A Publication of WTVP

The hometown team is a national force in the sports printing business.

For much of my childhood, baseball cards were an obsession, with countless summer days spent trading with the kids from the neighborhood. Although I no longer count on my youthful investments to build any sort of nest egg, I look back fondly on those fragile pieces of cardboard.

The heyday of card fever may be past, but they remain a fixture in the baseball world. While the Topps Company has a lock on the major league market, three companies are licensed to produce minor league cards—and one of them is located right here in Peoria.

When Albert Pujols put up MVP numbers for the Peoria Chiefs in 2000, it was MultiAd Sports who produced his card. When Ricky Williams played baseball the year before his Heisman Trophy win, he struck the famous pose on a MultiAd card. And when Michael Jordan dabbled in the national pastime in the mid-‘90s, MultiAd was the only company to print a baseball program featuring the hoops legend.

Big Names in North Peoria
But baseball cards are just a small piece of the MultiAd portfolio. And while the sports division is a relatively recent addition, its roots go back to 1945, when it got its start in downtown Peoria. Today, the company employs about 250 and has a hand in everything from printing and advertising to technology and design, working in industries from real estate to retail. You may have heard of some of their clients: Kraft Foods, Panasonic, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola.

MultiAd’s Food Services Group has long been a main driver for the company. For 40 years, its Kwikee portal system has managed tens of thousands of product images for manufacturers of consumer goods. Today, 98 percent of the country’s top 200 retailers use Kwikee to ensure their products are accurately represented in the marketplace.

Tucked away in its headquarters in north Peoria, MultiAd captures thousands of product images each year. Of its three in-house photography studios, two are dedicated solely to work for Walmart and Sam’s Club. The company also provides warehouse fulfillment services for Walmart and other retailers—packaging and shipping low-run orders from Amazon and other ecommerce sites—in addition to offering IT development and hosting websites for clients ranging from Buffalo Wild Wings to PNC Bank.

Landing the Home Team
On the print side, MultiAd handles everything from design and pre-press to printing, fulfillment and mailing. Today, sports printing accounts for more than half of this business, but it began as just a small niche. “We decided to develop a new market, and what developed became MultiAd Sports,” said Jim Garner, senior vice president, who has been with the company for nearly 20 years. “It started out as a baby, and then took over.”

Joe Dalfonso has watched MultiAd’s sports division grow from the very beginning, both from inside and outside the company. As Bradley University’s sports communications director from 1976 to 1998, Dalfonso was charged with producing media guides for university sports. In the early ‘80s, a MultiAd representative called him up, hoping to land this business.

“They had the press time and the know-how, and they could talk the talk,” he recalled. The Peoria-based company had plans to approach other universities, but it needed to land the hometown team first. With a bit of persistence from the rep, Dalfonso was persuaded. “And so, [Bradley was] the first ‘kingpin’ to move our stuff over here.”

The sports work grew slowly but steadily, and was eventually dubbed MultiAd Sports. “Once they got a number of other reputable clients, like Illinois State and the IHSA, they put a tag on the division,” Dalfonso explained. By the time he landed at MultiAd in 1998, the firm was well established in the sports world, and with his many contacts, Dalfonso was a perfect fit.
Sports Printing and Beyond
From cards and catalogs to calendars and schedules, MultiAd Sports has quietly become a leader in the industry. They are the official printer of the Baseball Winter Meetings, the Missouri Valley Conference and the Illinois High School Association. Their work for the U.S. Soccer Federation has taken them to the last four World Cups and the last three Summer Olympics. They’ve done high-level work for NASCAR, and locally, they handle printing for the Chiefs, Rivermen and Bradley University, as well as ISU, Eureka College, and both Western and Eastern Illinois University.

They have in-house capabilities to handle all aspects of the traditional print cycle, as well as digital solutions to accommodate short runs and personalized pieces, mobile apps and other technology services. “From print to mobile, and everything in between,” says Garner. “We can take those print pieces and find other channels for that content to be distributed however the client wants.”

Brian Jeske has been with MultiAd since 1995 and has watched the sports division blossom. His largest client is Nelligan Sports Marketing, a firm that maintains the media rights to numerous college properties, including Rutgers, Providence, Marquette, Princeton and Brown. “We handle their game programs, mostly for football and basketball,” says Jeske. “We’ve been working with them since they were founded 12 years ago.”

