Team Baseball

On Deck: 2024 Baseball

Both equipment and apparel trends pointto a strong baseball season in 2024.

As springtime nears, America’s Pastime is again gaining the attention of team dealers, school athletic directors, players, coaches, leagues and travel teams. That’s because in 2022, baseball counted 15.5 million participants, according to the SFIA U.S. Trends In Team Sports Report 2023.

And even though this is a very slight (less than one percent) decline from 15.6 million participants in 2021, the drop-off can be attributed to impacts from the pandemic when formal teams got split up due to an artificial stop in team sports play with the closures of schools, parks and other playing venues.

“It is our expectation that these recent trends are more of ‘a moment in time,’ rather than an inherently bad trend,” states the SFIA report. In fact, the research found that baseball ranked as the second most popular team sport, behind basketball, among all age groups tracked in 2022 — 6-17, 18-24, 25-44 and 45+.

On the youth and school scene, the news is particularly positive.

“High school baseball for boys and girls is healthy and enjoying an energy and revitalization coming out of a worldwide pandemic and with the infusion of technology, the sport is attracting new students,” says Elliot Hopkins, director of sports, sanctioning and student services at NFHS. “Baseball is solidly our fourth most popular sport, with 478,451 boys playing and over 1000 girls participating. High school baseball is the third-most popular sport sponsored by high schools.”

Hopkins adds, “The sport continues to be one of the safest sports – number eight out of the 17 sports the NFHS writes playing rules for – and considering the number of moving parts and with bats and balls flying around the field we are quite proud of that accomplishment.”

He also points to the influx of technology being available as helpful not only for training, but also for communication between the coach and the catcher to signal what pitches should be thrown.

“We anticipate with the cost of this type of equipment becoming more affordable, more schools will be able to use the technology in their favor and the expansion of various usages will grow exponentially,” he adds. “We are quite optimistic that the sport will continue to grow and attract more players and will garner the support of fans and families.”

Investing In The Game

To help fuel baseball’s growth among youth in general and girls in particular, both Major League Baseball and Little League International are investing money and resources.

For MLB, the centerpiece is the RBI program, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, designed to provide kids ages 5-18 from underserved and diverse communities the opportunity to play baseball and softball. The program was launched in 1989 and MLB took over its operation in 1991.

In April 2023, MLB named Nike as the presenting sponsor of RBI, which aligns with the existing global partnership of the Swoosh as the Official Uniform and Performance Footwear Supplier of MLB. The initiative has served approximately two million young people since its inception and components include college scholarships and opportunities to travel and interact with other players from the U.S. and abroad.

Meanwhile, this January Little League kicked off its Little League Girls With Game 50 (#GWG50) celebration to honor the Girls With Game who have changed the sport and to inspire the next generation to step up to the plate. The year-long initiative is intended to promote and encourage female participation in Little League, bring new training opportunities to coaches and volunteers and grow support for local leagues.

Additionally, in February, Little League launches a $250,000 grant program to be used in a variety of areas, including leagues that add softball programs, umpire school scholarships for female umpires, scholarships for clinics and training events and support of female participation in baseball programs.

“Little League remains the world’s largest youth sports organization with approximately 6500 affiliated leagues serving approximately two million children in more than 80 countries around the world,” says Kevin Fountain, senior director of communications for Little League International, who points out that its programming starts with Tee Ball and extends into the teenage divisions, with opportunities for play available for children ages 4-to-16 across various baseball, softball and Challenger divisions. Each league operates a specific number of teams, with approximately 120,000 teams playing around the world each year.

The news is positive for baseball at both the youth and high school levels.

A Positive Outlook for 2024

From the team dealers’ perspective, the upcoming baseball season looks to be robust, with particular bright spots being travel teams and youth programs.

“Things are going well and we’re anticipating a strong year — 2023 was good and the business should grow some more,” says buyer Dan Proulx at Stateline Sports in West Lebanon, NH. “For us a lot of growth has been in the schools, while youth organizations have combined [creating fewer but larger accounts].” He also notes that he is seeing girls playing baseball, although most still play softball.

“I think the season will go well. A lot of teams are going the travel route,” agrees Scott Eriks, owner of Varsity Sports Inc., a two-store operation with one location each in Griffith and DeMotte, IN. “There is growth in independent travel teams and clubs and more people are playing year-round baseball now.”

At Fort Worth, TX-based Casey’s Sporting Goods, which handles only institutional sales, owner Dan Carey is upbeat.

“Baseball is still strong and I don’t see it shrinking. Things have been positive and pre-books have been good, mostly with high schools, middle schools and some colleges — we don’t handle youth,” he explains. “Inventories are back up so there’s no need for concern regarding product availability. Baseball starts here on February 1 and we’ve already delivered 60 percent of orders.”

For Sports Paradise in Medford, NJ, high schools and colleges are the main focus for baseball. “The season is just starting but I think it will be strong,” remarks owner Scott Treiber. “The high school and college business is strong right now and we see opportunities at the youth levels such as youth rec and travel programs.”

“My initial signs from our salesmen are that it’s business as usual, but I think it might be a little weaker due to budgets,” says Bob Fawley, owner of Oxford, OH-based Capitol Varsity Sports. “However, travel teams have healthy budgets and they buy multiple sets of uniforms and spend a lot of money.”

He adds, “We had the best year ever in 2023 — sales were up and there was more business out there for reconditioning. Youth leagues still dominate the numbers and we’re not seeing a lot of travel baseball teams.”

“The 2024 season is probably going to be robust,” agrees Rob Schneider, owner of Lansford, PA-based Valley Athletic Supply, who points to sublimated uniforms that have grabbed hold in baseball with price points that are now very competitive with screenprinted product.

