Back on the Gridiron
Even with some challenges, football is now in full swing and dealers are eagerly tackling the category.
Back on the Gridiron
Even with some challenges, football is now in full swing and dealers are eagerly tackling the category.
Now that the darkest days of the pandemic are in the rearview mirror, tackle football, the bread and butter of team dealers for generations, is back with a full playbook. The proof is in the numbers: In the 2021-22 school year, 11-player football was the most popular boys’ high school sport, boasting 973,792 participants, according to the 2021-22 NFHS Athletics Participation Summary.
But not all is first-and-goal for football. Even with numbers ticking up yard by yard, the sport did experience a drop of about 11 percent – or about 122,000 students – from a decade earlier.
In the broader scheme, the SFIA’s Top Line Participation Report 2022 reveals that from 2019-2021 tackle football participation ticked up 2.4 percent and in 2021 it attracted 5.2 million participants, a 33 percent decrease from the 14-year high set in 2008. The decline came primarily by the shedding of 800,000 core participants (-23 percent) from 2016-2021, including 429,000 (-17 percent) players age 6-17.
So there is still work to be done to keep the sport on top of the heap. And there is a lot of that work already being done.
The NFL Connection
To help rebuild participation in high school football, the NFHS partnered with the NFL two years ago to launch “This is High School Football” and the effort will continue through 2024. The initiative uses social media – primarily Facebook and Twitter – to highlight the lasting benefits that high school football provides to students.
The three main goals are to promote the value of participating in football in middle school and high school, improve the perception of football at those levels and to restore confidence that the sport is more focused on player protection than ever before. The campaign includes a website – thisishighschoolfootball.com – and encourages coaches and schools to help spread the word about football’s many attributes and to create their own content and tag it with #ThisIsHSFootball.
“We go to followers on social media via coaches, teammates and school administrators who explain the many benefits of high school football, such as friends that you meet, mentorships between coaches and players and the diversity of teams,” says Mark Koski, chief marketing officer for NFHS. “While the program is aimed at coaches and schools, the true target is a middle school parent. There are 19,500 high schools. Football brings the community together on Friday nights and that’s why it’s so important.”
Thus far, the program has been successful and has spurred significant engagement via social media, notes Koski. “We’re all about teaching and creating lifelong positive citizens. We want to build back to one million participants.”
The stakes in the team business are obviously very high. Total spending on football products in 2022 totaled $662.5 million, a 6.5 percent increase from 2021 to 2022, and a jump of 15.4 percent from 2019 to 2022, reveals SFIA’s newly released 2023 Manufacturers’ Sales by Category Report. Sales of balls in 2022 reached $114.8 million, protectives hit $418.4 million, and other/accessories were $129.4 million. Also in 2022, sales of football team uniforms climbed to $384.2 million, up 14.5 percent from 2021. Meanwhile, team football athletic footwear ticked up to $178 million in 2022, a 9.1 percent rise from the prior year, but a drop of 3.7 percent from 2019 to 2022.
Dealers Weigh In
With numbers like that trending in the right direction, team dealers are upbeat, but are also quick to point out that the post-pandemic path to recovery has by no means a smooth journey — and there are still bumps (and perhaps a few potholes) in the road.
“It was a big year for us and the demand for business was there,” reports Bob Fawley, owner of Capitol Varsity Sports in Oxford, OH, pointing to a huge demand for helmets and hardgoods.
However, he adds, completing orders was problematic due to product and parts shortages as well as labor shortages. “I’d hate to call this ‘normal,’ but we’re getting there,” Fawley says. “The sport is still facing din over concussion problems, but there’s no diminished demand and we’re excited about the short term.”
Longer term, he is mostly concerned about rising prices and the state of the economy, meaning that school budgets could become big issues.
