A perfect (shirt) storm
IOLA, Wis. – Monday night, Sept. 24, 2012. About five minutes remained in the game, and Joe Opperman went upstairs to watch the rest in bed.
That night, the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks played a choppy and sloppy game on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, combining for 24 penalties for 245 yards, all of that laundry thrown by replacement NFL officials, filling in for the then-locked-out regulars. This was the last game of Week 3, and a mercury of tensions, concerns and annoyances was already close to shattering through the general public’s thermostat.
Then the final play of the game happened, the level playing field fractured by missed violations and a dubious, clearly confused understanding of some of the game’s basic rules. And after a lengthy review: touchdown and game, Seahawks.
“I shot straight up in bed, shook my wife awake, trying to explain the unexplainably bad call,” Opperman said. “I called the Tappas immediately … and repeatedly. Someone had to sound the alarm! As a Packers fan, this injustice couldn’t just go ignored. We had to do something about it.”
It was already late, and a work night, so Scott Tappa didn’t answer his friend’s call. He was brushing his teeth when Opperman then called his wife, Jana, who answered.
“Is he still talking about that call?” Scott asked.
“Yeah, he wants to do a shirt,” Jana replied. “Joe was saying, ‘Just put blown and the date. It’s a blown call.’ He was just all fired up, so I had that mocked up and then Scott walked in and said, ‘Just put worst call ever. That’s what it is.’”
“I think in everyday life we say things like, ‘Best day ever and best week ever, or this is the worst sandwich I’ve ever had,’” Jana said. “It’s just so much a part of our everyday language that it just … we knew immediately that was it.”
A graphic designer by day, Jana Tappa quickly put together a simple template for a T-shirt, dark green with yellow font:
They made the shirt available on the website of their shirt company, Oppermacher, and posted it to the company’s Facebook page. The initial sale price was $12.07, or 12-7, what the final score would have been without the call. It generated a few ‘Likes’ and compliments right away.
“That sounds great, but please remember, we had virtually no following at this point,” Opperman said. “I felt like the shirt had given me an avenue to vent somewhat as a fan, but this didn’t ensure sales would follow.
“It became clear the next day this story was as big across the nation as it had felt to me at the time.”
Tuesday, Sept. 25. “It was everywhere. Frustration over the ref lockout was taking over,” Opperman said.
That afternoon, he asked Scott Tappa – who works in publishing during the day – to write a press release about the Worst Call Ever T-shirts. “He responded with one of the funniest, most passionate write-ups I’ve ever read,” Opperman said.
This was a huge move, tapping into the groundswell of overflowing outrage, both in media coverage and fed-up fans in general – but Packers fans, of course, in particular.
Tappa wrote the release “in a really dramatic, tongue-in-cheek way, like, ‘This is the worst thing of all time and we’ll never forget this day,’ (I) just really had some fun with it, didn’t think much of it, and sent it out at around 9 or 10 o’clock at night.”
Wednesday, Sept. 26. Tappa checked the company’s email in the morning to find multiple responses from state media, radio stations from La Crosse to Madison, and the big one: a reporter from WBAY-TV 2 in Green Bay wanted to come to Iola and do a story for the evening news.
A former reporter and copy editor, Jana Tappa loves the energy that comes with the rush of a deadline. The spontaneity sometimes associated with making shirts for Oppermacher – her “side hustle,” as a friend calls it – gives Tappa those same feelings.
“It just gives me a charge,” she said, then describing the steps needed to make a shirt quickly. “I take the blank shirt, take my design, try to approximate the color, make it as realistic as possible, then we shoot it up on the store or on Facebook to see what people like. It’s a nice way to not have an inventory that maybe would be collecting dust.”
The Worst Call Ever shirts were online fast. The tiny problem, with a television reporter on her way to Iola?
“Well, we hadn’t made any of the shirts yet,” Scott Tappa said. “We had just come up with the idea a few days before, and usually from the time we make a concept of something to the time we actually are making them takes a few days.
“And here a TV station from Green Bay is coming to do a story on us and we don’t even have the shirts.”
Opperman, who works in Stevens Point, hurried home, picked up some blank shirts and began the arduous process of cutting vinyl into the shapes of letters and numbers, picking them out and putting them on shirts and under a heat press.
He got some done just in time for the TV crew, who did their story, got footage and took home a souvenir shirt. Later on, they all got together at Opperman’s house to watch the segment. In a bit of foreshadowing, while waiting for the piece to air Opperman got an email from CNN, asking permission to use the story in their media roundup. That was the beginning of when it officially stopped being quiet, when Oppermacher’s garage rock T-shirting outfit went global.
