On the surface, youth baseball and fast-pitch softball appear to be thriving — and they are in many cases if you take a look at playing fields and bleachers across America. But, to use an apt metaphor, in many cases both sports are chugging into third base, hoping to round for home during the all-important summer and fall ball seasons.
Since late last year, team dealers have been accepting baseball and softball orders and (sometimes) delivering the goods, though some products – specifically baseballs and softballs – were not easy to come by this past season.
Another issue faced by leagues in both sports: Since games are often played on municipally owned and operated fields, in many cases access to them has been COVID restricted, adding just another curve ball to the 2022 season.
So, while baseball and fast-pitch softball are back, they are not completely back.
Dealers Cope With The Challenges
For the most part, the diamond sports are significant contributors to the bottom lines of team dealers around the country, but the above-mentioned challenges have created some headwinds. Nevertheless, things are much, much better in the summer of 2022 than they were in the bad old days of 2020 and in 2021.
At Scotty’s Sports Shop in Royal Palm Beach, FL, baseball is the major revenue source, reports owner Jerry Steurer. And because of south Florida’s climate, it’s always baseball season.
“Baseball really doesn’t end here in south Florida,” says Steurer, who has been in business for more than 30 years. “I sell to three local recreational leagues and a number of travel teams – both baseball and softball – throughout the year.”
In addition to selling balls, pants, ball caps, fielding gloves, batting gloves, batting helmets, catchers’ equipment, bat bags, belts, ball buckets and cleats, he does a great deal of artwork on shirts and jerseys.
“More than 80 percent of my business is screenprinting and baseball is my main sport,” Steurer says, adding that the supply chain issues are not affecting his business these days, making him an exception to the rule in 2022.
“I’m having no problems getting what I need to sell,” he says.
Meanwhile, in nearby Vero Beach, FL, baseball is easily the number-one selling category for Dave’s Sporting Goods. And it’s been a great year for selling baseball as traffic has been solid all year.
“For us, it’s been back to normal,” reports co-owner Becky Whipp. For Dave’s Sporting Goods, the demand for baseball and softball product never stops.
“Rarely a day goes by that we don’t sell something either baseball or fast-pitch softball,” Whipp says. “Our local recreational youth baseball leagues play in the spring and in the fall and travel teams are playing throughout the year.” Dave’s also sells the sports to a few private high schools in the area in the spring.
Another big plus for Dave’s Sporting Goods is its new location next to a four-field baseball complex that has games every weekend in the summer. “So we have a strong Saturday walk-in business,” says Whipp.
Playing Ball in the Garden State
Up in Whitehouse Station, NJ, the baseball/fast-pitch softball joint category is the top-selling category for Darrow’s Sporting Edge, which sells fielding gloves, bats, batting gloves, batting helmets, balls, uniforms, catching gear and cleats to an expanding baseball and fast-pitch softball community. Although here the supply chain issue rears its ugly head.
“When it comes to fielding gloves and cleats, manufacturers can’t make them and deliver them quick enough,” says custom order manager Vinnie Iaione, adding that despite the challenges the dealer had a great year selling batting helmets. Meanwhile, he says the uniform business was so strong this spring that some customers had to be turned away.
As for bats, Iaione says there was a bigger demand for less expensive models this past spring, but he expects demand for more expensive bats will grow as the summer moves along and travel teams take to the diamonds.
In Holyoke, MA, sales in both baseball and fast-pitch softball were solid, but not spectacular for Holyoke Sporting Goods, according to owner Betsy Frey, whose teams range from T-ball through American Legion.
“My baseball/softball sales were better than last year, but not as good as they have been,” says Frey, who calls the 2022 season an odd year with unique challenges. “I was hoping it would be better than it was, but we survived.”
As a sign of the times, Frey says that one of the local youth baseball leagues that usually registers 350 youngsters for its spring season had less than 160 sign ups this year. And the local girls’ fast-pitch softball rec league in Holyoke had half as many teams as it normally does for its spring season.
As a result, Frey remains concerned that the pandemic continues to negatively impact interest by children in playing sports. “Kids didn’t play organized sports in 2020 and it was modified in 2021,” she says, and once their habits change it is tough to get back to pre-pandemic interest levels. “Kids just aren’t playing sports.”
