Kickin it in
From a dribble to a full-pitch attack, soccer is hot.
Kickin it in
From a dribble to a full-pitch attack, soccer is hot.
For decades, soccer was viewed as a sport with plenty of runway for growth here in the U.S., but it still had to compete with legacy team sports – football, basketball, baseball and hockey – for attention on the youth sports stage and often faced an uphill battle to gain mainstream favor. One of the biggest problems was that there were few opportunities for players to advance beyond college and there was no clear pathway to a pro career other than to try to play abroad.
Basically, soccer was hugely popular as a youth, school and club sport and was fun to watch for a couple of weeks every four years during Olympic and World Cup tournaments. But without a robust professional arm, and lacking big corporate backing and broad media coverage, the game’s chances of living up to its much-ballyhooed potential were limited.
Today, it’s a totally different story. It’s once again Game Time and here we provide the inside scoop on the action, with a huge assist from soccer specialists and team dealers.
The First Half
Supply Chain Issues
Much to their relief, most soccer retailers and team dealers report that while the agita-inducing supply chain problems of the recent past aren’t completely gone, they are rapidly diminishing.
“We don’t have any big issues — the situation is 80 percent better than last year,” reports Kim Karsh, owner of California Pro Sports in Harbor City, CA. “There are still minor issues with shoes and shin guards, but everything should be back to normal in the next couple of years.”
Ryan Aubert, director of marketing at Stefans Soccer, a three-store operation in Wisconsin, concurs. “There are still some supply chain issues, but we’re back to about 85 percent of where we were before COVID-19. Team apparel, which is ordered in bulk, had been difficult to rely on, but things are now coming in on time, especially since orders are placed so far in advance,” he says.
“Footwear was a problem but has gotten better recently,” he adds. “Footwear colorways and styles change faster than the supply chain can handle, but there have been big improvements over the past six months. Our strategy is to have back-up plans in place in case of delays, which takes a lot of extra planning. But conditions will continue to improve.”
At South Carolina-based Lloyd’s Soccer, which now counts four stores – Charleston, Greenville and a new location in Columbia, SC, as well as one door in Atlanta, GA – supply chain headaches have largely dissipated. “There are no real issues,” reports GM Mike Walter. “There are always going to be occasional inventory hiccups, but nothing on a large scale like we saw during the past three years.”
Likewise, Don Falcone Jr., VP&GM at Greenville, RI-based DMK Sports, notes that the situation has improved immensely since the spring and inventory levels are up. “There are still some issues with major manufacturers, but things are fine with the smaller vendors. Most of the issues are occurring with uniforms. Pre-booked goods are arriving very late and while the orders are showing in the system, in reality they are still unavailable.”
David Zighelboim, president of Miami, FL-based Soccer Locker, says that supply issues are about 85 percent resolved, but the futures business still hasn’t caught back up.
“The biggest problem is that for the at-once business, vendors aren’t maintaining much inventory. Companies are relying on dealers to book everything on futures, meaning [the vendors] have little if any inventory for fill-ins,” he points out. “The buying process has become very important — there’s no magic ball that helps project what will and won’t sell a year from now.”
As an example, he cites Messi-mania. “If I had known ahead of time that Messi would be playing in my backyard, I would’ve bet my house on product and it would’ve been worth every penny. As it stands now, I’ve been out of original Messi product for four months — but so has everyone else.”
For a few dealers, such as DuPree Sports & Screen Printing in Stillwater, OK, things are back to normal. “We have no supply issues of late,” exclaims Derek Sinclair, team sales manager.
The Second Half
There is no question that dealers are seeing the most growth from the youth segment.
“Participation increases have come from younger age groups because more kids are playing at a younger age,” says DMK Sports’ Falcone Jr. “But around here, participation is decreasing among older kids in middle school and high school. The travel team and club businesses are the strongest for us and custom apparel is also growing.”
Down South, where the weather is balmy and quality of life is high, “participation is up significantly because people are moving to the South,” observes Walter, at Lloyd’s Soccer. “World Cup 2022 also helped, as did Messi coming to the U.S.” He points out that youth is the biggest part of his business and for the past two years the focus has been on rec programs and clubs.
“Lots of our clubs have seen 20 to 25 percent participation growth over the past year between spring and fall and we know this because of uniform sales,” says Walter. “Our biggest jump has been with 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds. This put a lot of pressure on us to get small uniform sizes — our projections weren’t close to what we received in orders so we had to keep looking and reordering.”
He adds, “For the little kids, the cost isn’t crazy, most programs run for six to eight weeks and girls benefit as much as boys. Recreational soccer grew a lot, especially in the Atlanta area and in Charleston, SC. Hopefully kids had a good time and will continue playing next spring and fall.”
Walter is also finding that participation growth is boosting the retail business. “There are more players and they need more goods. Post-COVID, we’re seeing more in-person shopping and our retail sales numbers are strong this year.”
