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New Playbook


Over the past two years, the pandemic left the entire team sports industry reeling, but now that the virus is finally (hopefully) entering the endemic phase, football is ready to reassert its dominance and many dealers are experiencing a welcome surge in sales.

If only they could be assured of delivering the product they are ordering. The downside of a post-pandemic world is that this potential growth is being tempered by a shortage of products, particularly hardgoods.

In the big picture, participation numbers for tackle football (aged sic and up) have held fairly steady, according to SFIA’s U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report 2021.

  • In 2020 there were 5.1 million tackle football participants, a minor one percent decline from 2019.
  • Touch football participation decreased (-6.3 percent) from 5.2 million in 2019 to 4.8 million in 2020.
  • However, participation in flag football increased 3.2 percent from 2019 (6.8 million participants) to 2020 (7 million participants).

In 2021, as the pandemic impact began to ease, football participation crept upwards. The recently released SFIA Football (Tackle) Single Sport Report 2022 revealed a slight uptick of 3.4 percent in total participation from 2020 to 2021. SFIA also reported that during that same period, touch football participation rose 0.8 percent, while flag football participation dipped 1.6 percent. Although the numbers aren’t stellar, they’re solid enough to keep football at or near the top of the win column for dealers.

High Demand, Limited Supply

“The sales side is good and demand is strong coming out of COVID,” reports Bob Fawley, owner of Capitol Varsity Sports in Oxford, OH. “However, there are still supply chain issues and we’ll have a helmet shortage by June 1.

“This year, everyone is more than willing to place helmet orders but we had to set a cutoff date of April,” he adds.  “We’ve just sold more helmets than in the history of our company and people are still trying to build up their inventories following the past two years of COVID. Our advice is to get orders in sooner rather than later.”

Fawley isn’t sure if there will be a return to normalcy for the Fall 2022 season. “Shanghai is still closed down and COVID is having its way overseas. We’ll continue to have a digout for at least another cycle,” he predicted last month. “But the supply issue is driving people to place orders early and we’re getting some reality back into the situation.”

At Garretson’s Sport Center in Greeley, CO, owner Todd Garretson reports that business is good, but he’s also having trouble getting enough football gear.

“I couldn’t get everything I needed and have had to cut down and cancel orders due to lack of product,” he laments. “Demand is still high, but it’s hit or miss with parts and hardgoods — especially helmets and shoulder pads.” Garretson is also not optimistic that the situation will improve much in Fall 2022. “Demand is just as great and we have good traffic and sales, but shoes, helmets and shoulder pads will continue to be an issue,” he says.

In California, where team sports were subject to some of the most stringent pandemic restrictions and mandates in the country, Harbor City-based California Pro Sports faced big challenges during the 2021 football season, and Aaron Karsh, director of operations, believes that the Fall 2022 season will be tricky as well.

“Last season, people understood we had supply chain issues, but as a supplier it’s hard for us to stomach some of the continuing excuses from manufacturers,” he says. “People are hungry to buy and are excited about getting new uniforms and helmets and as a company we’re preparing for a normal year. But we’re not confident with the delivery end of things.”

For dealers that focus more on football softgoods, such as Michael Bodart, owner of Columbus, IN-based Hoosier Sporting Goods, this is turning out to be a normal year and he’s upbeat about the Fall 2022 season.

“We don’t do a lot with football equipment, but we do sell uniforms for middle schools, travel teams and leagues, as well as sportswear and spiritwear,” he says. “Participation is strong and people are eager to get out and support their local schools.”

Like most other dealers, Bodart believes the biggest challenge going forward will be the availability of goods. “I was optimistic [regarding supply issues], but now I’m almost afraid that vendors will use this as a go-to excuse for years to come.”

Signs Of Improvement

There are many positive factors that are fueling excitement for football and chief among them is soaring enthusiasm to play.