“They air our story and I’m sitting there with my laptop, looking at the (company’s) backend,” Scott Tappa said, “and you can just see the sales start – click, click, click, click, click – the sales just started going crazy.”
Tappa estimates they sold about 500 Worst Call Ever T-shirts that night – “Far and away more than anything we’d sold of any shirt to that point,” he says. Tappa had joked about that number earlier in the day. By 8 p.m., they’d hit it. They were already into the great unknown.
Thursday, Sept. 27 – Saturday, Sept. 29. Worst Call Ever T-shirt sales continued coming in at a steady pace for Oppermacher in the following days. On Saturday, a fellow Pee-Wee football parent asked Scott Tappa how many he thought they’d sold. The rumor was 30,000.
Tappa replied: “No, it’s 1,300. It’s a lot, but it’s not that many.”
Sunday, Sept. 30. In any case, the Oppermacher team was busy Saturday night and Sunday prepping for the sort of order quantity they’d never had before.
“This is the first time we’ve ever had a real large-scale hit like this,” Scott said. “We were really kind of feeling things out for the first time.”
The Packers, much in need of a rebound after the trainwreck in Seattle, hosted the New Orleans Saints in the late-afternoon showcase game at Lambeau Field. The tension over Monday night’s outcome was still just below a thin veneer of green and gold for Packers fans. It could be felt in Green Bay like oncoming winter.
“We’d made a couple of shirts for people in town who were going to the game, just so, because they were a really hot topic at the time – Jana’s hairdresser wanted one,” Scott Tappa said.
As they were making shirts and watching the noon game wrap up, Fox, as it does, cut to what was on deck for its national television viewing audience.
“They were like, ‘Coming up next we have Packers and Saints and, you know, they’re doing their tailgate shots and they’re doing their warm-up shots,” Tappa said. “And then they show this person in the stands, a lady, with a Worst Call Ever shirt on.
“The funny thing is, it wasn’t even ours. We were the first ones that came out with it, but almost immediately within a couple of days after that TV spot came on we started seeing knockoffs out there on (art and craft website) Etsy and some other places.”
Some simply had the same theme as their shirt. Others were direct rip-offs of Oppermacher’s simple design.
“I always laugh because the Worst Call Ever (T-shirt) is by far our biggest hit, but it is very little design,” Jana Tappa says. “It’s basically just typography, and not even really fancy typography, so it’s always a little embarrassing because I really could do something better … but at the same time sometimes simple is best.”
“I got really upset,” she added, “there were quite a few (copy cats), and again it’s baffling that anyone would copy my very-simple design, but there were some. That just floored us, how fast that took off at that first game after the worst call ever.”
But again, Oppermacher’s speed in getting the shirt online almost instantly after the Seahawks game was crucial, and paid off.
“We knew it (the T-shirt shown on Fox) wasn’t ours because it was in yellow, and at that point we hadn’t done a yellow shirt with green font,” Scott said. “But whatever, because by that point when you Googled ‘Worst Call Ever shirt,’ we came up first.”
Then, the floodgates opened.
“So when that happened, when that screenshot of the lady on the Fox pregame happened, Joe’s phone and Dennis’s (Dennis Gruetzmacher, Oppermacher’s other co-founder) phone, which were both set to receive email notifications whenever we made a sale, just started ringing non-stop,” Tappa said. “I don’t remember exactly how many we sold in that six-hour span from like 3-9 o’clock, but it was hundreds of shirts.”
By Sunday night, Worst Call Ever shirts had been bought in all 50 states, six Canadian provinces and Germany. In a week, with no advertising.
“Within a week of putting that shirt out there we sold shirts to every state in the country,” Scott Tappa says. “And not just like one – we sold about eight shirts to Hawaii and like 10 shirts to Arkansas. It wasn’t just California and New York and Florida, the big populous states – we sold them everywhere.
“As time went on, we’d get these orders from a guy on a military base in Afghanistan, or at our American embassy in Colombia. And you know these people are Packers fans and that’s why they heard about it. Why else would they buy it, right? Why else would they be interested in it? It really showed just how much Packers fans are everywhere.”
“We weren’t anywhere near ready for that amount of orders,” Jana Tappa laughs. Typically able to make around 30 shirts a day with the vinyl-heat press process, and since they normally were only able to work on shirts after a full day of work and family activities – Opperman says “shirtin,” as they call it, usually starts somewhere around 9 p.m. – led Oppermacher to start working with Point Embroidery and Screen in Stevens Point.
