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Air Ball


Let’s put this in basketball terms that everyone can understand — for most team dealers the winter season for basketball has been an air ball. While the scorebook looks a little better in states that have been more liberal in allowing indoor sports in early 2021, most dealers are filling their stat sheets at the high school and recreation levels with a bunch of zeroes.

The final score certainly varies drastically from state to state and even by municipality due to the hodge-podge of rules and mandates handed down by state and local governments and agencies and, not surprisingly, dealers in locales that are open for business are faring better than those in regions that are closed. But overall the air has certainly been taken out of the sport this season.

On a more hopeful note, as knowledge about the virus increases and with vaccines now making their debut, sports are starting to return. At the high school level, Dr. Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), reported in December that 22 states had already played regular-season basketball games and 18 other states were scheduled to begin their seasons in the new year.

“Unfortunately, the pause button is still in place in some areas of the country,” Dr. Niehoff said in a recent message to NFHS members. “State associations are working with leaders on a safe return date, so very soon we believe high school sports and activities will be happening across all 50 states.” (For more on Dr. Niehoff’s comments, see the article on page 10.)

What is working against the full return of basketball is that not all sports are equal when it comes to health and safety concerns. Indeed, a recent article from The Oregonian featured Dr. Carlos Crespo, a professor in the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health and Fellow of American College of Sports Medicine, who ranked basketball as the highest-risk sport among those discussed — equal with football and wrestling but less safe in a pandemic environment than ice hockey and field hockey, soccer, lacrosse, baseball/softball and volleyball.

Dr. Crespo contended that basketball combines all of the possible factors that could lead to increased risk, namely that it is primarily an indoor sport that features close proximity for an extended period of time, and it’s nearly impossible to eliminate contact. “There is a lot of huffing and puffing,” Dr. Crespo said. “There is close contact between two individuals. There is very little you can do for protective gear.”

Western Hardcourt Woes

The situation for the hoops season is perhaps most dire for team dealers in the Western U.S., who are having a very difficult time due to widespread shutdowns and lockdowns prompted by soaring virus contagion rates. Winter sports, like most fall sports last year, have been erased off the schedule for many.

Eric Ericsson, owner of Bellingham, WA-based Prostock Athletic Supply, one of the largest team dealers in the Pacific Northwest, laments that no indoor sports have been played since last April, and basketball might not resume until sometime in March this year at the earliest.

“There are tight restrictions on sports across the board and the West Coast has been extremely challenged by the whole process,” he says. “Everything has basically halted, but we did some college business at the end of the year because they anticipated they would play — which they’re not. And they’re not allowed to travel to other states to play. Travel leagues aren’t supposed to play, either.”

Most of Prostock’s basketball uniform business – 95 percent of which is sublimated – is in a holding pattern and even hardgoods such as backboards and rims aren’t in demand.

“We really haven’t sold basketball uniforms since Fall 2019,” Ericsson says, noting that schools are instead spending resources on getting kids back into school buildings. In this environment, online team stores have been crucial. “The online world is dominating right now and this will continue, no doubt. I anticipate that this fall in October or November, we’ll start to see a return to normal.”

The situation is slightly better in Colorado, but still difficult by any measure. “Business has been slow and it’s been down. We won’t start basketball games until January 25, and we’re behind like a lot of states,” says Todd Garretson, owner of Garretson’s Sports Center in Greeley, CO.

“Obviously, if teams hadn’t planned to buy uniforms earlier, it’s taking longer to get them now,” he adds, pointing out that they are doing lots of quick fill-ins for practice gear, but shoes are always a challenge.

“We did deliver some custom uniforms and have been able to handle a lot of rush orders because we do a lot of in-house work such as screenprinting and embroidery.”

When uniform orders do come in, Garretson says sublimation has now become mainstream and he’s seeing shorter shorts for both boys and girls. Interestingly, he and many other dealers across the country have noticed that there is an ongoing sweatshirt shortage, particularly black adult hoodies in larger sizes.

Garretson says his business is doing “quite a bit with travel teams, which has been a saving grace.” He suggests that while school budgets aren’t affected right now, next year they might be. “Booster clubs and parent organizations are helping to pick up the slack, with or without the pandemic,” he notes.

Garretson’s also operates a full-line retail store, which has helped take a lot of the pressure off of team sales. Filling special orders for non-sports entities such as businesses, fire fighters and hospitals has become part of the mix, as have online stores, which have been growing by double-digits every year for the past 10 years and “will be a big piece of the puzzle in the future,” he says.

“Realistically, we’ll get back to normal this summer and overall the basketball business will be steady to up in the year ahead. The leagues start in summer and because kids just had a shorter season, they’ll be anxious to play,” Garretson comments. “The pandemic won’t go away, but people are getting to the point where they need to get back to normal — not only for the kids’ sake, but for their own mental health.”