He is also enthusiastic about the travel baseball and softball business, noting that those teams are robust customers. “U8 and U10 travel, up to U18 are strong and travel is not showing any signs of going away.”

Budget Hits and MIsses

When it comes to customer spending, dealers are seeing a mixed bag. “School budget levels are getting slashed 20 to 30 percent and booster clubs are trying to step in and absorb the differences, but it’s not easy because not every school has a booster club,” observes Treiber, of Sports Paradise. “Recreational and travel teams are faring better because they’re funded by parents.”

Conversely, Carey, of Carey’s Sporting Goods reports that “Texas budgets are very solid and public schools are funded well for all the sports.” He points out that although each school is on a different buying schedule, overall sales remain stable from year to year.

At Varsity Sports Inc., “budgets are holding steady across the board,” reports Eriks. “There’s no uptick in funding, but no big slashes, either.”

Likewise, Proulx, at Stateline Sports, notes, “Budgets have been steady and even growing a little bit — nothing has gotten worse.”

Too, Valley Athletic Supply’s Schneider believes budgets will be consistent with 2023: “At the high school level, prices have gone through the roof so budgets there might be a bit conservative, but they still need to buy equipment.”

Fawley, of Capitol Varsity Sports, cites budgets as one of the bigger business challenges, particularly in light of rising inflation.

“I anticipate some real budget grinding in the next year or two,” he says. “There’s been a lot of consolidation in the industry and a lot of shuffling going on. If all of the big private equity [owned and controlled] buying groups are trying to get out of apparel, what do they see coming? We’re going to buy tighter. We’re in a good position going forward, but a lot of things are happening now beyond our control such as inflation, debt and wars.”

Challenges and Opportunties

While budgetary concerns are always top of mind, there are other challenges – as well as some big opportunities – for dealers in the baseball market.

“Although inventory issues are mostly cleaned up since COVID, inflation has started to ripple through and no manufacturers are lowering prices,” says Valley Athletic Supply’s Schneider. “The prices of hardgoods – balls, bats and equipment – really escalated over the past five years, which has especially affected youth leagues.”

On a more positive note, he points to online team stores as a huge business driver. “A large part of our business has been creating online stores and they’ve really taken hold in the past year-and-a-half,” Schneider says. “We will be totally embracing team stores in 2024. It’s a huge trend and getting more robust.”

Eriks, of Varsity Sports Inc., sees that teams are struggling for finances and are looking for more sponsors. He also mentions there’s a shortage of volunteers, coaches and game officials.

But on the plus side, “There’s some kind of team or program close to nearly everyone, so there are plenty of opportunities to play,” he says. “On the business side, travel teams are more prone to buy the nicer equipment such as shoes, uniforms and backpacks — especially the higher-end product.”

The Hardgoods Challenge

At Sports Paradise, Treiber still sees product availability as a challenge, especially branded apparel. “Equipment is also a challenge and it’s hit or miss with a lot of hardgoods right now.” However, sales are brisk for fundamentals including hoodies, sweats and cage jackets.

For Fawley, at Capitol Varsity Sports, one of the biggest hurdles is the Internet. “We’re a brick-and-mortar, face-to-face sales business and more people have become acclimated to buying product online. The bat and glove business has become more challenging because online sales drive margins down,” he says. “However, online team stores have helped a lot and they’re very successful.”

Fawley also reports that the personal touch is still an effective business tool for selling baseball and “customers are coming back to us who’ve been dissatisfied dealing with [large and impersonal entities]. As a result, sales of hardgoods and apparel are up substantially.

“Schools that have tried all-school deals [with vendors] are finding it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. There are no free lunches — the big brands will get the money back in other ways, which is not the best thing for schools’ business model.”

As a sidenote, Fawley lauds local investment in big venues because such facilities are able to attract large numbers of sporting and cultural events, along with a multitude of teams, families and fans, hence fueling sales and boosting economic impact.

For example, he explains that Spooky Nook Sports at Champion Mill in nearby Hamilton, OH, is one of North America’s largest indoor sports complexes — and of course it needs to buy equipment. “We wrote the biggest purchase order we’ve ever written for basketball,” he exclaims.

Diamond Growth Opportunties

“Uniforms are a strong category because everybody needs them,” says Eriks, at Varsity Sports Inc. “The equipment side is also good, especially catcher’s gear, bats, helmets and protective equipment. People are spending on new gear, particularly protective products.”

The sweet spot for Stateline Sports, according to Proulx, is balls, bats and helmets. However, he notes, “balls can be tough because they’re expensive at about $100 per case. But we still sell a lot anyway because you need them.”

At Valley Athletic Supply, Schneider is bullish on apparel, noting that uniforms, socks, hats and fan gear provide the most margin. In particular, he points to the growing popularity of sublimation.

“Baseball is very traditional, but teams have really embraced sublimation as a way to get high-performance, lightweight product, plus the ability to get crazy with decoration at no additional cost,” he says, adding that turnaround times are reasonable and prices are competitive with traditional screenprinted product.

However, Capitol Varsity Sports’ Fawley begs to differ.

“Although lower-end sublimated product is popular, it doesn’t last as long as traditional uniforms. People aren’t investing in more expensive fabrics, so they’ll have to buy more often as a result.”

Regarding general inventory issues, Fawley notes that many dealers took double inventory from manufacturers during the COVID years when supply chain issues were pervasive, meaning that there is now less need to place enormous orders.

“We got stuff late two years ago and last year the product showed up on time. We have a lot on the shelves so we’re not anticipating buying a huge amount in 2024,” he says.