Pandemic Survival Guide: Team Dealers Talk About How They Survived COVID-19 (So Far)
12 Tales From the Team Dealer Front Lines.
As we reflect on the past two years in the world of team sports, every team dealer and sporting goods retailer has his or her own story to tell about how they and their employees coped with COVID-19 and its subsequent lockdowns, disrupted seasons, supply chain challenges and their own health and safety issues — and how they have attempted to navigate getting back to “business as usual.” Of course, many would argue that business as usual is unattainable because of all the many changes that are now a permanent part of our daily business and personal lives. Some dealers and retailers closed their doors, a few sold their businesses and many decided it was time to retire. No two reasons were alike.
But as we reach the mid-point of 2022 – and more than two years into COVID-impacted lives – it’s fair to say that the majority of dealers actually persevered, powered forward and kept the lights on, with federal funding in many case (thank you, PPP funds.)
Indeed, every team dealer asked about how they survived the pandemic until now has a story to tell — and every story is different. The one common denominator is that everybody who survived had to negotiate tough times and had to make tough decisions. Another similarity is that anybody who has survived is a little tougher, much smarter and more compassionate than they were two years ago.
The keys to survival for team dealers can be attributed to a strong business acumen, a refusal to give up, a compassionate mindset and undoubtedly a little luck. These are their stories.
Sunshine State Of Mind
“We’re lucky to be in Florida. That was the key,” says Kevin Licata, manager of Medallion Sporting Goods, in Jupiter, FL, explaining that they were still forced to close their doors for seven weeks. To cut costs, they didn’t do any advertising and were able to get PPP money, which paid the rent and kept them afloat. “After reopening, it was slow going for a while,” he admits.
For Licata, the desire to play sports by the local south Florida population was matched by his own desire to open his store in order to sell them what they needed to eventually get back to the games.
“Our local youth leagues fought hard to open up in a safe way,” says Licata. “And they did just that.”
But even though Florida was one of the first states to reopen, it took more than a year for sales to begin to return to normal for Licata and his team. “It wasn’t until October, 2021, that sales started booming for us,” he reports.
Survival Of The Fittest
In southern Indiana, it was a case of survival of the fittest, according to Allen Krebs, owner of Kratz Sporting Goods in Clarksville, IN.
“We had two rounds of PPP money and we didn’t have to lay anybody off,” Krebs reports. “We did close our store for three or four weeks and we then brought people back part-time to clean the store, work on inventory and get things back in order.”
Krebs says he then had to get creative to generate revenue.
“Sales definitely dipped, so we started making and selling customized masks, mostly to businesses,” says Krebs. “We sold close to 40,000 masks, which kept us afloat. We also used our website, e-commerce and social media to generate interest in product. We advertised curbside pick-up and it worked.”
When the weather started getting warmer in Indiana in 2020, the desire to get outside to play ball, kick a ball, hit a ball, chase a ball, and throw a ball was paramount.
“The summer of 2020 was good for travel baseball and softball,” Krebs reports. “It was a roller coaster year for us — and for everybody in the sporting goods industry.”
Even though Clarksville is a small town in southern Indiana, outside, non-pandemic related forces impacted its outlook on life and business and its close proximity to Louisville, KY, was a matter of grave concern to Krebs.
“We watched the riots in Louisville and we were hoping that the riots would not cross the Ohio River into southern Indiana,” says Krebs. “Fortunately, they did not.”
A Nightmare In Delaware
In Wilmington, DE, it’s been a nightmare for Bob Hart, owner of Al’s Sporting Goods in that mid-Atlantic city.
According to Hart, the social unrest that impacted New York City and Philadelphia actually spilled over into Wilmington, where it directly impacted his storefront.
“We were looted for $500,000 worth of fashion footwear and clothing on May 31, 2020,” Hart recalls. “We’re still negatively impacted by that loss. The pictures I have from that day are terrible. Fortunately, I had racks of youth bats and cases of Oakley sunglasses that were not taken. The looters just wanted the fashion shoes and apparel.”
Hart says that his business was kept alive after two rounds of PPP money and that Al’s was able to reopen for business 51 days after the looting took place, supported by the local community.
“We put out 1000 pairs of shoes without shoe boxes and they all sold,” says Hart.
Even when the business was closed, there were employees in the team section working on completing some youth baseball orders. “We actually delivered uniforms to some local youth baseball leagues in 2020 that never actually played a game that year,” Hart says.
Even better, he adds, those youth leagues paid the invoice.
Fortunately, Hart reports that the past 12 months have been much better for Al’s Sporting Goods. “We had a terrific football season last fall and baseball is doing great for us right now.”
