The coronavirus pandemic is forcing the soccer business to adapt to a ‘new normal.’
In this coronavirus-addled year, participation in team sports was – and continues to be – dictated by state and local governments and agencies. The policies, often based on ever-fluctuating rates of transmission and hospitalizations, vary wildly from state to state and even town to town and this patchwork of mandates has impacted participation and the specialty team business on all levels.
The now-mainstream sport of soccer in America is certainly no exception, with fall schedules constantly disrupted in the parts of the country that even attempted to play a semblance of a season. School teams struggled to get those seasons in and elite travel teams faced their own participation, field availability and safety challenges.
While dealers in regions that have been “open” have generally fared better than dealers in locales that are “closed,” the turmoil, replete with these forced shutdowns and cancelled or postponed soccer seasons, has taken a severe financial and psychological toll on nearly everyone, and some team businesses may never recover. For a sport that’s been in an ongoing fight to boost participation and awareness here in the U.S., the contagion’s rapid spread has packed a hard wallop.
A trip across the country shows just how severe that impact has been
Grim Out West
For example, in the western part of the country the situation remains grim. Dan Carey, owner of Fort Worth, TX-based Carey’s Sporting Goods, reports that there was no soccer season in the state this year, although the sport is expected to get back underway in January or February. “We did manage to pre-sell lots of uniforms, but soccer is dead here for now,” he says.
In Arizona, too, soccer is on hiatus. Shawn Shams, owner of Soccer Mall, in Phoenix, bemoans the fact that business was tough before the pandemic due to big vendors competing with dealers by undercutting pricing online. And it certainly has gotten worse since March.
“A lot of soccer stores are shutting down,” he says. “They can’t compete against the big brands and then cope with COVID on top of that. The uniform business is down, there’s too much inventory and it’s hard to get rid of it all. Around here, COVID is just speeding up the demise of soccer specialty,” he adds.
Until very recently, soccer players hadn’t been allowed onto fields in California, either. “Soccer didn’t go this year at all,” laments Kim Karsh, owner of California Pro Sports in Harbor City, CA, who reports the high school season is postponed until February or March 2021. The club season was just getting started in late fall, but those teams have to pay a premium for fields.
“There have been no games, practices or forming of teams this year due to COVID-19, meaning participation was down 100 percent,” he adds. “Basically, everything shut down and nobody could use the fields for six months.”
To help the business stay viable, Karsh pivoted to selling whatever he could sell — corporate apparel is important because nobody is buying team uniforms or field gear.
“Lots of clubs are using what they have from last season and are just filling in where needed,” he says, although he is selling some retail soccer balls, mostly to families who want to kick around in their back yards.
“No schools are open so we’re waiting for the go-ahead after the first of the year to do any kind of purchasing,” he adds.
Some Good News in Utah
The situation was a bit better for Team Gear International in Midvale, UT, a state in which soccer was played with some regulations (primarily masks and sanitizers). Although the spring season didn’t happen, the club season took place over the summer.
“We had some issues with vendors,” admits general manager Michael Hanks. “We saw a decrease in participation because clubs cut teams and combined teams, so we didn’t sell all of our pre-orders.”
Supply chain issues remain a pain point. He notes that one key challenge is continuing to fulfill apparel orders from big vendors that experienced shutdowns during the pandemic. Another is that the apparel market is hurting and there’s not enough inventory, especially from name brand vendors.
“On a positive note, teams were able to play, tournaments were held and kids got onto the fields,” says Hanks. “People were able to see how much we care and are dedicated to them. Once we got apparel, we were able to quickly turn around those orders to the clubs.”
In a way, he believes the pandemic may have helped his business because it proved that they could handle a crisis.
In the grand scheme of things, Hanks is relieved that his region was not extremely affected by the disease and that the pandemic hit at a time that had a minimal effect on his business.
“We’re acting as though things will improve, but we’re also keeping a close eye on finances and we’re not over-spending,” he adds.
In Bountiful, UT, home of Scoreboard Sports, owner Sean Macklyn recounts that there was high participation in soccer tournaments held in the state in July and August, albeit with limited or no spectators.
The local Select Program had tryouts and had a record year for attendance over the summer — good news for Scoreboard Sports since it supplies all the equipment for the Select Program.
“All in all, soccer in Utah for youth leagues was good,” Macklyn says — one tournament had a cap of 350 teams and registration was immediate because people were desperate to play.
Speaking of desperation, he and Team Gear International’s Hanks observed that a few soccer clubs from Southern California (where soccer wasn’t allowed) orchestrated games with each other in Utah in late September and early October.
