Olney entrepreneur outfits young athletes

Mike Crawford opened Holla Sporting Goods, 5625 N. 5th Street, in January.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

As far as Mike Crawford knows, he runs the only Black-owned sporting goods store in America.

He opened Holla Sporting Goods in January on Olney’s North 5th Street corridor, and he registered with the Eastern Minority Supplier Council, a group supporting minority-owned businesses.

They couldn’t find another shop like his, Crawford said.

“To my knowledge, to their knowledge, and you can Google it up,” he added. “There’s no Black-owned sporting goods store.”

A cursory online search turns up a Chicago running shop, a sports apparel store in York, Pennsylvania, and plenty of athletic attire brands — nobody selling shoulder pads and baseball gloves, though.

Crawford left his job as a city housing inspector to pursue what had been a long-time side gig, making T-shirts and uniforms for youth sports teams and leagues.

He leased his storefront, which is just north of Olney Avenue, in November, and, two months after the grand opening, Philadelphia recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus.

Local athletic leagues were brought to a standstill, but Crawford picked up some masks shortly before the pandemic hit while visiting a Pakistan-based manufacturer that he partially owns.

“I had the edge and the jump start on it and brought masks back with me,” he said. “That kept the doors open pretty much the month of March.”

In a 30-day period, Holla did about $31,000 in mask sales, he said, and now the store carries masks with the emblems of just about every NFL and NBA team, as well as logos for sororities and fraternities.

Crawford has been stocking up on neck gaiters because he believes they will be preferred this winter as people look to keep warm.

He’s a self-described hustler, an entrepreneur who’s always looking for where he can find his next advantage.

A nearby Modell’s closed after it was looted and the company declared bankruptcy, so Crawford went over, spoke to the liquidator and bought Philadelphia-themed merchandise, including a rack-full of Carson Wentz jerseys.

Holla Sporting Goods is on North 5th Street just north of Olney Avenue. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

So far, his biggest challenge has been trying to convince major equipment suppliers, such as Rawlings, Wilson and Schutt, to sell through his store.

Part of the reason he opened a brick-and-mortar shop was because those brand-name companies said they wouldn’t supply him if he didn’t have one, according to Crawford. Many have existing contracts with other local sporting goods businesses, he added.

The journey to opening a physical store started about 10 years ago, when Crawford bought a $900 heat press to make custom shirts.

He planned to sell them as a fundraiser to help his son’s football team. Crawford wanted the squad outfitted like the Oregon Ducks, a college team known for their flashy jerseys.

Crawford has never received any formal training on apparel or clothing design.

“Anything that I’ve learned from the T-shirt business has been from YouTube,” he said.

It took off, and he became known as the neighborhood shirt guy. People began coming to him for all their custom print jobs.

At some point, Crawford purchased a trailer and took it to track meets and sports tournaments, burning messages on arm sleeves, headbands and other items.

Crawford first traveled to Pakistan a few years ago and partnered with a vendor there after trying out different fabrics.

“Being a coach and a parent and a person who played football, I know what to look for,” he said.

Mike Crawford left his job as a housing inspector for the City of Philadelphia to start his own brick-and-mortar business. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

He played football from a young age, becoming a star at Mastbaum High School who went on to play for Cheyney University of Pennsylvania following a successful junior college career at Thaddeus Stevens College.

Crawford also worked giving morning sports reports on a local radio station and was a coach for his sons’ football teams.

He tapped into the relationships he developed from those experiences to build his client base.

Holla supplies uniforms to many high school and youth sports teams in Philadelphia, leagues in South Jersey and Delaware, and even a high school in Fremont, California.

“Once people saw the quality of work and the word spread, then the company just started growing,” Crawford said.

Crawford’s store is named after his college nickname. Everyone calls him “Mike Holla.”

He wanted to open Holla in Olney because he grew up in the neighborhood. His commute is short — a two-block walk.

“This is where I shopped at as a kid,” Crawford said. “Opening the store up here was like coming back to the neighborhood and just serving the community.”