5 Key Takeaways From Survivors
1. “You have to adapt to current conditions and change to whatever you need to do to make money, whether that’s using technology or new products to sell. Being stagnant will result in failure. We
were not stagnant.” – Allen Krebs, Owner, Kratz Sporting Goods
2. “We must always look for new clients and new things to sell to them.” – Bob Hart, Owner, Al’s Sporting Goods
3. “If you can weather the storm and adapt, it won’t be easy, but you will survive.” – Doc Claussen, Store Manager, Coaches Corner
4. “It’s important to be humble and to do the best with what you’ve got.” – Stanley Costales, Jr., Owner, Sports Line
5. “If you don’t have debt, you can survive for a long time.” – Mike Weir, Owner, Red Weir Athletic Supplies
Demand And No Supply
In Coshocton, OH, Scott Nelson of Local Team Sports realizes that coaches are finally beginning to understand the negative side effects of the supply chain backlog.
“For the first time in my history in the business, coaches are coming to me and asking me what’s available rather than telling me what they want and need,” says Nelson. “And, they are happy with what I have in inventory.”
Another lingering reality of the Pandemic is a lack of face-to-face access to coaches on school campuses.
“To this day, I find it hard and challenging getting into schools, even my high school alma mater, which has been a longtime customer of mine,” says Nelson. “For budgetary reasons, some coaches have been forced to go back into the classroom, security concerns have caused schools to go on lockdowns and COVID precautions are limiting access to schools and coaches. As a result, I’ve had to schedule more Zoom calls to reach coaches.”
Working Behind Closed Doors
In Terre Haute, IN, Coaches Corner closed its doors for five weeks, but work continued behind those doors.
“We knew the lockdown would eventually come to an end, so we had to get local rec baseball and travel baseball and softball uniforms ready for eventual delivery,” says store manager Doc Claussen. “Having that baseball and softball business saved us during the lockdown.”
In the late spring and throughout the summer of 2020, Indiana was a hotbed for travel baseball and softball tournaments as fields remained open and teams were traveling from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee and Kansas to Indiana to play games.
“Teams were coming from all parts of the Midwest to play baseball in the summer of 2020,” he recalls.
Claussen remembers that summer because he was busy every day accepting orders, fulfilling orders, delivering orders and working as an umpire for many of those baseball games.
“I umpired more games that summer than any in recent memory,” he says. “I actually turned down more umpire assignments than I did. It was a busy summer and none of the players, coaches or umpires tested positive for COVID.”
While sales were a struggle in 2020 and a little tough in 2021 for Coaches Corner, business has been tremendous this year.
“This past March, our baseball sales – cleats, belts, socks, baseballs, uniforms – were better than pre-COVID,” Claussen reports. “And, we are now getting full access to schools.”
Looking forward, Claussen believes his customers are more understanding of the current plight affecting team dealers.
“I’d say 98 percent of our coaches are understanding of our issues,” says Claussen. “All of us have to be more patient with supply chain issues.”
Thank Goodness For Baseball
In Battle Creek, MI, Jack Pearl’s Sports Center owner Keith Manning says that his business began to make its initial comeback from COVID after baseball and softball started being played in a neighboring state.
“In March of 2020, we were closed for six weeks, we laid off all of our workers and we received PPP funding, but business didn’t open again until local travel baseball and softball teams in Michigan started to travel down to Indiana to play tournament games,” says Manning.
During the six-week shutdown, Manning still went to the office on a regular basis.
“I had to pick up the mail and we had a variety of small orders for graduating seniors from local high schools,” he recalls.
But to generate extra revenue, Manning and his staff had to be creative with their sales and marketing talents.
“We were able to generate a little bit of corporate business and we sold a ton of masks to local schools,” says Manning. “Each mask had the school logo on it. We also had to be creative in selling T-shirts and hoodies.”
But the COVID-related challenges are not gone and Manning is very worried about access to enough football helmets for this fall’s football season.
“I remain concerned about the supply chain and the availability of football helmets will be an issue,” said Manning.
5 Key Strategies for Moving Forward
1. “We are now working on getting back on track with our vendors.” – Allen Krebs, Owner, Kratz Sporting Goods
2. “We are investing in other ways to reach our customers by sponsoring events and organizations such as the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association and the North/South Ohio All-Star Football Game. We are discovering a new path to our customers.” – Scott Nelson, Owner, Local Team Shop
3. “We have to become more patient with supply chain issues.” – Doc Claussen, Store Manager, Coaches Corner
4. “With COVID, I learned to expect the unexpected. COVID proved that Murphy’s Law is spot on.” – Stanley Costales, Jr., Owner, Sports Line
5. “In business, there are the six P’s that are the keys to success: Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance.” – Dan Carey, Owner, Carey’s Sporting Goods
Aloha Covid Restrictions
On the Hawaiian Islands, COVID-19 threw more curve balls to the business of Sports Line in Hilo, HI, than a gang of left-handed relievers in a Major League Baseball bullpen.