Mike Bruno, general manager of Mansfield, MA-based Grogan-Marciano, is still exhaling from the rigors of last season. “Were still scrambling to get helmets and shoulder pads. We had to beg, borrow and steal. It was very chaotic,” he says. “It’s almost like there was a buying spree going on last fall. People got a grasp on what they had and what they needed. We had older inventory pieces around and they all got sold. When the dust settled, we did well, but I’m not sure it was worth the loss of sleep.”
Likewise, Zeke Garretson, co-owner of Garretson’s Sport Center in Greeley, CO, doesn’t have fond recollections of the 2022 season. “We got through it, but it was a nightmare,” he exclaims. “We did more business than I thought we’d do, so it wasn’t a bad year, but it was a difficult one.”
Garretson notes that as far as participation goes, his region is back to normal. However, transportation and logistics of getting goods was problematic and it didn’t catch up to participation.
“It was frustrating because we couldn’t complete a lot of orders, so it was an adjustment for everybody,” he explains. “We’ll still see some scarcity in helmets and pads, but it’ll be rare. I look for a good season for supply of goods.”
Meanwhile, at Jack Pearl’s Sports Center, in Battle Creek, MI, business has gradually returned to normal, but owner Keith Manning observes that participation is down in schools.
Michael Bodart, owner of Hoosier Sporting Goods in Columbus, IN, also reports that business is back on track. “Last season was normal, but football isn’t huge for us. We sell practice packs and spirit wear, but no equipment. It’s really a softgoods category for us,” he explains.
The dealer will add a high school this summer and its other football customers consist primarily of middle schools, a youth travel organization and a youth rec league.
“In our area, there’s no spring football to speak of; it’s a fall sport for us and participation was declining prior to COVID, but it’s bouncing back now from where it was in the mid-2010s, so that’s good news,” he says. “Stock availability is the main issue. Manufacturers are doing better, but we won’t know until June or so what manufacturers have in their warehouses.”
And at West Lebanon, NH-based Stateline Sports, owner Rob Proulx admits that the football category is a bit new for his business. “We had a rec department and a school looking for helmets and we found a supplier for them so it worked out well,” he says, but the challenge has been getting product. “Once suppliers can meet demand, things will be better.”
Although Stateline Sports doesn’t deal with football uniforms, it does handle cleats and helmets, mostly at the retail level. “The supply issues have leveled off and orders have started to come in fully now, so things definitely have improved, but helmets are still a concern,” says Proulx.
Positive Signs Going Forward
“As of today, I’m cautiously optimistic,” says Bruno, at Grogan-Marciano. “Here in the Northeast, people don’t order early. But high-ticket items had to be ordered early or [customers] wouldn’t get them. Now, schools have learned to order early. We have very few schools that will order in February. They used to wait until July 1 for the fall season. Once practice started, we traditionally had helmets and pads in our building, but not anymore. The mindset has changed somewhat, but the schools still tend to order late.”
While a few colleges in his area are dealing with spring practices, Bruno says that the business is mostly quiet at this time of year.
“A lot of equipment that’s coming in has been pre-sold, so we need to figure out if we need more stock to cover ourselves,” he explains. “Lots of youth leagues have cleaned us out of shoulder pads for next season and that’s put a big dent into what’s coming in. It’s a nice problem to have because it gives us time to compensate.”
Garretson, of Garretson’s Sport Center, is also expecting to see business conditions stabilize. “Things will be pretty normal for the coming season. It took a whole year to get people to order early. Anytime you have organization and planning, you have better results,” he says.
Persistent Supply Chain Issues
For nearly all team dealers, supply chain problems have eased but have not completely dissipated.
“The shoulder pad situation should be better than the helmets,” predicts Bruno. “The days of being able to order a helmet and get it in a couple of weeks are not going to happen for a while yet. As the season draws closer, we’ll see what happens. Helmets are my biggest concern because there aren’t a lot of options available.”
He cites last-minute demands as being the most problematic. “We’re trying to stay on top of what we have for inventory and are forecasting what we’ll need pre-season in August. Supply-wise, I’m cautiously optimistic. Manufacturers seem to have more available product, but the proof is in the pudding.”