During the height of the pandemic in the spring, Macklyn wasn’t sure if and when soccer would be played at all this year. “Most of our business is with clubs and we normally deliver uniforms in June. How could we get parents to cough up $200 to $300 for uniforms if the kids wouldn’t be playing? We would’ve been in a world of hurt — logistically, it would’ve been a disaster to have uniforms come in if there was no season,” he relates.
Adding to the anxiety were vendors’ supply chain and delivery issues. “This started a backup in the pipeline. Vendors were behind 45 days when warehouses were shut down and this had a domino effect, resulting in product arriving 60 days late,” Macklyn reports. “We also had to let go and furlough staff, going from 27 people down to nine. This meant that we didn’t have the manpower in case the season wasn’t cancelled, which put pressure back on the business to deliver on time. Thankfully, we got through it.”
On a positive note, Macklyn believes that Scoreboard Sports has become leaner and meaner. “We started looking at every expense and this helped us to run our business in a more disciplined way than ever before,” he says, realizing there are still challenges in the next three to six months. “But people have started to navigate the situation better. The business has changed and made us more savvy,” he says.
Meanwhile, in Kentucky, fall youth and rec leagues were cancelled, but travel clubs and high schools played. Older kids are also playing club soccer once the high school season ended, reports Tony Carter, manager of Duke’s Sporting Goods, which operates one location each in Elizabethtown and Bowling Green, KY.
Carter believes that high schools had about the same rate of soccer participation as last year, but the business for club teams was down about 20 percent from 2019. “Our biggest challenge was uncertainty,” he says, reporting that one rec league even ordered uniforms and the day before the scheduled pick-up, the season was cancelled. Duke’s also lost sales of walk-in traffic for balls, cleats and shin guards.
Serving the market for more than 36 years, Lloyd’s Soccer, a three-store operation with locations in Charleston and Greenville, SC, and Johns Creek, GA, was concerned when the pandemic hit in the spring, but GM Mike Walter says travel clubs played and the business was still able to go through its normal cycle.
However, rec soccer changed a lot and the numbers there declined. “All of our high school soccer sales are in the spring, so there was no impact there. Our college business was definitely affected this fall due to budgets and there were more purchases of equipment than apparel,” he explains.
While Lloyd’s has had to contend with many perplexing issues separately in the past – such as late starts by clubs, product and delivery delays from vendors and shipping companies, and labor issues – the pandemic compelled the specialty dealer to address all of these factors, plus a few others, simultaneously.
“We were forced to come up with multiple plans and it was a long and stressful time period for us,” says Walter. Mid-March is the end of the high school season and April and May are planning months and things were relatively slow, but there was still a lot of concern.
“We weren’t going to have any sales, so we had to reduce costs and adjust expenses. The unknown was the scariest aspect,” he says. “Luckily, the states we deal with opened up early.”
The upside to all of this, says Walter, is that “we realized we could do a lot of stuff in a shorter amount of time.” He is still hoping for holiday retail, but is prepared to adjust quickly if need be. “We’re not super-confident that everything will get back to normal, but we have to be prepared.”
OK in NJ
In the Northeast, Scott Treiber, owner of Sports Paradise in Medford, NJ, says that the soccer season started very late in the state but turned out to be okay for business.
“We operated a bunch of web stores which shifted some sales from Q2 to Q3,” he notes. Like other dealers across the country, Sports Paradise has had to cope with supply chain problems.
“Shipping has been brutal with key vendors,” Treiber reports. “We just received goods at least 30 days late that were ordered in the spring. Our customers aren’t happy, but they understand and don’t blame us. It’s good to see the volume come back with team web stores.”
At present, many clubs have pushed back their buying cycles, according to Treiber. “Fall seasons start new cycles, but COVID prompted teams to delay and they are being very careful about what they buy right now.
“We’re slow on team purchases of cleats as well as with basketball shoes for the winter — customers don’t want to buy footwear unless they know they’ll be playing,” he adds. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty for spring, but there are positives out there and our online team stores are a bright spot.”
Dick’s Sporting Goods Goes On the Attack
As if there wasn’t enough competition out there for team dealers and soccer specialty, this fall the nation’s largest omni-channel sporting goods retailer launched a unique shopping experience for soccer customers. Soccer Shops, billed as “a new, elevated soccer experience,” existed inside select Dick’s Sporting Goods stores and were designed to serve players of every level. In addition to offering expanded selections of equipment and gear, including footwear, apparel, training aids and national and club team jerseys, “in-store soccer experts” worked the retail floor. The first Soccer Shop opened in late-October in Leawood, KS, and additional shops were slated to open in November. While some soccer specialty and team dealers may view this development with a certain degree of trepidation, others are taking a more positive view that the initiative underscores the fact that soccer is an important category with growth potential in the U.S.