As soon as Kate Fitzgerald showed up for her conditioning workout Tuesday morning with the rest of Arizona State University’s beach volleyball team, assistant coach Paul Araiza asked her a question.
“You look exhausted,” Araiza said. “Can you take a nap today?”
“I was like, ‘No, I’m taking a nap Thursday,’ ” Fitzgerald replied. “And he started laughing at me.”
Such is life for a third-year student who is a varsity athlete … and is pursuing a major in biomedical sciences … and a minor in marketing … and is the student body athletic president … and is in ASU’s Tip of the Fork program … and, oh yeah, has her own lifestyle volleyball brand called VBAmerica, which debuted in ASU campus stores this week and includes T-shirts, hoodies, tank tops, hats, etc., for both men and women.
It’s a wonder Fitzgerald ever sleeps.
“If I’m lucky and I’m disciplined, I can get to the end of my day and have 30 minutes before bed to just decompress,” Fitzgerald said.
How Fitzgerald started her clothing brand is a story of need and inspiration, a father and mother’s help, grants from ASU’s Global Sport Institute and the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute, and a bedroom closet big enough to hold boxes and boxes of inventory.
It all began in the summer of Fitzgerald’s junior year of high school. She was playing on different club and high school teams and wanted to wear comfortable volleyball-related clothing that didn’t have a specific team or school name. The idea bounced around in her head for a couple of years but went nowhere — she was focused on her education. Then, in the summer of 2021, the NCAA adopted rules that allowed athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness. The NIL rules, as they’re commonly called, brought Fitzgerald’s dormant idea back to life.
“I was actually in the car driving to California with my dad for a family vacation,” Fitzgerald said. “I was like, ‘Remember this idea I had? There’s still a market for it. It’s still a problem.’”
The problem, as Fitzgerald saw it, is that there wasn’t a generic lifestyle volleyball clothing line that family members, friends — anyone, really — could wear.
“The problem with playing volleyball is that you’re not always necessarily loyal to one team,” Fitzgerald said. “You rotate between high school and club and beach and indoor volleyball. So, the parents coming to all the games were like, ‘Yeah, I want to support my daughter, but I don’t have anything volleyball-related to wear.’”
Fitzgerald began designing the clothing on her iPad during the drive back home from vacation. She had no design experience, so the drawings weren’t exactly professional quality.
In fact, as Fitzgerald is asked about the drawings, she laughs at the memory.
“I honestly was just drawing fonts and saying, ‘OK, do we want a box around it? Do we want it in red? Do we want this font? Do we want that font?’” she said.
Fortunately, Fitzgerald’s father, Bobby, knows something about starting a business, having co-founded a series of restaurants. Bobby helped Fitzgerald file a trademark, set up a website and connect with a graphic designer, who turned Kate’s rudimentary drawings into a professional look.
At that point, it was ASU’s turn to help Fitzgerald turn her idea into a business. After meeting with ASU’s compliance office to make sure she wouldn’t be violating NCAA regulations, Fitzgerald got an email suggesting she meet with Jeff Kunowski, associate director of innovation programs for the Global Sport Institute and the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute.
Kunowski is a mentor in the Sun Devil Athletics’ Venture Challenges, which helps student entrepreneurs of small, sports-related startup companies.
“He told me, ‘I heard about what you’re doing. I’d love to meet with you and learn more,’” Fitzgerald recalled.
As soon as the two met, Kunowksi knew Fitzgerald wasn’t just a dreamer.
“She was a go-getter and just totally motivated to see this through,” Kunowski said. “A lot of times, through our different interactions with students and student athletes, you can tell who’s really just there to get a little bit of an introduction, and then you have those who are really vested in building something and taking advantage of the resources.
“From day one, Kate went above and beyond to schedule sit-downs, meet in person and ask all the right questions to understand what was available to her.”
Kunowski introduced Fitzgerald to a licensing team and helped her map out her business plan and build out the pitch deck she would present to the Global Sport Institute and the Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute in an effort to receive grant funding.
There was just one problem with the pitches: They were scheduled for the same May weekend as the Pac-12 championships in Tucson.
“We had our game, and then I went back to the hotel room with my mom (Shelley),” Fitzgerald said. “I went in her room, practiced and put my computer on top of a suitcase so I could stand to present to the camera. I mean, technology is great.”
Kunowski recalled, “She was worried about being sweaty or out of breath and getting to the right place to do the pitch. We tried to work with her schedule as best as we could, and she got it done. She impressed the right folks.”
Fitzgerald was awarded $5,000 in grant funding from the Global Sport Institute, made her pitch again the next day for the Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute and won an additional $3,000.
“Jeff and the Global Sport Institute has been a huge help in everything,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald said the money has been “life-changing.” She has used it to finish the licensing process at ASU and have inventory for pop-up events. At the 2022 AVP (Association for Volleyball Professionals) Phoenix Championships event in September, she sold $6,000 in VBAmerica gear.
The company is still a small family-owned business — Shelley stores the ordered inventory in Kate’s bedroom closet at the family home — and that’s perfectly OK with Fitzgerald.
She still wants to be a nurse.
She’ll just be one with her own clothing line.
Top photo: ASU junior beach volleyball player Kate Fitzgerald with the lifestyle volleyball clothing line she developed called VBAmerica. Photo courtesy of Kate Fitzgerald
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