In the Florida city of Port St. Lucie, dozens of young men are in training for the New York Mets' six-month, 162-game 2019 Major League Baseball season. They're one of 30 teams gearing up for the coming contest of precision, speed, strength and heart.
At the same time, more than 1,200 miles away in the Long Island hamlet of Hauppauge, Darren Meenan is also getting ready for the coming baseball season. Rather than lifting weights and running drills, however, he's coordinating fan outings, approving final apparel designs and promoting his brand on social media.
Meenan's clothing company, The 7 Line, creates Mets-themed T-shirts and has gathered a following of passionate Mets fans who call themselves The 7 Line Army. He works year-round on his designs so he can hit the ground running once baseball season begins.
"Keeping people involved all year round is really what helps propel any business to the next level," Meenan said. "You can't be seasonal – once October rolls around, you can't say, 'See you in April.' They'll forget about you. I work harder in the offseason than I do during the rest of the year. You always have to be ready for the next step."
Since the end of the 2009 season, when the Mets finished with a dismal 70-92 record, Meenan has built a company that not only peddles the Flushing team's orange and blue, but also deals in commitment, passion and, above all, family.
Meenan's entrepreneurial spirit was sparked when he learned how to print T-shirts in a high school art class. At the time, his focus was racing BMX bikes, and he'd bring some shirts to sell at competitions. Over time, his "little side hustle to make some extra money" became so popular that his brand was distributed overseas. The skills and business sense he earned from his BMX days, he says, became the blueprint for The 7 Line.
The 7 Line began with Meenan's frustrations with the Mets' 2009 season. Realizing he wasn't the only one discouraged by the rough season, he decided to use his screen-printing skills to make T-shirts for his fellow long-suffering Mets devotees.
Emblazoned with the words "I survived ..." across the chest, Meenan's first Mets T-shirt design listed some of the recent heartaches that nearly every fan of the team remembered. Despite the dark angle, Meenan included a word of encouragement for the boys in orange and blue, saying "Let's go Mets 2010."
"I didn't make that shirt thinking I was starting a brand," he said. "I just wanted to make some shirts and see if any of my fellow Mets fans were interested in buying them. That was the springboard for the whole thing."
Once the season (mercifully) came to an end, The 7 Line began. After getting a feel of interest from his fellow Mets fans, Meenan created a website, signed up on various social media platforms and immediately began designing more T-shirts. Soon, the company's popularity began to snowball – just from word of mouth between fans.
Creating customers and community
By the end of the 2012 season – yet another disappointing season, with just 78 wins – The 7 Line was gaining traction with Mets fans. In a bid to bring those fans together, Meenan scheduled a group outing on Sept. 27, ultimately selling 550 tickets in the Big Apple Reserve section of Citi Field.
The Mets won. But that wasn't the most impressive part of the day, Meenan said. It was that the brand he created in his parents' basement had become something so much bigger.
"So many people took off from work to go to Citi Field on a Thursday for a team that had no hopes of playing past that day," said Meenan. "These fans are just like me – we want to go to games, have fun and meet new people. From that day, we knew this was something we were absolutely going to do both at Citi Field and at road games."
Meenan scheduled more outings for Mets fans and The 7 Line customers, and the fan group known as The 7 Line Army was born. Since 2012, the group has gone to 19 ballparks around the country, including the now-defunct Turner Field in Atlanta. By the end of the 2020 season, they'll have visited every stadium in the National League.
Armed with "united we cheer" as their mantra, The 7 Line Army has been recognized by the team's ownership, star players and national televised broadcasts. They're a known quantity with the Mets. Not only did putting fans together for outings engender a sense of team pride – it also served as a unique business opportunity.
"I wasn't just trying to form a brand; I was trying to form a community," Meenan said. "Bringing the fans and the customers together was great for the business because you have fun at the games, you tell your friends, and then they check out what we have on the site."
Good business (and baseball) IQ
Today, The 7 Line has dozens of men's and women's T-shirt designs on its website, praising everything from the Mets home in Queens to the infectious smile of 25-year-old outfielder Brandon Nimmo. The company's offerings have also expanded into officially licensed caps from New Era, specially printed stickers and pennants, and replica jerseys licensed by Majestic.
With so much merchandise available on the website, it would be easy to assume that Meenan has a team of full-time designers, printers and fulfillment employees on hand at the Hauppauge building. However, The 7 Line only has one other full-time employee. The company's minimal staffing, Meenan said, stems largely from things he's learned as an entrepreneur.
"If you're a young entrepreneur and you're not sure what your direction is, it's important to do as much as you can on your own before you go looking for extra help," he said.
Although he could have easily expanded when the Mets went to the World Series in 2015, he decided not to. He was rewarded for his conservative approach when the team went 70-92 and 77-85 in the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
"I would have had to lay people off when they started to stink again," Meenan said. "I feel the reason The 7 Line has been able to grow each year – even when the Mets are doing poorly – is the way that I run it."
In entrepreneurial endeavors, most people will say they start with a plan of action. Meenan, while constantly thinking of ways to improve his brand, said he doesn't do that. He may not have book smarts, he said, but he's got "street smarts."
It's because of those street smarts that he thinks young people looking to start a business should take a chance and dive in.
"Don't take your inexperience as a negative," he said. "Sometimes, it's better to learn on the job. On-the-job training sometimes goes a lot further than sitting in a classroom or reading a textbook. Getting your hands dirty and diving in is sometimes the way to go."
The volatile nature of professional sports is why Meenan said he hasn't set specific goals for The 7 Line. Instead, he opts to let his company grow organically, taking cues from customer interests and their responses to designs and events from the previous year.
"If we're doing too many games one year or not doing enough, we'll adjust for the next year. If a style of shirt isn't popular, we'll switch it up. [Without a specific business plan], you don't have to set expectations too high, and you don't have anything that's holding you back from trying something new."
Meenan is, however, extremely specific about where his products can be found – only on The7Line.com. During the Mets' 2015 attempt at a World Series win, Meenan said, he was constantly getting calls from third parties asking to carry The 7 Line's products. He said no.
"If you're everywhere, then you're watering down what you're trying to accomplish," he said. "I'd rather sell 3,000 sweatshirts on our website than 5,000 at Modell's, because then you look just like another brand. For us, it's all about staying true to your roots and what we started with in 2009."
That devotion to his company's roots has ultimately led to The 7 Line's DIY, almost punk method to its orange and blue madness. Outside of the apparel and outings, the livestreams and social media memes, The 7 Line is largely about the community Meenan has created by bringing together people from around the world to share their love of the game and this emotional roller coaster of a baseball team.
"I'll post something [on social media], and then I'll see two fans in the comments who met through the group making plans to go bowling or the movies," he said. "They met because of baseball and The 7 Line Army. That's great to me."