A little more than a year ago, Joline Esparza, founder and president of JL Racing, was fighting to save the relatively small, family owned and operated sports apparel company that has been selling rowing clothing and gear for over 30 years.
Pushed out by exclusive apparel contract between USRowing and Athletic Performance Solutions (APS), a Nike licensee, JL and all other sports apparel companies found that they were prohibited from operating vendor booths at any USRowing owned or operated regattas.
The news, rather than being directly communicated to JL by USRowing, was made public through a combined USRowing/Nike logo with the word "proud partners" above it posted on the USRowing Facebook page. That was just before the 2016 Crew Classic, as Esparza was unpacking her vendor booth and merchandise.
When the details of the deal became clear, Esparza faced the loss of a huge portion of her direct sales and onsite marketing, threatening JL Racing's economic existence.
"I was afraid," Esparza said last month while gearing up her booth at the 2018 San Diego Crew Classic. "I was afraid for the people who worked for me. My livelihood was at risk, my family was at risk. It was definitely frightening.
"It's an awful thing to say, but to be honest when it's your life's work and you find out that the top level of your sport didn't value what you gave and what you bring to the community - that was really difficult."
JL took to social media to make the details of the deal public, and to rally the rowing community to her cause. The result was an immediate outpouring of support for JL, and outrage toward the abandonment of a vendor so long a part of the grass roots rowing community in favor of a behemoth, multi-sport company, and its licensing partner APS.
The ultimate result was weeks of turmoil that saw the USRowing board ditch the APS Nike deal and reinstate all other vendor's rights to attend and have vendor booths at the USRowing regattas.
Things are vastly different now:
JL founder Joline Esparza
At this year's San Diego Crew Classic, Esparza was in much better spirits while talking about another USRowing apparel deal that this time makes JL Racing - which is now partnered with a new apparel company called Wild Oar Crew - the official supplier of all US national teams through the 2020 Olympics.
The deal was officially announced today.
"I hate to use clichés," Esparza said, "but it seems full circle, doesn't it?"
While the workings of the actual contract were still in the making at the Crew Classic Esparza sat down with row2k at the venue to talk about the new contract, and how her life, and JL Racing itself, was changed by last year's failed USRowing/Nike deal.
When she first learned that USRowing had frozen out everyone in favor of APS/Nike, JL was forced to crank up their social media efforts in ways Esparza was not used to.
Her efforts brought her closer to the rowing community, which had not only rallied against USRowing, but behind JL. Not only had customers turned to the company’s web site, some local regatta organizing officials began making arrangements for JL to operate just outside of the actual venues.
It had the making of a battle that was not going to reflect well on the governing body of rowing in the US. The dam broke, however, when the USRowing board determined that the contact had not been properly signed with the full approval of the board, which claimed it had not even seen the details of the actual contract until the public outrage erupted.
The Nike detail was determined to be non-binding as a result, and JL and other vendors were invited back into the fold.
By then, Esparza had begun to directly communicate with the rowing community in ways she had not done before.
"When this all happened last year, that was my first dive into what it really meant to be open and available at all times, with people poking at you, and listening to you on a large scale, and from that, I realized it was important to be more informed and to be transparent, and be open and let people know who we were and why we were involved in rowing," she said.
"The feedback I got was just unbelievable. I'm still looking back and remembering how that all felt," Esparza said. "And it wasn't all bad. I've always been a pretty private person. I've never tried in any way to shout. 'here's who we are and why we are' and I had to do that to save my life because this thing happened and we were about to get shut out.
"To save our company, and to save my family, I needed to step up and say all that."
Esparza doesn't say that her outreach efforts resulted in the new USRowing apparel contract - she has tried before to land a USRowing apparel deal, but the company never had the size to pull off everything that USRowing required in both merchandise and related revenue.
But the experience did have her walking around chatting more at venues, and during the Head of the Charles last fall she spotted a new vendor she had not seen before - Wild Oar Crew, a family owned company run by MIT graduates with a rowing background.
Wild Oar Crew, which had already produced a line of sports leisure and yoga apparel, was launching into the rowing scene at the Head of the Charles and Esparza decided to investigate.
"The first time I saw them it was at the Head of the Charles," she said. "I thought, here's another competitor, here we go again. They met lots of people and talked to people and had some good feedback.
"They took a look at JL and they kind of approached us, and they started feeling around about how we could work together. It's a really unusual concept to start talking to a competitor and saying where do you want to go, what are you bringing and how do you think this could work, and their vision kind of dovetailed with ours."
Esparza said the talks led the two companies to come up with plans to make a presentation to USRowing for a new apparel contract tied to the 2020 Olympic cycle. Esparza said Wild Oar and JL put their expertise together, with JL handling the technical rowing gear and Wild Oar focusing on additional apparel and training wear.
"We put together the elements we felt were really going to make a difference to the athletes, plus the frosting on top was their fun and different line of product that no one in the rowing world has really seen," Esparza said.
And what they presented was a hit.
"During the RFP process, we sent invitations out to over 15 folks and it ended up being three that came back as serious offers," said USRowing Chief Domestic Officer, Susan Smith. "And the proposal that JL put together was remarkable."
During the crisis of the Nike deal last year, Smith and Esparza communicated frequently and apparently found common ground. "We did have issues last year," Smith said. "I think both organizations would say that during that process, we kept the lines of communications open and the state of the relationship hasn't been better."
Smith said JL's contract would last through the 2020 Olympics and would entail providing all necessary rowing apparel to each national team from junior through senior.
"It was an outfitting proposal that is going to outfit our national teams, all of our national teams, in a way that they have never had before," Smith said. For us to be able to do that, we were very, very happy."
Of the partnership with Wild Oar, Smith noted that the new group has worked with product manufacturing for a while for various international brands. "We are very excited about the type of design and clothing that they will provide and that we are also going to make available to the general public as merchandise. "The CEO is a former rower from Saugatuck, so once again it's just one big rowing family," Smith said. "We are very excited to be working with JL. We have a very strong relationship, and both organizations are very excited about going forward.
"In terms of the value, what it does for three years, is a larger package than we have ever had for four years, and the kits we are going to be able to provide for our athletes are not only going to be nice looking, but there are going to be more items, and so it's simply bigger."