While managing sales and client relationships, Jeske attends a lot of trade shows; in fact, he owes his job to one. Fresh out of college, he was at the 1994 Baseball Winter Meetings, the official gathering for Minor League and Major League Baseball. A large trade show features all of the big hitters in baseball merchandise—Rawlings, New Era, Spalding—and there, Jeske introduced himself to MultiAd. He started with the company the following month and never looked back.

New Markets for Collectibles
Jeske’s networking has helped lead the sports division into new markets. A few years ago, he picked up work from Lelands, one of the world’s largest sports auction houses. Today, MultiAd Sports works with about 10 auction houses across the country, “with hopefully more to come.” These companies specialize in collectibles and memorabilia—sports cards, game worn jerseys, autographed balls, helmets, trophies and the like.

In addition to designing and printing the catalogs, MultiAd captures images for auction items, much as its Food Services Group does for the Kwikee portal. One St. Louis-based company sends its memorabilia to Peoria to be professionally shot in MultiAd’s studios. “We have to get a special insurance rider for the perceived value of everything they send,” adds Jeske. “Some of these cards are worth tens of thousands of dollars!”

MultiAd has designed and printed Minor League Baseball cards since the early 1990s. It’s a simple process. The client submits photos and copy, and selects a template for the front and back of the cards; MultiAd prints, cuts, packages and mails them off. “It’s about a three-week turnaround,” says Jeske.

This work involves the company with the big leagues and their strict rules about what can and cannot go on cards. Minor league cards cannot feature the nicknames of major league teams, for example. “So, if a player on a Triple-A team played for the Chicago Cubs in the past, [the card] can only say ‘Chicago,’” explains Jeske. “It can’t say ‘Cubs’ because Topps has exclusive use of Major League trademarks, and the nickname itself is part of the trademark.” During the Winter Meetings, Jeske and Dalfonso meet with representatives from Major League Baseball to go over any rules that are new or have changed from the previous year.

Game Day Delivery
In the sports printing business, timeliness is the utmost concern. “For the majority of what we do, there is a game day involved,” says Jeske, “so you can’t miss deadlines. We have to assure our clients that we will deliver their programs in time for the game.”

That commitment has led to some unusual scenarios. “We’ve put [reps] on airplanes to New York with programs to get them there in time,” says Dalfonso. “We delivered a football program once to Appalachian State after they’d had a tornado. We had to get a trucking firm to meet someone halfway up the mountain, and they came down the mountain to get the programs, because the game was not going to be cancelled!”

“Eighty percent of what we do is time-sensitive, so we cannot miss,” he adds. “We’ve been getting football programs to Boone, North Carolina, for five years, and if we can get them there, we can get them anywhere.”

Reliability is another point of pride for the company. Among the websites MultiAd hosts on its servers is “The day they announce the football pairings, it’s like Armageddon at the IHSA,” says Dalfonso. It’s not unusual for the site to receive a half million hits in just a few hours—a situation that led to the servers crashing on the previous supplier. “That’s how we got the contract,” remarks Garner.

“The first year we hosted it, we must have had 16 people on standby,” Dalfonso adds. “It was a bellweather day. They got everything they needed.” Since then, Pairings Day comes and goes without a hitch.
Seasons in Swing

This summer, MultiAd will print a great many cards and programs for baseball, but with football in full gear and basketball right on its heels, the third and fourth quarters are prime time for the company. “Football is the No. 1 sport at any college,” says Garner. “That’s where the revenues are generated, so there are a lot of opportunities there.”

The work really begins to heat up in November, when the football and basketball seasons overlap. “College basketball traditionally opened the weekend of Thanksgiving,” explains Dalfonso. “Now, it’s two or three weeks earlier. Football and basketball morph into one season for about six weeks, and so does our business.”

And like most businesses, the Great Recession took a toll on Multi-
Ad Sports. “We were hit big time,” said Dalfonso. “Colleges looked for ways to cut back on expenses, and the first things that went were the traditional media guides…so a business that brought in half a million to $750,000 disappeared in 18 months.”

And while printed media guides may never come back, “programs don’t go away,” he adds. “They’re moneymakers for the schools, and someone has to print them. That’s what we’re focusing on now.”

The perks of the job sure don’t hurt. “If you enjoy sports, we work in the best business,” chuckles Garner. “We go to a lot of ballgames!” And with access to tickets for the NCAA, World Series and the All-Star Game, they are able to make their clients very happy. iBi