After more than a year of dealing with pandemic-mandated school closings, season cancellations and social distancing that decimated brick-and-mortar sales in most parts of the country, there is finally some good news for team dealers selling big-ticket items such as goals and nets — and the vendors that supply them. Team Insight reached out to these vendors for insight into how COVID-19 impacted their businesses in 2020 and early 2021, and where we all go from here.
At the Virtual Table
Nick Cusick, CEO, Bison • Russ Schirmer, Director of Sales, Carron Net • Jeff Roth, Vice President, First Team Sports • Laura St. George, Managing Member of Gared Holdings, EVP of Gared North America • Steve Vogelsang, VP–Sales and Marketing, Gill Athletics/Porter Athletic
The big question: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your business in the past year?
Steve Vogelsang, Gill/Porter: Honestly, we are quickly putting the pandemic in our rearview mirror. We were healthy going into Spring 2020, weathered the business downturn and are very well-positioned to help our dealers and customers get back to sports this spring.
Nick Cusick, Bison: You don’t need to be in the sports industry to know the impact that COVID-19 has had on team sports of all kinds. Bison’s sales are approximately 95 percent institutional and five percent recreational, so when team sports shut down, so did the need for team sports equipment like Bison goals. Our sales were down in excess of 20 percent for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2020, despite a strong start prior to COVID-19 derailing the team sports world.
Jeff Roth, First Team: Commercial product sales were certainly impacted due to nationwide shutdowns and sports programs being discontinued.
Russ Schirmer, Carron Net: The COVID-19 pandemic created an unprecedented challenge for both our team dealers and us over the past year. Sales dropped dramatically during much of 2020 as schools shut down in-person learning and municipal and recreational facilities and clubs closed.
Laura St. George, Gared: COVID allowed the Gared team to slow a bit and re-evaluate our processes and positions in the market. We refocused our messaging and created the pillars of Activate, Elevate and Celebrate going forward. While we never would like to repeat Spring of 2020, the time was used to create a stronger operation.
What has been the biggest challenge?
Schirmer: Sports came in fits and starts depending on differing state and local guidelines, making it difficult to predict what sports would be the hottest, although outdoor sports held a definite advantage.
Roth: Our biggest challenge over the past year was learning how to continue to operate efficiently while still observing state regulations and recommendations regarding social distancing.
St. George: Supply chain and forecasting market trends were the biggest challenges and not having in-person interaction really created gaps in understanding the needs of the market.
Cusick: While sales levels have been a significant challenge, we have been able to keep all of our staff employed full time, in some cases allowing us to invest in productivity improvements that will benefit Bison and our customers in the long term. Lately, commodity prices, including steel, chemicals, foam and wood products are through the roof in part due to COVID-related supply chain problems and other non-COVID related demand issues.
Vogelsang: School athletic programs are rapidly getting their facilities and teams back on the tracks and fields and courts. Our challenge now is meeting the sudden demand for equipment after scaling down inventory over the last year. Additionally, we are working through some raw material shortages and cost increases, as well as shipping capacity constraints. The recovery will likely be a bit bumpy and our challenge is meeting dealer and customer expectations to quickly get back to normal service levels.
What has your company done differently to deal with the changes in the business?
Cusick: In addition to investing in productivity and lean manufacturing, we have reduced our inventories while continuing to carefully match inventory to sales levels to satisfy our customer base. We have also continued to support our staff with regular communication, special lunches and ongoing education.
St. George: We began to focus our marketing investments in our digital presence a few years ago. The change from paper-based marketing created revenue for our dealers and increased our brand in the market.
Vogelsang: Our approach to dealer and customer engagement had to change during the pandemic. The increase in virtual meetings, presentations and sales training was our biggest pivot in 2020. Some of these elements will continue to augment our in-person sales and business development activity.
Roth: Obviously we were very diligent about cleaning and mask wearing throughout the pandemic. We adjusted inventory levels to accommodate changes in demand both upward and downward.
Were there any positives for the goals/nets business in the past year?
Schirmer: A positive for us was the demand for quality U.S.-made nets, including goal nets, continuing a trend we’ve seen over the last few years. The growing appeal of high-quality nets was bolstered by the struggle to get imported products.
St. George: We were challenged to take indoor regulation play to the outdoor environment. The play configurations awakened our creative juices and resulted in use of products in new ways. We presented to many universities and park associations on how to transform their athletic facilities to COVID-safe environments. While the typical spring business was under our budgeted sales goals, by summer we were experiencing fairly normal sales movement.