“Had the federal government not helped with PPP funds, I’d be out of business,” says owner Stanley Costales, Jr. “And I cannot fathom the number of face masks that we sold. That helped me a great deal, too.”
Costales admits that initially he was conflicted about selling face masks since he didn’t want to financially take advantage of a bad situation. But he then realized that people needed masks and someone had to supply them.
“So, I priced them out and was able to produce and sell custom face masks at a fair price,” he says.
Sports participation in Hawaii is the best it’s been in two years. “Kids in Hawaii are playing sports, my doors are still open and I am still alive,” says Costales.
By surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, Costales has become far more philosophical about life and the business of selling sporting goods.
“COVID really simplified everything in life,” he says. “If you really put your mind to it and you look for the silver lining and opportunities, you’ve got a chance.”
The economic uncertainties caused by the shutdowns certainly forced Costales to be resourceful and creative.
“We looked at any opportunity to sell things, such as corporate apparel,” he says and now moving forward Costales has a positive mindset and an optimistic attitude.
“It’s important to be humble and to do the best with what you’ve got,” he adds.
In Hawaii, the scholastic sports scene is approaching normalcy.
“Every season started late and the schedules were shortened, but a state tournament is being held for every sport,” Costales reports.
Red Weir, who has worked at Red Weir Athletic Supplies for 62 years, can’t recall any other moment in his business life where sales came to a grinding halt. But in the heart of the Midwest, the arrival of COVID-19 caused the team dealer in Columbia, MO, to shut down to the buying public for 43 days.
“We had to close our doors because of local health care regulations,” recalls Weir, adding that a few members of his staff would continue to work on orders inside the store.
He certainly did not give up the fight. In fact, Weir used the downtime to sort through the excess inventory in his warehouse so it could be displayed and sold. And, he did just that.
“I found a number of items in my warehouse that I had forgotten were there, including some new sample hats, which were one-off Minor League Baseball hats. I put them a bin and sold them for $10 each,” Weir recalls.
As much as the pandemic has caused a major disruption in his daily business for the last 24 months, Weir’s biggest issue in the immediate future is living and coping with the inconsistencies of the supply chain.
“The supply chain is a mess,” he laments. “For a while, I couldn’t buy a shotput and now I’m having issues getting deliveries of BBCOR baseball bats and batting helmets,” which is tough for a dealer that specializes in baseball and softball. “I’m happy to report that I have enough socks, belts, baseballs and T-shirts.”
Weir is a little concerned about receiving enough volleyballs for this fall and basketballs for this winter.
Lone Star Effort
In the Lone Star State of Texas, the united determination of high school coaches and athletic directors was greater than the power of COVID-19. As a result, Carey’s Sporting Goods has remained open.
“I give a great deal of credit to high school coaches and athletic directors in Texas who spent countless days working on how to figure out how to safely play games starting with the fall of 2020,” recalls owner Dan Carey. “They were fantastic in getting the job done and scheduling games. There were a few inconsistencies, but the coaches and athletic directors were very creative.”
Another one of Carey’s strongest allies during the last two years has been his Sports, Inc. buying group. “Sports, Inc. has done a great job of working for small team dealers like me,” he says.
The federal government was also a strong ally for Carey. Because of the complete shutdown of sports in March 2020, Carey did apply for PPP money so he could make payroll and not have to put anybody on furlough.
A third key player supporting the existence of Carey’s Sporting Goods has been the work of Badger Athletic Wear.
“Of all the cloth companies in the industry, Badger has done the best job of getting product delivered and the delays have been minimal,” Carey reports. “It comes down to strong leadership at the top and Badger has it.”
Even with all of this support, every day in the office for the past two years has been its own unique experience for Carey.
“Every day, we are having to recreate ourselves,” he says. “I’m a small team dealer, so I can quickly adapt, change and overcome. I have had to keep my nose to the grindstone.”
A fourth key player for Carey has been the work and dedication of his staff.
“I have great people working for me. They are a dedicated crew,” says Carey, a 44-year veteran of the sporting goods industry. “They focus on service, service, service and my team has built a strong level of trust with area coaches. We have a strong reputation in our community.”
Gambling On Coming Out On Top
In Las Vegas, NV, the past two years have been a topsy-turvy time for Turf Sporting Goods and owner Jerry Ocuda. “It was pretty ugly for a while,” he admits.
Ocuda was meant to close his store in March 2020, but common sense prevailed. “I still came into the store, I cleaned up the place and worked on getting my inventory in order,” said Ocuda.
