While Roger Murphy, a financial adviser from South London, is watching Americans Todd Rodgers and Phil Dalhausser dispatch a Japanese beach volleyball team at London’s Horse Guards Parade Sunday night, he’s asked a fashion question: what do you think of the shorts that the American tandem — the defending Olympic gold medalists — are sporting? Murphy stares down at the sand, and considers. “They are lovely,” Murphy says, the sarcasm dripping into his beer. “They’re so choice. They look like they’re made by an Italian designer.” By now, his contempt for the design, a somewhat frightening array of red, white and blue lighting bolts that scream ‘look at me,’ is clear. “They’re not ideal,” says Murphy. “They’re ghastly. They’re absolutely ghastly.”
And that’s just fine with Larry Jackson, the CEO of Loudmouth, maker of the U.S. beach volleyball shorts whose primary business, nutty golfwear, is booming, thanks in part to Loudmouth’s ties to the Olympics. Comments like these do not offend him one bit. “No, no, no,” says Jackson, who is hard to miss in this London beach volleyball crowd, given that he is decked in the Team USA design. “The key is that people are talking about them.” In 2010, Loudmouth outfitted the Norwegian curling team in attention-grabbing garb; the checkered pants became a cult hit. Matt Lauer and Al Roker tried them on in the Today show. A Facebook page, The Norwegian Olympic Curling Team’s Pants, has over 575,00o followers. Post-Vancouver, sales jumped 40%, says Jackson. After starting out as a side business in founder Woody Woodworth’s bedroom, Loudmouth is now a $10 million brand.
In London, Loudmouth is betting on beach volleyball. Rogers’ brother is one of Loudmouth’s distributors in Japan. In late 2o11, he suggested that Loudmouth and the U.S. team connect. The pairing makes sense: beach volleyball is the most in-your-face sport at the Games, with its bikinis, loud music, and barely-clothed dancers entertaining the crowd between sets. Everyone else is shouting. Why shouldn’t the shorts?
Loudmouth and the beach volleyballers cut a sponsorship deal. It’s a commission-based pact, so the farther the team advances in the Olympic tournament, and the more shorts Loudmouth sells, the more money the athletes receive. Beach volleyball is a prime-time staple on NBC: millions of viewers will be exposed to the company’s fashion sensibility, whether they like it or not. If the Norwegian curlers can help the company, surely the American beach volleyballers can. “If these guys get into the medal round,” says Jackson, “I’d be surprised if we don’t see a similar bump.”
Rogers says that during a pre-Olympics swing through Europe, beach volleyball players and fans couldn’t stop asking about the shorts. “I’d say 90-95 percent of the feedback has been positive,” says Rogers. Or maybe folks don’t like offending an Olympic gold medalist to his face.
Actually, the majority of people I spoke to at the beach volleyball venue liked the outfits. “They’re nice,” says Denise Brooks, who lives in London. “They’re different. They’re, what’s the word? … Trendy.” Brooks called the plain red shorts worn by the Japanese team “boring,” and gave the American credit for eschewing the typical stars and stripes. “They’re quite catching,” says Kerry Harper, 30, a dental nurse from just outside London.
As a start-up, Loudmouth’s glitches actually helped fuel its growth. Woodworth, the founder and design expert, was no logistical guru. He’d often call customers to explain that he didn’t have the size they ordered, or accidentally ship the wrong product, and receive complaints. In 2006 one frequent caller, Jackson — a former tech executive — invited Woodworth to chat about his business over a round of golf. “Woody, you’ve got a great business,” Jackson told him, “but if I’m a judge in statistical analysis, you’re f—–g this up for everybody.” On the back nine, the pair worked out the framework of a deal, in which Jackson would buy into the company, and basically run the business end. In 2009, Jackson helped Loudmouth sign golf bad-boy John Daly, who wore the pants on tour. The company received its first huge sales bump.
Before the 2010 Winter Olympics, Loudmouth had no idea that the Norwegian curling team had ordered pants until the coach emailed the company, looking for a replacement: surprise, one pair didn’t fit a player. The coach asked if Loudmouth could send the pants straight to the Olympic Village, marked “Norwegian Curling Team.” The execs did a double-take. “We said, ‘wait a minute,’” says Woodworth. “We’re talking about the Olympic curling team?’” Jackson, sensing an opportunity for unprecedented exposure, caught a flight to Vancouver to hand-deliver the pants to the Norwegians.
At the beach volleyball match, Jackson watches his current Olympic endorsers get ready to return a serve. While in London, Jackson has pitched the father of American swimming gold medalist Ryan Lochte, hoping his son will sport the scary style, and is urging Rogers and Dalhausser to toss a pair of shorts at Prince Harry if he shows up to a match. “The reality is, we’re not going to reach everybody,” Jackson says. “When people say they are ugly, it’s a taste thing. It’s not for the level of quality. We put great effort into everything.” He looks out at his clothing in the sand. “And just look at those butts we’re checking out there,” says Jackson. “Come on, look at those butts.”