Roth: Residential basketball sales were up due to increased demand for home-based entertainment and activities.
Cusick: Manufacturers that historically concentrated on the residential basketball market could not keep up this last year as kids were out of school, vacations cancelled and more time was spent at home. Our residential system sales increased as well, but they only account for five percent of our total sales. We do provide rims only for other residential basketball manufacturers and sales of these were strong.
Vogelsang: The pandemic did allow many athletic facilities to ramp up construction and renovation projects. This area of our business actually surged in Summer 2020.
Do you have any advice for team dealers on how they should approach the goals/nets business in these different times?
St. George: Consumers are going to be experiencing a great deal of buying stress due to delivery constraints. Between carrier shortages and port backups the receipt of goods is slowed by an average six-to-eight weeks at best. Dealers need to understand that there will be delays and the key to successful sales cycle is understanding the deliverable needs of their customer combined with the capabilities of the manufacturer to provide the product. Furthermore, the agility to pivot to alternative product due to stockouts will be necessary. Patience is the word of 2021.
Roth: Continue to be in contact with customers in whatever new and creative ways there are available. Electronic communication is better than no communication at all. This can allow business to continue as we wait for things to get back to normal and can all meet face-to-face.
Cusick: It would be our belief that the future success of team dealers in an age of online, instant gratification is to find ways to stay in touch regularly with athletic directors, coaches and facility managers, building long-lasting relationships so that when equipment needs arise the customer will call for expert product input instead of just searching the web.
Vogelsang: We provide our dealers with useful athletic facility checklists covering all fields, tracks and courts. Use these with your athletic director as a simple way to uncover their athletic facility needs. Working with a single source for repair and renovation equipment needs is an effective and efficient way to grow your big-ticket equipment business as we return to sports.
Finally, what is your outlook for the Fall 2021 season?
Vogelsang: We are very bullish for Fall 2021. We already see early-stage recovery and are forecasting a steady ramp-up through the end of the year. While equipment budgets may be constrained, nearly all schools programs will be making some athletic facility purchase in the next school year.
Schirmer: The great news is that sports are making a roaring comeback with sales of nets not seen in years. Dealers should be talking to the customers to make sure orders are placed now to avoid delays getting product. Since spectators will also be coming back, dealers should also be asking about their protection, including extending foul ball netting, overhead mesh for common concession/seating areas and mezzanines. Fall of 2021 is going to be great for all of us.
Roth: We expect demand for commercial-based sports products to come roaring back for the 2021 season.
Cusick: Our recent sales have grown significantly from the last four months. It is our belief that there is significant pent-up demand and we expect to exceed our somewhat pessimistic sales budget that we finalized in September, 2020 in the midst of COVID-19 uncertainty. While time will tell, the reopening of schools and clubs will ultimately be the prime determining factor for the future of our industry.
St. George: If Fall 2021 has any resemblance to Spring 2021, it will be full of sales opportunities.
What was your new product focus in the past year and how did the pandemic impact that?
Russ Schirmer, Carron Net: In response to the pandemic we created our Clear Volleyball Net Barrier, which is made of high-clarity double polished clear vinyl, providing volleyball players a layer of protection from airborne germs and viruses, including COVID-19.
Nick Cusick, Bison: This last year, when our dealers could not call on their customers in person, we provided heavily discounted product specials each week along with fliers capable of being electronically forwarded. We pulled back on new product development to concentrate on product and process improvements, but we do have a couple of new products in the works that will roll out in late 2021, including a new highly-versatile, lower-price portable basketball system.
Jeff Roth, First Team: We added a solar powered light to the product line for 2021. The light provides adequate lamination for nighttime games and requires no electrical work to be performed.
Mike Cunningham, National Sales Manager, Gill Athletics: Our new Ball Stop Net Release system is an economical way for facilities to have a peace-of-mind solution for inclement weather. The Gill Net Release system is easy to add to existing ball stop netting systems, provides a drop-and-save release of the net when high winds become a danger to the pole system and is easy and cheap to replace.
Shelby Howard, Volleyball Sales Manager, Porter Athletic: The Powr-Select Winch is for volleyball facilities looking for a dependable net tensioning winch. It is engineered to provide a consistent and smooth operation for the long-term.
Laura St. George, Gared: We have a new innovative portable basketball line of products that will be launched in Fall of 2021.