In the past two years he has sold the vast majority of the inventory that was stored in a warehouse. “I found a bunch of small items and I put them in a $1 bin out front,” says Ocuda. “In the last two years, I think I sold $10,000 worth of items for a dollar.”
As teams began to return to play and supply chain issues began to surface, it quickly became clear to Ocuda that the local demand was greater than the local supply.
“I had an order for 40 bats from UNLV’s women’s softball team and I could only deliver 10 of them,” he says, adding that he is still waiting on catcher’s equipment that he ordered six months ago.
One of the biggest issues during the pandemic dates back to March 2020 and it has to do with team uniforms.
“In many cases, I delivered brand new uniforms to youth baseball teams and then the 2020 season was cancelled,” Ocuda recalls. “A year later, teams started playing again, but parents had to buy new uniforms for their children because they grew out of the uniforms that were never worn.”
From Downtime To Good Decisions
In Marietta, OH, Zide’s Sporting Goods was closed for a month and co-owner Rod Zide recalls that he initially enjoyed the time away from the business — but then reality set in and it turned into a nightmare from there. “Everybody on our staff was eager to get back to the office.”
The most important and welcome decision for Zide’s – one that injected much-needed cash flow into the business – was the announcement in July 2020 that high school football would be played that fall.
“If we didn’t have high school football that fall, I don’t know where we’d be today,” Zide admits, recalling the immediate financial hit the dealer took in the early days of the pandemic.
The first casualty was the fanwear for the West Virginia boys’ and girls’ state high school basketball tournaments in Charleston. The tournament was underway when state officials had to immediately cancel the 2020 event.
“Our sales team had to pack up the shirts, put them back in boxes and come back to our office,” recalls Zide. “Those shirts – just over a thousand of them – are packed away in a box in our warehouse.”
They remain unsold to this day.
While Zide’s profit-and-loss ledger showed the financial impact of the untimely cancellations, he really felt sorry for the high school seniors who didn’t get a chance to finish their winter sports seasons or play baseball, softball, lacrosse, golf, soccer or track during the Spring 2020 sports season.
“As a high school athlete, you’ve waited your entire athletic life for the chance to have a memorable senior season and then it was taken away,” Zide laments.
Looking back, Zide made one big decision in the fall of 2019 that proved to be a critical one for the future of Zide’s Sporting Goods, which had sold game-day apparel to fans at home football games for West Virginia University (WVU) since 1983. To have enough stock for the fall season, he would normally order the merchandise the previous October for delivery the following June.
Zide and his game-day staff would then drive two 26-foot trucks filled with WVU-themed apparel to home games at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium, which was always filled with 60,000 Mountaineer fans eager for WVU merchandise.
Yet, for a reason not at all related to COVID, in the fall of 2019 he decided not to renew the game-day apparel contract with WVU for the 2020 season. As it turned out, attendance at college football games was extremely limited that fall due to COVID restrictions and it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for Zide’s to recoup a massive apparel investment of close to $500,000 in 2019.
That financial disaster was avoided.
“Looking back, that was one of my best financial decisions I have ever made,” says Zide. “It would have been a financial disaster for us.”
Chasing New Business
In Colorado Springs, CO, Colorado Sports was closed for five weeks from mid-March until late April of 2020, but even then it took quite a while for the local school business to return.
“When we opened our doors (in April 2020), business was slow because school sports in Colorado were delayed until October 2020,” reports owner Bob Carlucci, adding that two of its colleges that play NCAA Division II football did not play football that fall.
While many team dealers were able to generate some revenue selling to travel baseball, softball, soccer, basketball and lacrosse teams in the summer of 2020, Colorado Sports doesn’t sell to those teams.
“We have never sold to travel teams,” says Carlucci. “Our customers are from small colleges, high schools and middle schools.”
To help generate cash flow, Carlucci’s sales team chased new business. “We have done more corporate business in the area,” Carlucci reports.
Here, too, pandemic-related supply chain issues haunt Carlucci, who says one of the biggest concerns is that he won’t be getting shoulder pads this fall for his local football teams because of a sourcing issue.
“I have been told that I won’t be getting any new shoulder pads because they need buckles, snaps and rivets which, unfortunately, are made in Ukraine,” says Carlucci. “And the shoulder pads are manufactured in Vietnam.”
Despite sourcing issues, Carlucci says there is currently a silver lining that he found in the whole process. “Fortunately, the school business is back to normal.”
Congratulations to the team dealers and sporting goods retailers who persevered, powered forward, pushed on and kept the lights on. The millions of athletes, coaches, game officials, sportswriters and sportscasters appreciate it.