Team Basketball

Holding Court


Although nearly all team sports suffered drastic participation and sales declines during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021, few felt it as drastically and completely as basketball — an indoor sport with close physical contact at a time when both of those were actively discouraged.

Yet a dramatic turnaround occurred in 2022 as pent-up demand drove the reintegration of physical activity into Americans’ lives and this year the momentum is continuing and the outlook is mostly positive for the 2023-2024 basketball season. While supply chain issues remain an area of concern, the problems are less severe and key products such as basketballs – which previously had been rarer than hens’ teeth – are now more ready for delivery.

Recently released numbers confirm this positive outlook. Total participation in hoops reached just over 28.1 million, a 3.7 percent rise from 2021 and a two-year increase of 1.4 percent from 2020, according to the SFIA’s Basketball Single Sports Report 2023. On both the male and female sides, the largest cohort of players were ages 6-12.

Moreover, SFIA’s Topline Participation Report 2023 states that, “Basketball, soccer (outdoor), football (flag) and football (tackle) all posted nice three-year total participation increases of over 4.5 percent. Basketball had the highest three-year increase of 13.0 percent.”

On the sales front, basketball backboards, basketballs and accessories totaled $63.6 million in 2022, a 10 percent gain from 2021 and 39.3 percent rise from 2019, states the SFIA’s Manufacturers’ Sales by Category Report 2023. Meanwhile, basketball team uniform sales reached $273.5 million in 2022, up 9.7 percent from 2021.

The Upcoming Basketball Season

When asked about their expectations for the upcoming 2023-24 season, all of the dealers that Team Insight spoke with were upbeat.

“We’re optimistic. The supply chain is improving and vendors are offering deals to buy early,” says Todd Gutzman, president and CEO of Home Team Sports Apparel in Green Bay, WI. “It should be an interesting year — better than 2021!”

Todd Garretson, owner of Greeley, CO-based Garretson’s Sport Center, is also in a positive mood. “Business is pretty good. We don’t anticipate as many problems getting balls as last year,” he says.

“We do well on everything except for [basketball] shoes. It would be nice if dealers could get back into the basketball shoe category but it’s hard — with all the crazy colors, it’s difficult to know what will sell. But we do well with clothing, accessories and balls. In our online stores, spirit packs and uniforms are doing great.”

He adds, “I don’t see as many challenges in basketball as in other sports such as football. We’re seeing good uniform inventory and faster turnaround times.”

“The season looks promising and everything is on track,” agrees Scott Eriks, owner of Varsity Sports Inc., which operates one store each in Griffith and DeMotte, IN. “People had been holding back a little bit, but things should be better this year. Our youth business will get bigger and high school will stay about the same. Overall, the basketball category will hold steady.”

Meanwhile, Frank Ashcroft, owner of B&B Sporting Goods in Tallahassee, FL, says that “business is improving all the time and kids are participating more. We’ve been steady on the youth side for both boys and girls, and you don’t have to have a ton of kids to have a basketball team.”

He adds, “We mostly serve recreational and high school teams. We hope the parents continue pushing kids to play sports more. Things are getting better and hopefully we’ll have a good 2023-2024 season.”

Teams and Shrinking Budgets

One concern among dealers is who is going to pay for all of this pent-up demand for product and uniforms. On the subject of teams and their finances, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

“We do mostly middle school and high school teams, but we also service some clubs,” says Garretson, of Garretson’s Sport Center. “With clubs, there aren’t as many cost constraints and there are bigger teams with more kids — and they want nicer stuff. Budgets are fairly good. Schools always seem to have the money and if not, booster clubs help out.”

But, he adds, “the high school and middle school business is steady and we really want to keep the youth market and travel teams — both tend to get new uniforms every year. The travel teams usually get sublimated jerseys which look nice, and it frees up our lettering department.”

Over at Varsity Sports, Eriks is seeing more organized town leagues, primarily youth teams. “Budgets are better and people are willing to spend a little extra. Sublimation is big, especially in basketball where there are multiple print locations [on apparel]. We do a lot of team stores which are very successful for us,” he notes.

In his market, B&B Sporting Goods’ Ashcroft observes, “Travel ball is increasing and parents are also getting out more to travel. But the numbers are down in rec ball, for sure.” As for spending, “budgets were always a little bit tight to start with, but it’s getting better. More parents are picking up the bills, especially with online team stores. It takes the coaches out of having to handle the money, which is good for everyone,” he says.

Gutzman, of Home Team Sports & Apparel, laments that “a lot of AAU business goes through the Big Three vendors, but people should really shop at their local dealers. We do a lot of online stores — kids want stuff and parents want to buy stuff and the online team stores are big in fundraising. People have a little bit more money to buy extra jerseys. But budgets are still pretty tight for schools and teams. Coaches are trying to do fundraisers to raise extra money.”

Challenges and Opportunities Abound

Without a doubt, one of the biggest headaches for dealers is trying to convince customers to order early. One would think that the severe product shortages and supply chain logjams of the recent past imparted that valuable lesson, but sadly, no.

“Customers are still ordering late and not too many order early. They’re waiting longer which gives us less and less time,” laments Varsity Sports’ Eriks.

Likewise, Ashcroft, of B&B Sporting Goods, points out, “We’re trying to get people to order earlier. Fortunately, sublimation has gotten faster for custom uniforms and the timeline is quicker, and the supply chain has improved. The big challenge for us is expense. But on the positive side, if kids want to participate in basketball, they can find a place to play.”

Garretson, of Garretson’s Sport Center, is a bit more upbeat and has noticed that his customers are learning to order earlier. Additionally, he says, “factories are improving delivery times and participation in basketball is staying steady.”

He sees opportunity in online stores, which “have lots of growth potential for us. With basketball teams being smaller, we need to build up our online stores,” he says.

“The parents and people in charge have learned to order earlier to get stuff on time,” notes Home Team Sports and Apparel’s Gutzman. “Our main challenge now is making sure we’ll have enough balls and uniforms. This is dictated by school budgets since uniforms are purchased on a rotating schedule. We need to find more youth teams and we expect the youth business to grow again this year.

“The key is to get into the proper channel and find out who handles the ordering,” he adds. It’s also important to look for continuity with parents and coaches from season to season. The youth side is where transitions happen.”

Overall, concludes Eriks, “basketball offers some strong opportunities. The game is becoming more popular and kids are now trying a wider variety of sports.”