Still they were playing catch-up. Their shirt-maker swimming in orders, the Oppermacher team needed all hands on deck to try digging out. Parents and siblings took their turns helping pack up and ship orders. They were living and breathing Worst Call Ever T-shirt orders late into the night for weeks.
“It took us a couple months to really get caught up,” Scott said. “It was kind of like going from 0 to 100 in terms of our sales volume and our operation and what we knew about shipping and all that because we only really had very small amounts to that point.
“But it really helped us show what we could do and what the potential was.”
How it all fell together, inside and out for Oppermacher, is arguably the biggest reason for their (almost literal) overnight success. Scott’s role in media relations, in promoting the shirts; Jana’s ability to create simple yet eye-catching designs on the fly; Gruetzmacher’s handling of logistics; Opperman’s shirt-making skills; Asherrie, Opperman’s wife, “the company’s marketing department – we know if she likes it, it’ll be a hit, always,” as Jana says – they all compliment one another, no toes are stepped on in the process and everyone fills a niche.
“Our team kind of fell into place with what we did and what we were best at,” Scott says. “It all just sort of worked out.”
Really, through almosts and maybes and pauses in action, Oppermacher has figured a way to work out from the start. Opperman’s steady spirit towards entrepreneurship sometimes dissolved after forming a new idea, but in the case of the T-shirt company, he got the extra nudge towards making it real that he needed.
“Typically though, I will form an idea, usually about a product I would find useful, run through the idea to decide if it would work or not, and then do almost nothing with it to bring it to fruition, with a few exceptions,” Opperman says.
Gruetzmacher had an idea for a Packers-themed shirt a couple of years back. They went back and forth on ideas ranging from selling shirts out of a truck in Green Bay to building something more stable for a possible T-shirt endeavor in the future. Opperman believes the thought could have ended in that purgatory of ideas without the next step.
“Had it been only me, I’d normally have spent several days building the case for either avenue, and then pursued it no further,” Opperman said. “A few days later, after kicking the idea around together, my co-worker, Dennis Gruetzmacher, handed me some paperwork he’d prepared the night before. They were documents for our newly formed company, along with permits and licenses.
“At this point, I felt like I better do something to keep up my end of the work. I began looking into web-hosting and design ideas and other sales necessities. Before too long, we had a handful of design ideas, and a website to sell them on.”
Oppermacher, the company name a combination of Dennis and Joe’s last names, was born. And after a few months working with an outside printer, Opperman wanted to improve the company’s overall flow.
“Joe (Opperman) is a friend of ours, our kids are roughly the same age, we coach sports together and our wives are friends,” Scott Tappa said. “He asked if we wanted to get involved in it.”
“Jana is a gifted graphic designer, as well as web developer, and Scott is an amazing writer with a nose for marketing as well,” Opperman said. “After some persistence and pestering, some of my better talents, they were onboard with the company as well.”
The Tappas started by setting up a separate company, Five Kids Shirt Co., specializing in shirts for local groups like youth sports teams or church events. Oppermacher was in its early stages, coming up with ideas for and putting out shirts to smaller successes before the Worst Call Ever shirts were created and blew everything else out of the water.
Friday, Oct. 5, 2012. Oppermacher was continuing its swim to the surface through Worst Call Ever orders when the Atlanta Braves lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in a one-game wild-card playoff. The Braves, trying to mount a rally in the eighth inning, were stymied in-part by a controversial infield fly rule call, giving them the second out of the inning instead of bases loaded and one out.
Braves fans responded to this ruling by littering Turner Field with beer cups, cans, bottles and other trash, the stands filling with swelling anger. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina said after the game: “It was scary at first. I’ve never seen that before.”
“We all laughed because we were so busy at that point anyway that we figured there’s no way, that wouldn’t make sense to do,” Scott Tappa said. “But after we got done with work for the night, it was about midnight and Joe and I were like, ‘God, we really have to do this, don’t we? When do you have opportunities like this?’”
“Those guys were up late working on something and watching that game, and I was tired, I think I’d put the kids to bed that night or something, but Scott came up with my laptop and he’s like, ‘We have to do this,’ and I’m like, ‘Ohhh, whatever,’” Jana Tappa says, laughing.
Jana took the same simple Worst Call Ever design, changed the date to 10.05.12 and the colors to blue and red, and put it on the website. Scott compiled a list of Georgia state media and sent off a press release. The next morning he was talking to a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“(The story) was up by noon and by, about, 12:30, we were already selling Braves Worst Call Ever shirts,” Scott said.
