Black-owned apparel company aims to make splash in world of sports

Mike James, left, and Ameer Watkins are hoping to expand the MOTTO Athletics brand.

Black-owned apparel company aims to make splash in world of sports
March 10
15:24 2021

Nike, Reebok, Adidas and Under Armor aren’t the only games in town when it comes to team sports apparel. MOTTO Athletics can not only outfit your team with uniforms, they can also fulfill all your team’s accessory needs with sleeves, headbands, backpacks and more.

MOTTO Athletics stands for Motivation Overcomes the Toughest Obstacles. The company was started by Mike James, a Winston-Salem native and 2007 graduate of R.J. Reynolds High School. He began MOTTO in 2012 while he was in school at Livingstone College.

“I was actually working at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, but that wasn’t my ultimate goal, so I always tried to envision what my career path was going to be,” said James.  

James stated he took a semester off from school to figure out what his next move was going to be and during that time inspiration hit him. While playing a video game, a friend commented that a person spends more time outfitting their avatar than they do playing the game. That was where the idea for starting the sports clothing line came from.

Soon after getting the idea for the company, James began doing his research on similar companies and finalizing the details for what he wanted his business to be.

“From there I started thinking of logos and actually what I wanted for a name,” he said. “So, then I went off of Nike, their name was short. Adidas stands for All Day I Dream About Sports, so I took that acronym and thought about what sports meant to me and I said ‘motivation.’

“Then the word MOTTO came and then the other words in the acronym came soon afterwards. So that’s how I came up with MOTTO.”

James says he was having a tough time coming up with a logo for the company after figuring out the name. He started thinking about ways of creating a logo using the letter M because it was the first letter in the name, but once again inspiration hit him at the right time.

“I was watching the Under Armor Combine and I had the remote control in my hand, and I couldn’t come up with a logo,” he continued. “I was sitting there drawing Ms and trying to figure out what the logo was going to be and then I thought about when my coach used to say, ‘Are you going to turn it on today?’  

“I had the remote in my hand and I saw the power button and the Under Armor uniforms had little rings around their logo on their clothes that day, so I took the rings and put it around the power button and said ‘that’s it.’

MOTTO Athletics was not an overnight success for James. He began by selling T-shirts to his friends and turned a small profit from those sales. He went back to studying larger companies once again and figured out a better sales strategy.

While doing his homework on other companies, James came across Russell Athletics. He says he remembers having to wear the Russell Athletics in college and having to hide the emblems from other brands because they were prohibited from wearing them and if caught, they were fined.

“I really wanted to make a brand for the CIAA,” he continued. “You know, something for the Black colleges and Black players.”

Through his research, James noticed that Russell Athletic was making a lot of their profits through bulk order uniforms. He adopted a similar model to fit his business and has continued to build the company in that way.

“That’s when MOTTO really became what it is today; we do uniforms and that’s our niche,” he said. “I am not doing T-shirts anymore and we are not just a printing company, we are a brand company, but we specialize in uniforms.”

James bet on himself by making the move to bulk jersey sales. He took all his previous profits and invested in himself. He said there was no question what direction he wanted to move, so he dove headfirst into his new venture with no apprehension.

“I didn’t really have any second thoughts,” he stated. “I am not worried about anyone else; it’s a hundred people that make uniforms. I am in my own lane, but I am not worried about the next man. It’s enough income for everybody to eat off of. If I’m worried about someone else, I’m never going to make it.

“Nike makes shoes and it’s a hundred other people that makes shoes. You think Nike is going to stop because someone else is making shoes?”

James was able to grow his brand to this level by staying close to the game. He played semi-pro football and has coached for several high schools around the area. 

“Whatever I do, I am involved in every sport, so that’s how I’m getting in there,” he said. “I’ve been establishing this business since 2012, so if somebody thinks they can do something like this, they have to put the work in.”

For the last few years, James has set up shop at his storefront on Hanes Mall Blvd. He explained that the store was not because his business was getting too large, but rather because he wanted his customers to believe in dreams as much as he did.

“I never got so big that I needed this,” he said about the store. “I made it real enough that you believe it, because I already believed it. Whatever I did with MOTTO Athletics is to get the consumer to believe it enough.”

Ameer Watkins is the sales manager for MOTTO Athletics. As a veteran salesman with more than two decades of experience, he connected with James while James was coaching at North Forsyth High School several years ago. Watkins was eager to jump on board with James to bring his expertise in sales to the business.

“It was just his passion of what he was talking about and how he developed it from scratch,” said Watkins about why he connected with James. “With my sales background, I can kind of see how I can direct some things and put some stuff on the forefront.  

“Since we have coached together, we already have a like mindset. It’s about competition, it’s about having fun, it’s about entertainment, but at the end of the day, how can you make this pay for what you’re doing?”

One of the ways Watkins thought he would be able to bring more attention to the business was to partner with The Chronicle.  For the remainder of the football season, MOTTO sports will sponsor the Player of the Week section of the sports page.  

Each week, The Chronicle will select a player from the game of the week that was the catalyst in leading their team to victory. MOTTO will also sponsor the Top Ten teams in the area in the section as well. Watkins says he wanted to connect with The Chronicle because of the neighborhood ties the paper has.

“When it comes to sales, it’s all about driving traffic here,” said Watkins. “With me growing up here, The Chronicle always had a great sports page. I just thought we could get ourselves in the face of this and kind of bring back what they used to do in the day as far as player of the week.

“We are also giving gratitude to the kids that are playing and putting them in the paper and they are going to be looking at it online and the physical paper. We are also driving traffic here at the same time.”

Watkins also came up with the idea of giving MOTTO apparel to the player of the week. He figured that would be a physical reminder to show the players and coaches what the store has to offer. Included with the apparel is a discount coupon for the coaches as well.

As a Black entrepreneur, James also wants to give back to those who have the entrepreneurial spirit. He has a program where young people can work with him as salesmen to learn how to own your own business.

MOTTO Athletics is located at 680 Hanes Mall Blvd. Their phone number is 336-912-3333.

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Timothy Ramsey

Timothy Ramsey

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