Aubert, at Stefans Soccer, reports that Wisconsin has one of the largest youth soccer participation rates in the country and the segment is still growing. “Youth and club teams are the fastest-growing parts of our business,” he says. “We support players in all categories — youth, travel, clubs, schools and colleges and adult clubs.”
Meanwhile, in SoCal, which suffered some of the most Draconian pandemic shutdowns and mandates, soccer participation is ramping back up.
“Kids and parents now feel that it’s okay to go back and play and we’re up one-to-two percent at the youth level,” says Karsh, at California Pro Sports, who adds that high school participation is also up and schools remain the biggest part of its soccer business, while youth organized play is coming back and clubs and leagues are steady.
He also notes that there’s been a big influx in camps and training for ages 5-14. “The LA Galaxy puts on weekly clinics and camps that are highly regarded,” he says. “This has been a big positive because the LA Galaxy is based just three miles away from us. It’s good for the sport.”
Soccer Locker’s Zighelboim is also seeing a surge in participation, primarily due to that Messi-mania. “People are coming out of the woodwork! Parents are excited and kids want to be Messi. Kids are now starting soccer as young as two-and-a-half years old — lots of little clubs are popping up everywhere.”
In Oklahoma, long a bastion of football, basketball and volleyball, growth in soccer is a bit more muted. Sinclair, of Dupree Sports & Screenprinting, says, “Soccer isn’t huge in our area. We have a local city league with 10 teams, and we also service a local travel team and local high school teams, primarily with uniforms. We believe the category will hold steady.
Challenges and Opportunities
While dealers are fairly united in citing the broader challenges facing the soccer market, they also are working to identify and leverage opportunities unique to their locales and clienteles. Chief among the barriers to growth are the limited numbers of fields, coaches and officials to keep up with demand.
“Getting qualified coaches is hard and there’s a lack of officials to officiate games and COVID-19 exacerbated that. Older people, generally the seasoned professionals, retired — not just in soccer but in other sports such as baseball and football,” explains Karsh.
Walter, at Lloyd’s Soccer, agrees. “There’s a lack of field space in most communities and with the growth here there aren’t enough fields to accommodate all of the clubs and teams. Many land owners can make more money by selling to developers than by devoting acres to playing fields.”
Aubert, at Stefans Soccer, points out that there are still cost barriers for lower-income families — and this a nationwide issue. Other challenges for retailers and dealers include competing with brands that are emphasizing DTC sales and finding a way to grow the business efficiently. Technology is also top-of-mind.
“We’re looking for logistics and other solutions that are geared to small/medium sized businesses and the challenge is to find the right tech at an affordable price,” he says.
Soccer Locker’s Zighelboim says his main challenge is figuring out how to get uniforms to teams in a timely manner.
“Although we do a lot of business with online team stores, it can be difficult because there is no single uniform coordinator, meaning we have to deal with hundreds of parents. Selling direct to parents is an inventory nightmare because we have to have things in stock,” he explains.
“You sell more products to the parents – such as the mom who buys multiple jerseys and shorts so that she won’t have to constantly do laundry – but you also get stuck with more inventory at the end of the selling season if the forecast is wrong. It probably won’t happen, but it would be nice if clubs would go back to bulk ordering.”
Falcone Jr., at DMK Sports, believes the barrier to soccer’s growth is that there are so many choices of sports for kids. “There are a lot of options, from the rec level to travel teams,” he says. For his business the challenge is not having access to all of the major brands.
For Sinclair, at DuPree Sports and Screenprinting, weather – which in Oklahoma swings from boiling in summer to freezing in winter – is always a challenge, as is online soccer specialty that takes a lot of business away. He also laments, “There is no MLS team here, meaning that there are no games or players for kids and fans to follow.”
Nevertheless, most dealers are optimistic about the opportunities, both large and small, that that await.
“We are growing our reach and for the past 10 to 20 years we’ve evolved,” says Aubert. “Our online presence is growing and we’re expanding our footprint beyond Wisconsin — our online business now serves teams in Illinois, Minnesota and Iowa.”
Falcone Jr. also touts online activity, specifically online team stores. “It’s our biggest opportunity to grow since we’re mostly a regional business and we currently service four clubs online,” he says.
At California Pro Sports, Karsh lauds improved access to products. “Shoe manufacturers are now offering year-round availability, which is a positive since soccer is played year-round here. Brands including Joma, Lotto, Umbro and Hummel are showing more interest in the team business and are using more local dealers, so it’s a positive outlook.”
Shoes are a big opportunity for Lloyd’s Soccer, too. “It’s our biggest category at our retail store and on our website,” says Walter. “Footwear is what kids want, and they have to replace shoes two to four times a year because they outgrow them.”
The retailer’s online team stores and brick-and-mortar stores are also firing on all cylinders and the dealer is working to improve its website. “Coming off of the pandemic, nobody knew what to expect, but we were cautiously optimistic. Business has been really great for the past couple of years and it’s aligned well with southern migration. Our business is based on local communities and the growth of those communities.”