Another issue that has negatively impacted sales for Holyoke Sporting Goods is a reluctance for teams to visit a brick-and-mortar store, unless they have to do so.
“Because of the pandemic, people are now used to buying online rather than walking into a retail store to buy what they need,” says Frey. On the flip side, though, she adds that “in some cases, people will order a product online, see that it has not arrived on time, cancel the online order and then walk into my store to buy that item.”
Big Score In Tennessee
Despite the ongoing pandemic-related challenges, it was still a banner year for diamond sports sales for Team Sports Outfitters, in Bristol, TN.
“It was a very big year for baseball and softball sales,” reports owner Chris Horner. “Everybody – high schools, youth leagues and travel teams – bought new uniforms and equipment this season.”
And that strong season came about despite the ongoing supply chain issues. Horner says his ability to deliver product on time to teams was negatively impacted by the inability to get the basic necessities.
“It was tough, at times, getting new uniforms because of supply chain issues,” Horner says.
The same lament is heard in southern Indiana, where participation in baseball and fast-pitch softball was steady and sales strong for Kratz Sporting Goods in Clarksville. But they would have been even stronger if more product had been available to sell. Under normal circumstances, Kratz sells uniforms, headwear, baseballs, catcher’s gear, batting helmets, cleats and bats — but these were not normal circumstances.
“We’re still fighting that supply chain animal,” says owner Allen Krebbs. “We’ve had trouble getting footwear and other products, including basic items such as white cotton T-shirts.”
The bulk of his baseball and fast-pitch softball business is to high school and travel teams. Both operate on a different scale, economically.
“What’s trending is that many high schools are relying on booster clubs to help pay for items, whereas travel teams are buying three of everything for every player each year — three new uniforms, three hats, three pairs of socks,” says Krebbs.
Diamond Battles in Battle Creek
Baseball and fast-pitch softball were finally back for the Spring 2022 season in Battle Creek, MI, which is great news for Jack Pearl’s Sports Center.
“Baseball and girls’ fast-pitch softball are fully back, which has been huge for us,” says sales rep Tom Vanwienen. “Everybody came back to play ball.” For Jack Pearl’s Sports Center, its biggest clients are the local recreational leagues and it also sells baseball and fast-pitch softball to high schools and travel teams.
The only issue that Jack Pearl’s had this past spring was getting more inventory. “We sold everything we had and couldn’t get any more. Teams were buying everything we had in inventory,” Vanwienen adds, pointing to the difficulty in getting enough catchers’ equipment in particular.
Adding to the challenge was that many high schools decided not to buy uniforms for baseball and fast-pitch softball since they have hardly been used the last two years. On the other hand, travel teams buy packs for every player that contain two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two hats, two uniforms, practice gear and a bat bag.
“Looking back, the travel teams played through COVID,” Vanwienen says. “Those teams traveled south of Michigan and found tournaments to play in Indiana and Ohio.”
Meanwhile, in Cedar Falls, IA, Iowa Sports Supply was able to sell baseball and fast-pitch softball products for the last three years as if the pandemic never existed. That’s because in that state high school baseball and fast-pitch softball are always played in the summer and, based on orders from the Iowa governor, it was deemed safe and in the best interests of student-athletes to play their high school games the past two summers.
As a result, “it’s been a good couple of years of sales in baseball and fast-pitch softball for us,” says Alex Oakland, a sales rep at Iowa Sports Supply.
The baseball and fast-pitch softball clients run the gamut for Iowa Sports Supply — local recreational leagues, high school teams, travel teams and a few local colleges.
“We sell everything in baseball and softball,” says Oakland. “We always try to get what the customer orders, even if we don’t normally carry that item. We have even sold a few big-ticket items this year such as batting cages and pitching machines.”
Also in the Midwest, it was a strong spring for baseball and fast-pitch softball for Red Weir Athletic Supplies in Columbia, MO.
“We sell about everything in baseball and softball,” says Jay Johnson, sales rep/retail manager. “We sell baseballs, softballs, bats, gloves, uniforms, eye black, hats, ball buckets, lineup cards, batting helmets and scorebooks — but no footwear.”
Sounding a familiar tune, Johnson reports that sales were back to normal, but would have been better if the supply chain turnaround times were better.