Pro Wrestling Tees’ Ryan Barkan: The Man Behind The Merch Empire
Photo Credit: Pro Wrestling Tees
Pro Wrestling Tees is not only changing the way fans get their favorite wrestlers’ merchandise, they are giving talent a new way to make a living in what can be a difficult field.
If you recently bought new merchandise from your favorite wrestler, there’s a good chance it was created by Chicago’s Pro Wrestling Tees. The apparel company is owned by Ryan Barkan, who created the brand a little more than six years ago as an offshoot of his existing business, One Hour Tees. PWTees grew steadily, with wrestlers such as Colt Cabana, The Young Bucks, Joey Ryan, Kevin Steen being early signees followed by CM Punk, Steve Austin and Jim Ross, among others including Bullet Club, who “really took our company to a new level,” according to Barkan.
Cabana, also a Chicago native, first got Barkan to create CM Punk’s infamous “I Broke Big Show’s Hand” shirt and he has since played a big role in the growth of Pro Wrestling Tees. Barkan credits Cabana with playing a huge part in where the business is today, noting that they were “just a local Chicago print shop making shirts for schools and businesses” before PWTees launched.
“Once we started expanding outside of the state and even the country, Pro Wrestling Tees entered an entirely different ball game. If it wasn’t for Colt,” Barkan said, “we wouldn’t be in the position we are now. The majority of our staff wouldn’t be working here and obviously we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Barkan says his mission as a business owner is to provide high quality and affordable apparel with a quick turnaround time and great customer service. With the growth in business each year, he says the mission is still the same, although it’s on a bigger level than it was in the beginning. The company has been able to expand from eight employees to almost 40, and they went from completing 90 orders per day to close to 500.
PWTees is an on-demand print shop that produces direct-to-garment clothing, putting out apparel faster than promotions had ever done in the past. Prior to this, most indie wrestler merchandise was bulk ordered and printed in advance and only sold at shows. DTG printing not only allows the printer to reduce their overstock, but wrestling promotions can market wrestlers and teams immediately after their debut and start printing once the orders come in.
AEW World Champion Chris Jericho’s now-infamous “bubbly” quote and his Inner Circle stable are two of the latest examples of having shirts ready that soon after being seen on TV, with the latter crashing the PWTees server within the hour after the group debuted. Barkan says there’s obviously some things he has to keep confidential as to not spoil plans, but he enjoys being on that side of the wrestling business and says it’s pretty much a normal thing for him now.
“I feel a great responsibility and pressure to make sure that we launch the products at the exact moment,” Barkan said, “not only to not spoil something but to fully capitalize on a debut or something that may be happening during a show.”
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PWTees has grown to a point where they supply Hot Topic and All Elite Wrestling with official merchandise, but they also continue to work on a local level and help a number of charitable efforts. The company has partnered with Sami Zayn and Mick Foley to raise money for their respective charities—Zayn’s “Dream Match” shirt featuring El Generico raised more than $12,000 last Fall—and One Hour Tees works with several non-profit companies and donates apparel on a monthly basis. “All of our OHT mess-ups go to homeless shelters. Each month we donate to a different charity using money from our Pro Wrestling Crate profits. We try and give back as much as we can,” Barkan said.
One other way Pro Wrestling Tees is making a difference is by giving graphic artists a new outlet, creating jobs for apparel and retail. Wrestlers are not only also part of the creative process for their merchandise designs, but they are directly paid royalties for their merchandise. Barkan says he never set out with a specific goal of what PWTees became with t-shirt fulfillment, noting he had always been interested in printing bulk orders in the past.
“Once we saw the demand and that there were no ways to get independent wrestling merchandise outside of being at shows,” Barkan said, “We knew there was an opportunity. We are still growing. I just purchased a new building last month and I’m looking at another this month. We will have four buildings strictly for the wrestling businesses that we have.”
The business has grown enough where the previously online-only retailer now has a physical storefront location in Chicago where fans can pick up merchandise in person and participate in meet and greet sessions. Pro Wrestling Tees now hosts more than 1,000 wrestler stores, paying out more than $5 million in royalties to talent or their families as of August 2019, and they’ve also added a subscription crate line, a lapel pin line, Micro Brawlers figures, Superkicks custom sneakers, showing no signs of slowing down. Barkan teased a huge project in the works, noting that it wouldn’t be possible without the growth of the company from specializing in t-shirts to what it is today.
“We really just want to always expand our product line,” Barkan said. “With the amount of reach we have now in the wrestling industry, there is really no limit to what we can produce.”
Barkan and his team were featured in a new documentary released in November called Pro Wrestling Tees: Behind The Merch, giving fans an inside look at the day-to-day operations of creating apparel and their brand. Barkan says the documentary was made for fans, and he hopes the biggest takeaway is that people really see the positive way what they are buying is helping everyone involved, from the wrestlers to the printers.
“I really just want the fans to see where they get their merchandise from and to know how their purchase affects the wrestlers and their families. I want them to see how hard our staff works and how many people it actually takes to print just one t-shirt. Most customers think they order a shirt, we pull it from some shelf and package it, but in reality, we are an on-demand print shop. It means we make all the merchandise we sell as it gets ordered and we don’t stock any inventory. So, even though we are just a t-shirt company, I just hope the viewers walk away with a new appreciation for what we do.”
With all of the success he’s seen so far, Barkan says his goal for 2020 and every year is the same—to make $1 more than last year. When asked if he had any advice for aspiring artists or business owners based on his own experience, Barkan echoed a statement heard in the documentary where he said you’ll find success if you never stop working.
“Even when I’m not in the shop, I’m on my phone working, answering emails. My brain is always churning with ideas or I’m talking to wrestlers about new products. I haven’t had a day off in at least 10 years and I probably never will. I’ve definitely made business mistakes,” Barkan said, “but I always say ‘Expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed.’ At any moment this can all go away and you just have to be prepared.”