Strangely, they look nothing like knitters. Especially the bearded one, with his tattoos peeking out above his collar and beyond his sleeves.
Instead, this duo very much looks the part of rabid soccer fans — which they are.
In fact, neither the stubbled Jeff McIntyre nor clean-shaven Erin O’Brien have ever slip-stitched a club crest themselves. And yet together they have cloaked this continent, coast to coast, with over 4.5 million soccer scarves.
This is the yarn spun by Ruffneck Scarves, supplier of neckwear to club and country, supporters’ groups and random fans over the past nine years as they have ridden the wave of American soccer’s rising tide. (Yes, that includes scarves for MLS.)
It’s a story that starts in the ubiquitous cubicles of Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash. campus, where a couple futbol-starved sales analysts would huddle around a small TV to watch matches on occasion. Soon, while traveling through Liverpool, McIntyre was struck by the abundance of scarves on seemingly every set of shoulders making its way to Anfield. Quickly, McIntyre developed an affinity for scarf culture and a desire to bring it to America.
“When we tried to buy scarves from a competitor, we couldn’t get them,” McIntyre recalls. “That turned into trying to do it on our own. We figured there must be a hole there, a hole we can fill. We saw how popular [scarf culture] was in England, and we thought we could do this in the U.S.”
They first started as a re-sale website, but quickly re-jiggered things to include producing original scarves. “The first year we had only $40,000 in revenue and that went right back into the business; we didn’t take a dime from it,” notes McIntyre. “Then it started to grow, and we saw single-, double- and triple-digit growth.”
Here’s where things really took off, though – in 2007, they produced an initial sale of 35 custom scarves to Seattle’s Emerald City Supporters, when the Sounders were still playing in what was then known as USL-1. Two years later, adidas helped broker a blockbuster deal: 22,000 scarves for Sounders FC inaugural MLS season ticket members.
On March 19, 2009, all those scarves, not to mention thousands of others raised aloft by ECS and other supporters’ groups, marched on what is now known as CenturyLink Field. “It was an amazing night,” remembers O’Brien. “In the bars, walking down the streets everyone had scarves, our scarves.”
Soon after, he and McIntyre both quit the tech giant to become knitwear entrepreneurs. It was an audacious move to most who knew them, but their conviction never wavered. “We believe in our company because we believe in this sport and this culture and what it brings to the world,” O'Brien says.
A key contact at adidas duly noted their passion ran deep, and soon enough Ruffneck Scarves became an MLS licensee. They have since become official scarf licensee to US Soccer, the NCAA, and USL.
Ruffneck's founders pose with a machine cranking out some of their scarves designed for Real Salt Lake.
To date, with orders ranging from dozens to tens of thousands, they have produced custom scarves for more than 500 teams, schools and SGs.
“We’ve been told scarves make up a third of all [merchandise] sales in MLS,” says McIntyre, “and we’ve grown every year.”
But none of this could have happened without an early personal approach, in which the founders reached out to America’s vast array supporters’ groups. McIntyre and O’Brien stood among the ECS; they flew cross-country to meet Pittsburgh’s Steel Army; they headed to L.A. to share some suds with the Angel City Brigade.
But even though they had groups interested in custom soccer scarves, the mills who produced them in England initially brushed aside these American upstarts. Most demanded a minimum of 500 per design. But finally, Ruffneck convinced one factory to work with them on smaller custom orders, and that made all the difference.
Now practically any marching band, service club, supporters’ group or team can do a deal for custom scarves with their own brand. Ruffneck also produces scarves for several charitable causes at no cost.
Ruffneck employees man the sewing machines.
And besides the MLS deal, Ruffneck has also made it big in other ways. They’ve made a 20-foot scarf to support the World Cup bid. Once, they were asked to conceive a scarf to wrap around California’s capitol building announcing the Sacramento Republic. An image of Ruffneck’s Timbers scarf was painted on an Alaska Airlines jet.
With the continuing growth of soccer and new interest from other sports teams and leagues, this story is only beginning. McIntyre and O’Brien have visited the vast majority of MLS cities and several countries, and they see soccer and scarves bringing people together.
This year, as part of MLS's Kick Childhood Cancer and the social campaign Scarftember, designer Sophia Chang has created a Kick Childhood Cancer scarf for every MLS team, with proceeds from their sales to benefit the Children's Oncology Group, one of the leading childhood cancer experts in the world and a partner of MLS Works.
“When you think about football it’s very unifying,” says O’Brien.
“Soccer’s the one sports activity,” adds McIntyre, “that blends culture and sport like no other.”
If you've got scarf fever now, check out MLS's Kick Childhood Cancer and the social campaign Scarftember. Artist Maria Lauren Lambilis has created a Kick Childhood Cancer benefit T-shirt and a scarf for every MLS team, with proceeds from their sales to benefit the Children's Oncology Group, one of the leading childhood cancer experts in the world and a partner of MLS WORKS.
In addition, you can also support Kick Childhood Cancer by posting a photo of you with your favorite MLS scarf to Twitter or Instagram, using the hashtag #ScarvesUp and tagging @MLS. The league will donate for each post.
Editor's Note: This piece originally ran on Sept. 9, 2016.