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Meet the 27-Year-Old Whose Start-Up Makes Custom Cleats for Aaron Judge, Jacob DeGrom and More of Baseball's Biggest Stars

Koji Watanabe | Getty Images

Alex Katz, a minor league pitcher in the Chicago Cubs' organization, dreams of playing in the World Series one day.

For now, he'll have to settle for making it there as an entrepreneur.

In 2017, struggling to financially survive on a minor leaguer's paltry salary, Katz launched Stadium Custom Kicks, a start-up that hand-paints custom athletic cleats and sneakers. Initially, that just meant cool-looking shoes for himself, teammates and friends.

Word quickly spread: Clients now include All-Stars like outfielder Aaron Judge and Cy Young award-winning pitcher Jacob deGrom. Earlier this year, Katz, 27, even made custom shoes for all of his Team Israel teammates at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

And on Tuesday, when the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros take the field for Game 1 of the World Series, Katz will be watching carefully: Atlanta's Eddie Rosario, Tyler Matzek and William Contreras are Stadium Custom Kicks clients, alongside Houston's Jose Siri.

Katz runs his business during his free time and offseasons, brainstorming design concepts and hand-painting shoes alongside 21 other sneaker artists. Stadium Custom Kicks typically churns out roughly 130 shoes per month to players, teams and customers who order directly from the company's website.

The start-up aims to reach 2,000 pairs sold annually by the end of 2021, Katz tells CNBC Make It. Prices range from $150 to $995, depending on the artwork and cost of the shoes. Katz declined to comment on his company's annual revenue, but CNBC Make It estimates that the business could finish the year with roughly $700,000 in sales.

Stadium Custom Kicks has now made cleats and sneakers for more than 450 different MLB players, Katz says. In December, he adds, at least 75 NFL players plan to sport his cleats to promote charities for the league's My Cause, My Cleats program.

Katz says his dream of pursuing both of his passions, baseball and sneakers, has already come true. Now, the "ultimate goal" is an ambitious one: build on his business' early success while climbing the baseball ladder to the majors.

"Obviously, anything worthwhile is not easy, and takes a lot of work," Katz says. "Otherwise, everybody would be doing it."

From 'sneaker-head' to entrepreneur

Katz says he's been a "sneaker-head" since his childhood in Long Island, New York. At St. John's University, he starred on the baseball team while studying sports management and business.

And while he relished being selected in the 27th round of the 2015 MLB draft by the Chicago White Sox, he says he always saw himself starting a business.

In 2017, Katz was preparing to pitch in the World Baseball Classic tournament — eligible for Team Israel due to his Jewish heritage, he later became an Israeli dual citizen to compete in the Olympics — when he decided that his footwear could use a fresh look.

So he and a friend airbrushed a pair of blue Nike cleats with silver acrylic paint, and added the Israeli team's logo. "They weren't that great," Katz says. "But obviously, you've got to start somewhere, right?"

Katz posted pictures on Instagram. The rest is history: Once other ballplayers saw his cleats, they started peppering him with questions about where and when they could score a pair of their own.

After only a few weeks, Katz got his first Major League request via Instagram direct message: a few pairs of customized cleats for Judge and then-Yankees outfielder Rob Refsnyder.

And as the number of requests grew, due to social media and word of mouth, Katz realized he had an actual business on his hands.

Baseball's embrace of individuality

Before November 2018, Major League Baseball's uniform rules were strict: no alterations or illustrations, and shoes had to be the team's primary color.

Today, players can sport even the craziest, most colorful cleats during games once the designs are approved by their team and the league. Katz says the league typically approves designs that have "no profanity and no corporate logos."

MLB's rule changes opened the door financially for Stadium Custom Kicks and other footwear artists — and, Katz says, it's been beneficial for the game itself.

"Being able to express yourself, I think, is super important," he says. "Especially when it comes to baseball, which is a pretty traditional sport."

Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association who played in the majors for 15 years, agrees. "It helps them create a stronger connection with fans as individuals, and benefits players, fans and the industry," Clark says.

After the rule change, MLB reached out to Stadium Custom Kicks about becoming a league-authorized cleats provider, Katz says. It was a big moment, but Katz says he didn't really feel star-struck until 2020, when DeGrom — a star New York Mets pitcher — donned a particularly special pair of the company's cleats.

DeGrom sported the cleats, which honored the late Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver, during his final start of the season. He then donated the shoes to More Than Baseball, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance and career guidance to minor leaguers, which auctioned them off for $8,000.

"That was pretty special," Katz says.

And during deGrom's start, the pitcher threw the fastest pitch of his career, at 102 miles per hour. "I'm not sure if it was because of the cleats, or what," says Katz.

The challenge of living two dreams: 'We're never going to settle'

Even as his business grows, Katz is still plugging away in the minors.

A minor leaguer's life can be transient, and many players live paycheck to paycheck. In six years, Katz has played for four different MLB organizations, plus a season with the Independent League's Long Island Ducks.

This year, he pitched at the Double-A level. The average salary for Double-A players like Katz hovers around $12,600 for roughly five months of work, according to the Sporting News. Katz declined to reveal his exact Cubs salary, but confirmed to CNBC Make It that he makes more money from Stadium Custom Kicks than from his baseball career.

"I didn't want to be forced to retire from baseball because I can't afford to play," he says. "I'm grateful every single day for having the business because it's allowing me to chase the [MLB] dream."

During the offseason, Katz paints a couple of pairs of shoes per week. Otherwise, he works during every minor league team's all-too-common five-hour bus rides to away games.

"Some guys are bringing their PlayStations [or] playing poker," he says. "And I'm working on the business, coming up with some cool designs, working with our different artists and just making sure everything's running smoothly."

Katz says it's now hard to imagine giving up either dream. Even if he does carve out a successful MLB career, the business is here to stay.

"We're never going to settle," he says. "We're gonna keep growing."

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