Cubs Insider

Lockout deals Obvious 'ramifications' for T-shirt biz

Cubs Insider
Joe Johnson

Lockouts suck.

Might seem obvious. Might even seem like a T-shirt idea.

In fact, if the Cubs season ever starts, you might even be able to see a T-shirt like that on display before or after a game at the store on the corner of Clark and Grace, a block north of Wrigley Field.

That’s where Obvious Shirts founder Joe Johnson found prime retail space in the neighborhood to take advantage of the baseball season and neighborhood foot traffic to expand his mostly online T-shirt business that has boomed since its happenstance start six years ago.

Just in time for Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball to start canceling regular-season games for the first time in 27 years.

“As a fan first, I’m upset,” Johnson said from outside his unfinished storefront in Wrigleyville. “As a businessman second, it’s definitely going to have ramifications.”

Obvious, right?

So’s this: The longer MLB’s lockout delays the start of the season as players and owners haggle over a new labor contract, the more Wrigleyville businesses take another gut punch to their businesses on the heels of two years of pandemic-related losses.

RELATED: MLB delivers another blow to Wrigleyville businesses

By the nature of his online sales base, Johnson has some hedge against the more severe financial hardships faced by local businesses such bars and restaurants — many of which count on the baseball season for 70 percent or more of their revenues.


But his story is an example of how pervasive the impact across a wide array of industries the second-longest labor stoppage in MLB history figures to have on local economies driven by game traffic.

“We spent a lot of time scouting different locations, and we stumbled upon this one and got super lucky to be one block north of the stadium,” Johnson said. “We’re expecting big crowds and a big populace of fans to stop by either before or after the games. So not having that is going to definitely hurt.

“We’re lucky we’re also online, but we’re putting a lot of our time and efforts in getting this rocking and rolling. So, yeah, it’s going to affect business pretty substantially.”

Obvious Shirts will 'definitely hurt' from MLB Lockout

Devin Wenzel, a former University of Cincinnati teammate of Cubs outfielder Ian Happ, is Johnson’s co-manager helping run the growing business, as well as a Phillies-turned-Cubs loyalist.

Mostly, he’s a fan, like Johnson.

Neither saw this coming, this collision of fan and business emotions with a lockout that began Dec. 2.

“I know it’s really disappointing for everyone that is just a pure baseball fan,” Wenzel said, “and it’s just not something that we ever prepared for as a business.”

Devin Wenzel and Johnson
NBC Sports Chicago
Devin Wenzel and Johnson

The timing of the opening of the new store — less than a block from their first brick-and-mortar location that opened last July on Grace — was as obvious as the brand: The electric atmosphere of Opening Day.

That was supposed to be April 4 against the Cardinals. Now it doesn’t even show up on the team’s website, wiped from the schedule.

“We’ve been waiting a long time to have a retail store, and we want to give the fans a place where they can come and shop and get a shirt or sweatshirt before or after the game,” Johnson said. “Not having that, especially on an Opening Day-type atmosphere was a huge loss for us.”

Anybody who knows the brand well and has seen the shirts worn regularly by Cubs players in recent years, probably knows what the next obvious question for Obvious Shirts might be:

Any new Rob Manfred shirts in the works and what might they say?

“That is the No. 1 question we have gotten in the past 48 to 72 hours,” said Johnson, who doesn’t have as obvious an answer.

Turns out the “player-centric” company that began because Johnson made himself a custom shirt to support Jake Arrieta is dually licensed by both MLB and the players’ union.

“I feel like the kid who is going through his parents’ divorce, and each parent is saying one thing about the other parent,” Johnson said. “It’s a tough avenue because I have to make both mom  and dad happy and not hate me. I don’t want to get locked out of my own house.”

Imagine Rob Manfred having shared custody of you.

“I could run away,” Johnson said.


Someday that might get an even bigger laugh than it does on this cold day on a too-quiet corner of Wrigleyville. Maybe even someday soon.

For now?

“I just want baseball back,” he said. “That’s all.”

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