Since those crazy adrenalized first few months after the Packers’ worst call ever, Oppermacher has settled into something a little more livable. They’ve come out with designs, some sports-related, some showcasing Wisconsin state pride, some Packers-specific. When wide receiver Donald Driver retired, Jana designed a simplistic-yet-clear likeness of Driver with the tagline, “My Designated Driver.”
That one worked well. Last season, as Mason Crosby was hitting the low point of his career with the Packers, they tried a shirt with a missed field goal in progress that said, “Worst Kicks Ever.” That one, Scott says, didn’t work as well. There are hits and misses, but Scott believes that’s part of the learning process. It’s some parts trial and error, but because the ease with which Oppermacher can get a shirt design up and into the store, it’s a relatively harmless exercise, a “fun riddle” to find the perfect match of words and art, as Jana says.
There’s no rush to the creative process of coming up with the next big idea. The already-busy, or, normal, everyday lives that go along with raising a regular family take up enough time. “It’s not like we just sit around everyday coming up with shirt ideas,” Scott says. “It’s to the point where we really just feel like we need to concentrate on only the best ideas, or if we don’t have one that’s not the end of the world either.”
Tappa, though, checks the pulse of Twitter frequently, on the lookout for the next big story. Preferably, a team that casts a wide and passionate net. “I’m kind of hoping it’s, like, Alabama football or Notre Dame or something like that,” he says.
If something like the worst call ever were to happen to the Crimson Tide, though, riot gear might be preferable to T-shirts.
“For now, this is just something extra we do rather than getting a good night’s sleep,” Opperman says. “We enjoy the work and have a lot of fun working together coming up with new ideas and meeting customer’s needs.
“I don’t feel a whole lot of pressure to repeat the kind of success we had with the Worst Call Ever shirt. I think that’s a once in a lifetime occurrence, but I’d certainly love to be proven wrong.”
“I have to give a lot of credit to Jana, who is really where it starts,” Scott says of his wife. “We have ideas, but she can put it together pretty quickly and she’s a very good graphic designer. And really, the Worst Call Ever shirt itself is nothing fancy, it’s really not, but it just worked. The font she picked, the spacing of the words and the date, it just worked. It’s hard to imagine it any other way.
“And a lot of the credit goes to Joe, for just being a real driving force and not just letting that opportunity go by. Because honestly, I thought, ‘Boy, terrible call, do we really want to make a shirt? We haven’t sold many of our shirts yet, why would this be any different?’ But he was right. He had a hunch on that and he was right.”
The Worst Call Ever blitz was both unexpected for Oppermacher, and to date still the group of friend’s best learning experience for how to be a better, more efficient, smarter, T-shirt company. There’s no better way to know if you can swim in the deep end than by diving in. Okay, maybe Oppermacher was more unexpectedly pushed in, but they swam regardless. Buoyed up by people like themselves: Packers fans.
“You go through enough of these things and you realize just what a perfect storm this all was for our Worst Call Ever shirt to take off,” Scott Tappa says. “You had a) the replacement refs, which the whole country was upset about because they were terrible for a lot of games outside of Packers games, you had b) the Monday night game, the game everybody’s watching on a weeknight and c) you have Packers fans, who just care more than just about any other team.”
Maybe they don’t know if they’ll ever get a hit again like they did with the Worst Call Ever shirts, but Oppermacher has already become more than what they expected their after-work, after-dinner and after-coaching gig to be.
And it still lives on over a year since that forgettable night that Packers fans won’t have the pleasure of not remembering anytime soon. This, of course, isn’t all bad for Oppermacher.
Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. Scott Tappa was at Lambeau Field (wearing a Worst Call Ever shirt, because advertising can be cheap) for the team’s first preseason game of the year with his Pee-Wee football team and, right after flipping through the turnstile and entering the stadium, saw two people also wearing Worst Call Ever shirts. They had bought them that same week.
“And it dawned on me that that was an order we’d processed like seven days before that. It was sort of crazy to think that, and she bought like nine shirts too, so it’s an enormous order in August, almost a full year after the thing had actually happened,” Tappa said.
“And here they are, wearing them right away. It’s just sort of surreal to see it,” he continued. “But then you walk around the stadium, and we walked down near the field level to really get the kids up close, and three or four people, just in the 20 minutes we stood there came over from the sidelines and said, ‘Hey, I like your shirt, where’d you get it?’
“It’s so cool to hear that, and one of them asked, ‘Who made that?’ I’m like, ‘We did.’ And you don’t want to sound like a jerk about it, but it’s actually my wife, my buddies and I. We make these shirts.”