“There’s been a bounce-back at the youth level. Kids need to get out of the house and back on the field, and football’s going strong again,” Fawley says. Also, he supports rule changes that are taking the head out of the game, making the sport safer and more appealing, especially to parents of younger players.

Garretson is seeing more opportunities for early play. “There’s a little bit more spring football for youth and leagues are still scheduled to go on, but there’s not enough product,” he says. “People will have to scramble. I’m hoping that the issue will correct itself by the end of Fall 2022 and that we’ll get back on schedule next year.”

And in California, Karsh notes that more programs are now back on schedule, resulting in a lot of in-store traffic.

Ongoing Challenges

Supply chain issues remain the biggest concern overall for dealers, followed closely by the continuing labor shortage. “Product availability and accuracy of turnaround times are big challenges,” says Karsh. “Delays are a sore subject with customers, especially when ship dates get pushed back by months.”

Shortages of helmets and hardgoods are the biggest hurdles to overcome because manufacturers haven’t come back to producing the same quantities that they were churning out prior to COVID. One reason for this, Karsh explains, is that during the pandemic some overseas manufacturers shifted their use of plastics to medical supplies and away from sporting goods and they haven’t yet shifted back.

“I really hope that the last two years have reaffirmed the positives of being able to produce things domestically. Maybe we can renew some American manufacturing,” he comments.

“The numbers and participation are there, sales and customers are there, but we need product,” agrees Garretson. “A lot of products are built overseas, which is part of the problem, and we’re at the mercy of all those guys.”

He adds, “The prices of footballs and other products keep going up, but it’s not yet putting a damper on demand. Price will probably be more of a factor when things calm down, but now there’s such high demand for product, price isn’t really an issue.

“We’ll be okay with accessories and we do a great job with spirit packs in conjunction with football season, but for hardgoods the only thing we can really do is tell customers to get orders in early; aim for January 1 instead of waiting until March or April.”

Like many other dealers, Fawley continues to not have everything running on full cylinders. Balls, uniforms and helmets are still hit or miss, especially with bigger companies such as major shoe brands.

On a positive note, he says some of the team-focused companies performed extremely well during Covid.

There are many positive factors that are fueling excitement for football and chief among them is soaring enthusiasm to play.

The Helmet Reconditioning Biz

The pain points for most helmet and equipment reconditioners are a lack of parts as well as having to make do with a small and increasingly expensive labor pool.

At Capitol Varsity Sports, reconditioning comprises about 50 percent of business and Fawley reveals that the company’s plant has been 20 to 30 percent short on its labor pool since November.

“We’re running about 60 percent of helmets every week compared to our normal production and the labor shortage is affecting what we can get out the door. It’s a universal problem,” he says. “We don’t want to disappoint people or create enemies by overpromising, so we feel it’s better to take a little less business. Our core customers haven’t felt much pain.”

Fawley adds that as of April, his backlog has doubled from the previous year.

“We’re having one of our biggest and best years ever. There’s tremendous demand for what we do and what we sell, but there will be a time in the future when school budgets will tighten,” he says. As a result, “we need to find out how to fix the labor issue before we start up again in November. For reconditioning, it’s hard to pay $15 an hour for someone to take screws out of helmets.”

Fawley understands that all of the helmet manufacturers are suffering with parts shortages and as a result, “things will be pretty dicey until the end of August regarding reconditioning. Also, the helmet companies are all delivering late which is creating a challenge for the summer.”

Garretson concurs. “It’s hard to get replacement parts because manufacturers are relying on overseas production. I thought it would be resolved this year, but it wasn’t.”

California Pro Sports has been dealing with the problem by setting strict deadlines for customers. “We got ahead of it last year but had to give very firm deadlines,” Karsh says. “A lot of coaches got helmets in at the end of last season which put us ahead of the curve.”

Looking ahead, Karsh echoes the sentiments of his dealer colleagues. “I hope to get out to the games again and have more engagement with my customers. Connecting with coaches directly and being more present physically will help.”

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May 13, 2022


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