Midwest Bouncing Back

In the Midwest, basketball started to gain some momentum in early January following cancellations and delays in the first part of the season in late 2020 due to COVID-19.

“We haven’t had much problem — the smaller vendors gained a lot of our business because they had fewer delivery interruptions compared to the big brands like Nike and Adidas,” says Mike Blythe, owner of Blythe’s Athletics in Valparaiso, IN. Sublimation remains a trend and is not dependent on the major brands. “School budgets are tight, so if they can get high-quality items, lower prices and faster delivery, this could turn heads.”

Blythe points out that while teams drive part of the business (uniforms and sometimes shoes), the other part comes from fanwear. But in the current COVID-19 climate, only parents are allowed to attend their kids’ games, which has depressed fanwear sales. Also, the shortened football season (the sport is usually a dependable money generator) has resulted in cuts to athletic budgets, which in turn has weakened the basketball business. Moreover, because hoops teams have fewer players compared with football, the volume of business is proportionately smaller.

“Basketball is primarily a uniform business for us, but there’s less to sell and fewer players to sell to. We’ll be happy to break even in sales this year — we usually aim to increase seven to 12 percent every year,” says Blythe. “We’ve found that there’s more money to be saved on the back end through cost-cutting than made on the front end.”

Fortunately for Blythe, travel leagues in basketball-crazy Indiana are just getting started and they are doing well there. “My hope is that because a lot of schools didn’t spend this year, they’ll get new uniforms next year,” he adds.

Basketball is being played this winter in Kansas, reports Randy Nill, branch manager at BSN Sports in Kansas City, KS, although orders came in very late due to the pandemic. Footwear has been a bit sketchy, but practice gear, nets and score books are doing well.”

“We’ve been able to deliver for the 2020-21 season, but we have a few Nike backorders,” he admitted early in the season. “While games are going forward, people are being very careful, especially with the scheduling of games — there’s less out-of-town travel.”

The high school hoops season started on time this year and basketball at the AAU level did play last summer, which combined to keep the hoops business relatively strong.

“The biggest issue was being able to get into gymnasiums that typically are rented out during the summer,” Nill explains. “By next fall, hopefully all the kids will be back in school full-time.”

In 2021-22, basketball will end in April, and shortly thereafter coaches tend to order uniforms. “There were some backups due to hurricane season, but I don’t foresee any big issues,” Nill adds. “We’re dealing mostly with sublimated uniforms, which take four to six weeks.” Speaking of sublimation, Nill says that almost everything is sublimated these days because the end product looks sophisticated, is easier to make and the prices continue to drop.

Of course, online team stores are a big part of BSN’s business and have logged growth every year. “There’s a big initiative to grow that part of the business and we include online shops that schools and teams can use for fundraising,” says Nill.

Southern Comfort

In many parts of the South, there has thankfully been little if any interruption in the basketball business, with youth basketball, which is a winter/early spring sport in his region, getting underway on schedule and high school selling done as usual in late 2020.

“Things have been as close to normal as possible,” remarks Jerry Lavender, owner of Columbus, MS-based Sports Specialty. “High school basketball is now done and we’ve moved onto spring sports. We had an issue earlier – Nike and Adidas had inventory problems – but smaller manufacturers adjusted a little faster.”

Nevertheless, Lavender is concerned about what happens next. “Generally, next year’s buy depends on this year’s revenue and this year’s revenue was extremely low,” he points out. “It will be another year before things get back to normal. I think Spring 2022 will be normal, especially once the vaccine kicks in.”

Lavender points out that the online store part of his business is “extremely important and will continue to increase — we open and close an online store every other day.”

Crunch Time in Connecticut

After being put on hold by Governor Ned Lamont, youth sports in the Constitution State were scheduled to finally resume on January 19. “For this season, high school participation in basketball will be consistent and travel leagues will stay the same with no drop-off,” says Mike Billings, COO of Billings Sports in Meriden, CT. “Sales of basketballs, hardgoods and uniforms have all been fairly normal.”

From a uniform trend perspective, Billings, like most other dealers, is seeing demand for sublimation increasing at all levels, from college and high school down to travel teams.

One of the biggest challenges for Billings Sports was that teams and coaches were hesitant to open online stores in the fall, which resulted in lots of backlash from people who wanted to buy gear.

“Those who opened stores were very successful and there was some surprise that parents and other boosters still wanted gear whether their kids played or not. Now we need coaches to get on the ball and open up team stores for orders,” Billings says.

Because there might not be full graduation ceremonies this year, graduation packages (such as T-shirts, hoodies and masks) will be important. “These aren’t necessarily team stores, but we’ve learned that there’s more out there than just the athletic side of the business.”