Manning, at Jack Pearl’s Sports Center, concurs. “The problem is getting helmets in on time for the season. It’s a concern again because manufacturers are not taking any new helmet orders now – it’s taking three to four months for helmet orders – and helmet parts aren’t readily available,” he says, adding that shoulder pads have caused a few hiccups, but that situation wasn’t as bad since they had a lot in stock.
Looking ahead, Manning believes the situation will improve: “We won’t have people placing last-minute orders because they know they won’t get them!”
Capitol Varsity Sports’ Fawley is hoping that supply chain issues will soon even out and get corrected. “Business is now more complex than before COVID,” he points out. “Reconditioners are still waiting around for parts and processing an order is complicated. We might need to go to three different warehouses to fill orders. It’s very time-consuming.”
Reconditioning Remains Challenging
Apparently, there’s plenty of reconditioning business to be had — if only parts and labor were more readily available.
“We’re getting a lot of business thrown at us, but there’s not enough labor or parts,” laments Fawley of Capitol Varsity Sports. “One of the larger reconditioners, Schutt, went from about 200,000 helmets to around 80,000 last year and might do fewer than 80,000 this year. Schools are struggling to get their helmets back. All the plants are filled and they can’t take any more — there’s no capacity. Parts are still an issue and that’s driven prices through the roof.”
Fawley says that although things have improved slightly since the pandemic, more states are expanding to have spring football in some fashion and there’s no capacity for reconditioning.
“We’re still chasing parts from manufacturers and helmets aren’t shipping until this July from some suppliers. When football ends in October and people want their helmets back in March or April, it’s impossible,” he says. “It’s made for a volatile situation.”
By the end of December, Capitol Varsity had about 40,000 helmets in its plant and had to turn down business.
Grogan-Marciano’s Bruno takes an even dimmer view. “The reconditioning business is horrible,” he says. “We reluctantly do a little bit of reconditioning as a service to our customers, but it’s never anything that we pushed a lot. It’s tough to get parts for helmets and there are not enough people to process everything. At least we’re now getting realistic ship dates because reconditioners are being more up front about what they can and can’t handle.”
Reconditioning is a big part of Garretson Sport Center’s football business, but it’s become very costly, upwards of $40 per helmet. Freight is also a big factor and the rates have skyrocketed.
“The freight alone could total $300 to $400 and then add to that $40-plus per helmet, and with football teams already being big, the expense for a high school is considerable,” says Garretson. “It’s a strong business, but a lot of work. Where we can deliver locally to save on freight costs, we will.”
At Jack Pearl’s Sports Center, Manning has noticed some improvement from last year. “We now expect equipment back in May, rather than June and July. During the pandemic, parts and staff shortages were the big problems.”
Like Garretson’s, Manning makes an effort to pick up helmets from his customers and then deliver them to the schools to save on freight costs. “One of our reconditioners is about four hours away, so we get a U-Haul and take everything at once. It saves on freight and we can distribute that cost across a number of schools,” he explains.
Many dealers are now considering how they can better serve the football market post-pandemic.
For Garretson, the secret is to build and maintain strong customer relationships. “Football is one of the biggest income generators for us, so we take care of our relationships. Pricing is important, but service is key,” he says.
Next year, Capitol Varsity Sports will celebrate its 70th anniversary. “We’re doing more related to technology, such as online orders, but the personal touch and relationships are still very important,” says Fawley. “It all comes down to relationships and service.”
And at Grogan-Marciano, encouraging customers to order early, a few months after the previous season ends.
“The more we can get done in December, January and February the better and the less we’ll have to deal with in August,” says Bruno.
He pretty much speaks for everyone when he says, “My hope is that the turmoil of last year will continue to change people’s buying habits. I hope the chaos of last year won’t repeat itself this year.”