them with money and a concept.
PSP: You guys are very inventive with your designs—even though you’re not using trademarked logos, everyone knows what the shirts are about. Tell me a little about how you accomplish this.
BL: You mean without getting in trouble? We have been in trouble before. Not like real trouble. Just people telling us “you can’t do that.” And then we take it down. It’s so hard to know what is acceptable and what’s not when it comes to that kind of stuff. It’s a real gray area. For the most part we just try and make designs that are socially understandable to hard-core fans without getting too many corporations pissed at us. A fan of the Seattle Mariners could look at our site and have no idea what anything means, and that’s the way we like it. We once sold shirts at an event outside Philly and a lady asked us “Where are your Philly shirts?” We laughed. She looked confused.
PSP: Have you run into any trademark problems with local teams?
BL: Teams? No.
PSP: Companies like Who Are Ya solicit design submissions from fans. What if someone has a cool Union t-shirt design – do you guys accept design submissions? If so, what would someone get in return?
BL: For sure. We welcome new designers and designs all the time. If you have a awesome design, submit it to us. If we decide we want to print it we’ll put you on the payroll. We’ll give you a percentage of shirt sales, your own designer category, and the opportunity to grow with us.
PSP: Tell me a little about how one goes about getting a shirt made by you.
BL: Really, just e-mail me and talk to us. You’ll find we’re pretty regular dudes. Let us know what you need and we’ll hook you up.
PSP: You guys do more than t-shirts. Can you do banners and flags?
BL: Absolutely. We can do banners, flags, hats, glasses, awareness bracelets, jerseys, jackets, balloons, coasters, you name it. Anything you need something printed on we can make it happen.
Bark Tees have teamed up with the Sons of Ben and the Brotherly Game to raise money for “Help Kick Hunger.” All proceeds from the sale of “Stache’ Bash” t-shirts will go to that worthy cause. Why not order yours today? For only $14.99 you can get a cool t-shirt and support good works.