Game Plan

Sol Werdiger’s Super Bowl LVI game plan

For the sports jersey maker and Agudath board chairman, his big-game ritual is about more than football. But a Bengals win would be better for business

Agudath Israel of America

Sol Werdiger

Sol Werdiger, founder and CEO of the youth sports apparel manufacturer Outerstuff, has attended every Super Bowl game for more than two decades. 

While he enjoys the competition, Werdiger, who also serves as the chairman of Agudath Israel’s board of trustees, has always made sure to arrive a few days early so he can mingle with Jewish community members while hosting a Friday night Shabbat meal, which typically includes kosher food from local purveyors as well as a ticket raffle. The festive dinners have become something of an annual ritual for the 70-year-old entrepreneur, who enjoys regaling his guests with any number of colorful Super Bowl stories he has collected over the years.

On Friday, Werdiger had been planning what he described as a “kiruv” event with Olami, a nonprofit Jewish organization with which he is an executive mentor, in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of Los Angeles, where the hometown Rams will be facing off against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at SoFi Stadium for the NFL’s 56th championship game. 

The only tradition Werdiger himself will be breaking is that he won’t be there for Shabbat. “The plans have changed only because of some good news,” Werdiger said ecstatically in an interview with Jewish Insider on Wednesday, noting that he had a somewhat more significant Jewish ritual to attend. “Thank God, my grandson had a boy. It’s my first great-grandson’s bris on Friday morning.”

Werdiger, who lives in New York, said he was still sending free tickets to be raffled off on Friday, and he had taken care to ensure that the event would be properly catered — an easy task because “there’s no shortage of kosher food” in Los Angeles. Other cities, he suggested, have proven more challenging. “I was very much looking forward to this event,” Werdiger said. “Regretfully, I had to cancel.”

Instead, Werdiger is now flying into Los Angeles on Saturday night after the Sabbath, as are his children, who will be joining him at the game. “We’ll be there at the Super Bowl,” he told JI, adding that he would be hosting “whoever wants to come into our hospitality suite at one of the downtown hotels” in Los Angeles. “We serve food before the game and after the game. A lot of people know us and know we’re there.”

Next Sunday, Werdiger said he will also be hosting guests for the NBA’s All-Star Game in Cleveland.

The Orthodox leader is grateful for any opportunity to engage in Jewish communal life now that COVID restrictions have eased as the virus wanes in cities across the country. At last year’s Super Bowl in Tampa, Werdiger was unable to host a catered event and engage in Friday night prayers with locals. He had dinner in his hotel room before the game.

From a business standpoint, Werdiger said the situation has also improved considerably over the past year. “Thank God,” Werdiger told JI. “The stadiums are open. People are going. People are shopping at the stores. There’s more enthusiasm around, especially the NFL. There were some great postseason matchups. We had a rough spell over COVID with arenas closed. A big part of our business is selling at the games.”

According to Werdiger, the underdog Bengals are a more reliable source of revenue than the Rams. “We get all the if-win orders in advance,” he said. While he emphasized that “we like both teams,” Werdiger suggested that, “business-wise,” a Bengals victory would lead to more jersey sales than a Rams win.

Despite his line of work, Werdiger admitted that he is by no means “a sports-crazy guy.” Over the years, he said he has often questioned how he ended up in the sports apparel industry. “There’s a reason that God puts everybody into a position that they’re in,” he told JI, “and I always said to myself, ‘Why has God put me into sports?’”

He has found the answer, he said, by joining with Jewish community members of varying religious persuasions in a manner that has imbued an otherwise secular American pastime such as football with an extra layer of meaning. “You can make a difference at the game,” Werdiger said. “We have had so many stories at the Super Bowl where we’ve had minyan and where a guy said, ‘I didn’t know, that’s great, I have to say Kaddish for a parent,’ or a guy came and davened with us for Shabbat and people came to us and ate kosher meals.”

Such experiences have extended beyond games like the Super Bowl as Werdiger has participated in a program initiated by the late Orthodox rebbetzin, Esther Jungreis, to engage in outreach to unaffiliated Jewish families.

“When they come to my office and they see there’s a guy who makes sports jerseys, it’s so exciting for them,” he said. “You can really show them that you could be Jewish, you could be religious, you could eat kosher, and you could close on the Shabbat and close on the chagim and still be successful. It’s a very impactful message to these kids, because sports resonates with all of them.”

After one such visit last year around the Super Bowl, Werdiger said that a boy who was about to have his bar mitzvah insisted to his parents that the event be kosher. The demand prompted an alarmed call to Werdiger’s office from the boy’s father, who wanted to convey that it would cost an additional $50,000 to make the accommodation.

Still, the man, whom Werdiger declined to name, seemed happy to honor his son’s request in the end. “I ended up going to the bar mitzvah,” Werdiger recalled. “It was an elaborate, fancy bar mitzvah, and he kept on bringing me over to his rabbi, and said, ‘Here’s the guy who made me make this bar mitzvah kosher. It never would have been kosher.’ So you talk about a story that resonates around the Super Bowl, I think that’s a great story. It’s the power of sports. It gives me a better understanding.”

“There’s no question,” Werdiger concluded, “that the reason God put us into the sports business is because He knew that we’ll use it beyond just selling a lot of jerseys.”