Neil Stillwell began a small sporting goods retail business by opening an 800 square foot store called Neil’s Sporting Goods in the 1960’s. His primary focus was to sell sporting goods equipment (bats, balls, shoes, apparel, etc.) to the local little league and school athletic teams. This business grew rapidly during the 1970’s and early 80’s until he had built a small chain of 9 sporting good stores covering Phenix City, AL; Auburn, AL; Columbus, GA; Albany, GA; and LaGrange, GA. The business grew steadily until he had become one of the largest sporting goods retailers in the southeast.
Neil’s Sport Shops grew into multiple divisions, which included a retail segment, team sales, concessions and military. By expanding his business into multiple lines, Neil began to see the growth potential that the sporting goods market had to offer. By 1984, the business had grown significantly and Neil began searching for something opportunities to expand. He sold his company to the W.C. Bradley Company in Columbus, GA and stayed on as an officer. The separate divisions of Neil’s Sport Shops were eventually sold to other buyers. One of the buyers was Neil’s older brother Bill who bought the concession business and managed the concession sales for the majority of the Southeastern Conference Schools. Neil saw the growth that was happening in the concession sales as well as the retail side of the sporting goods business. He had been overseas and seen the opportunity to import products for his stores and soon decided to import sporting goods apparel on his own to sell to the different colleges.
In 1986, Neil formed The Game and the W.C. Bradley Company agreed to stay involved as a financial partner. The primary focus of The Game was to provide the most innovative headwear designs while maintaining superior quality for Colleges across the country. This would include everything from the initial design of the caps to the sales force that would call on the individual schools. Neil’s younger brother Phil was an independent salesman for Nike at this time and also agreed to represent The Game. Soon afterwards, Phil helped develop a national sales force for The Game through his contacts with other salesmen throughout the country. Within a matter of months, The Game had its first product designs and a national sales force in place to sell it. All of this happened at a time when the demand for college apparel was about to skyrocket.
The combination of innovative logo designs and superior quality headwear was an instant success in the college markets. Designs such as “The Bar“ helped propel the growth of the company not only in the Southeast, but also throughout the country. Students and fans of colleges began to recognize the red, white and blue “G” logo on the back of their caps as a symbol of quality and started seeking out these products on a regular basis.
A natural progression for The Game was their move from a college only program into the professional sports programs such as Major League Baseball, National Football League, National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. The addition of these properties also propelled the growth of The Game during a time in which college and professional sports saw phenomenal growth. Soon, The Game could be found not only in college bookstores, but also in major league sporting event venues and in major retailers all across the country.
The Game also moved into expanding their apparel line by offering complementary products to the headwear such as sweatshirts, sweatpants, shorts, shirts, etc.
All of this growth occurred during the period of 1987 to 1991, which saw The Game go from $0 sales in 1986 and a small warehouse to annual sales of over $80 million and a 155,000 square foot manufacturing facility.
When Neil originally started The Game in 1986 and brought in the W.C. Bradley Company as his partner, he had a 5-year agreement with them as President of the company. When it came time for him to renew his contract in 1992, he opted to not renew the contract and “slow down” for a while. At this point, The Game was managed by the W.C. Bradley Company and was eventually sold to Russell Athletic in 1993.
As Neil began winding down his responsibilities at The Game, friend and founder of Realtree Outdoor Products, Bill Jordan introduced Neil to Tommy Allison who was the cousin and business manager for NASCAR driver Davey Allison. Davey and Tommy were looking for someone to help them with upgrading the quality of their licensed merchandise, which was primarily sold at NASCAR races. Over the next few months, Neil, Tommy, Davey and Bill talked and discussed the many opportunities available within NASCAR. By January of 1993, Neil had decided retirement was not for him and formed A-Star promotions. The primary purpose of A-Star was to design, manage and sell all of the merchandise for the Davey Allison / Texaco Havoline racing team. This included everything from apparel to bumper stickers and miscellaneous souvenirs. The combination of Neil’s experience in importing quality merchandise, Davey’s success and fan following in NASCAR and the business management of Tommy Allison and Bill Jordan proved to be an instant success. When Davey’s merchandise began to show up at the races, other drivers and teams wanted to know where they could also get merchandise that had the same quality and good looks. The idea to form a separate company was born.
As business began booming for A-Star, Davey Allison was tragically killed in a helicopter accident at Talladega Superspeedway. Although this ended what began as a strong start for A-Star, it was also the catalyst for forming Kudzu which became the company that began designing, importing and selling quality headwear and jackets to NASCAR teams just as The Game had done for college and professional sports. For the formation of Kudzu, Neil teamed with Tommy Allison, Neil’s brother Phil and Neil’s son Jeff.
From 1993 through 1998 several key events occurred. First, the W.C. Bradley Company sold The Game to Russell Athletic. This was a period marked by baseball strikes, reorganization of the NFL and many new headwear companies focusing on gaining market share in the college arena. Second, NASCAR experienced its’ greatest growth years with the addition of new racetracks, drivers becoming household names and most races being covered on national television networks. Kudzu’s business also grew exponentially as the company penetrated the majority of all of the leading NASCAR Winston Cup drivers and teams with their products. This also opened up the ability to work with major corporate sponsors on their apparel programs as well.
Neil still longed to be back in the college market with The Game and his original sales force. He would not have to wait long. In 1998, Neil was contacted by Russell Athletic wanting to know if he would be interested in purchasing The Game. By October of 1998, a deal was completed and The Game was back with its’ original owners once again. Since then, Neil, Tommy, Phil, Jeff and the W.C. Bradley Company have been restoring the brand to the prominence it once enjoyed in the college markets. Today, many of the same representatives that began selling The Game products in 1986 are still selling them today. The fact that The Game logo is still in high demand and recognized as one of the premier headwear manufacturers in the college market after 15 years is a testament to the innovative design and commitment to upholding quality that The Game strives to deliver in each product. This has been and will continue to be the primary focus of The Game.
Thanks for taking the time to understand The Game.