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Play Ball?


First, the good news: Baseball is played outdoors in the spring and summer and with built-in social distancing. But dealers should not go filling out their lineup cards just yet.

Because now the not-so-good news: There’s still a pandemic raging across America, vaccinations are only now starting to make an impact and many towns and schools remain in lockdown or hybrid modes.

Put it all together and there remains a big question mark for youth and school baseball in Spring 2021. But look at it this way: At least it’s not basketball.

It may be stating the obvious, but the 2020 baseball season was anything but smooth and conventional in the U.S. Remember back to last spring when the spring season was abruptly put on hold – and then ultimately cancelled – due to the raging impact of COVID-19. An entire school season was lost and, despite a slight rebound with summer and fall ball, baseball has mostly sat on the bench for the better part of a pandemic-ranged year. (Note: The only school teams that actually completed their 2020 season were from Iowa, where high school baseball is played in the summer. See story on page 18.)

Now the feeling among those on the front lines – schools, teams, coaches, players, parents and, yes, team dealers and their vendors – is that everyone is ready for pitchers and catchers to report on diamonds across America. Cautious optimism rules the day.

Baseball’s Financial Box Score

If and when it does get back to business, at least the sport will be doing so from a pre-pandemic position of strength. From a dollars-and-cents perspective, sales of baseball gear steadily increased from 2014 to 2019, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s (SFIA) 2020 Manufacturers’ Sales by Category Report.  

Wholesale sales of baseball gear (bats, balls, protective gear, uniforms and cleats) were $1.212 billion in 2019, up slightly from $1.171 billion in 2014.

It’s worth noting that the wholesale size of the caps/hats business back in 2014 was $471 million, of which a significant percentage of headwear is baseball-style hats. (For more on the cap business, see story on page 20.) The caps/hats business has exhibited steady annual growth since 2014 and in 2019 the segment had grown to $536 million, at wholesale.

(Baseball-related sales figures for equipment, apparel and athletic footwear in 2020 are not yet available, although they are widely expected to be drastically lower than the previous year when the sport was actually played in America.)

Participation pre-pandemic was also in a good place, according to the SFIA’s research. There were 15.8 million baseball players in the U.S. in 2019, making it the second most popular team sport in the U.S. behind only basketball. As recently as 2012, overall participation in baseball in the U.S. was as low as 12.9 million players.  

Better yet for the business, of those 15.8 million players, nearly 60 percent (9.1 million to be exact) are considered “core” players who play baseball more than 13 days a year. Again, basketball is the only sport to have a higher percentage of core players.

And even though the number of baseball players in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s is growing, it remains that slightly more than half of all baseball players are between the ages of six and 17 and nearly 70 percent of all core players are between the ages of 6 and 17.

Another SFIA baseball statistic: For those ages six to 12, 20.7 percent are playing on a school team, 55.1 percent are playing on a team in a locally run league and 15 percent are on a travel team. For those ages 13-17, those numbers change to 49.4 percent playing on a school team, 31.2 percent on a team in a locally run league and 19 percent on a travel team.

Geographically, the four most popular regions for baseball players in the U.S. are the South Atlantic, Middle Atlantic, Pacific and East North Central.

Team Dealers Talkin’ Baseball

Not to point too fine of a point on it but, with the exception of two or three regions in the country, 2020 was a strike out for almost all team dealers selling baseball. And even though the calendar has turned, these dealers have mixed feelings about baseball sales returning to pre-COVID-19 levels any time soon. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t excited about the upcoming season.

“Baseball was not very good for us in 2020,” admits Doc Claussen, manager of Coaches Corner, Terre Haute, IN, who is thankful that at least recreation and travel ball were eventually played in the summer, while high school and American Legion seasons were cancelled completely.  

“This year our approach with baseball is day-to-day,” he says. “I remain optimistic. Fortunately, I have already fitted five travel baseball teams from head-to-toe for this year.”

Because of Coaches Corner’s geographic proximity along the Indiana-Illinois border, many of its customers live and play sports in Illinois, where scholastic athletic events were cancelled last year.

“Sales can only improve out of Illinois for us this year,” says Claussen.

The problem with selling baseball in 2021 is that much of the merchandise ordered for last season was never used because of the cancellations.

“I expect most high school sales this year to be fill-ins, but I remain optimistic that sales will be better,” says Claussen.

Meanwhile, in southern Indiana the situation was much the same Kratz Sporting Goods, Clarksville, IN.

“Baseball was good in 2020 until mid-March,” reports salesman Jim Brown, who says that the state boys’ high school basketball tournament was cancelled and everything followed suit in high school and rec sports and travel ball.

Later in the summer, some baseball was played, but it was hit or miss.

“Local Little Leagues played a limited schedule in late summer,” recalls Brown. “And travel baseball teams played where and when they could. It was sort of like the wild, wild West.”

Because many baseball teams didn’t use the product and gear that was purchased last year, it unfortunately should have a negative trickle-down effect with team dealers.

“Spring 2021 will be our black hole for sales,” predicts Brown. “I do expect we will sell some baseball practice products this spring, but because athletic departments have limited attendance at games they have less revenues, which impacts their ability to buy gear for their teams. High school booster  clubs may have to step up and supply the necessary funding.”

Cool In Sunny Florida

In south Florida, Joel Dunn, a salesman at Pro Performance Sports in Miami, expects baseball sales in 2021 will be meager, at best.

Under normal circumstances at this time of year Dunn is selling custom uniforms, cleats, turf shoes for practice, batting cage jackets, player packs and roughly 30-50 dozen baseballs to each team. But like other dealers around the country he is concerned that product ordered for last year’s cancelled seasons will negate the need for new product sales.

“So much of what was ordered for last year was hardly used, so there’s no need to order more gear,” says Dunn. “Teams only used a few dozen balls, but I might get some fill-in orders on baseballs.”

According to Dunn, because many of the custom uniforms come from China, to avoid delays caused by the Chinese New Year custom uniform orders needed to be submitted by mid-November. But because the uniforms were hardly worn in 2020, many teams didn’t bother placing new orders for the 2021 season.

In Vero Beach, FL – the location of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ former spring training home known as Dodgertown – baseball managed to still fare well during COVID-19 for Dave’s Sporting Goods.

“Everything shut down for about six weeks, but baseball was the first sport to return,” says co-owner Becky Whipp, who adds that overall 2020 was not as bad as it could have been. She has a positive outlook for this year, “unless the state of Florida has a big shutdown.”

Local youth baseball programs had an abbreviated season in Whipp’s territory, while high school teams played about a dozen games before their seasons were abruptly halted in March. But local travel baseball teams never really stopped playing. Two other categories that kept the doors open were local adult and senior (age 55-plus) teams.  

“The adult leagues started playing again last fall and the senior league teams started in January,” says Whipp. “Clearly, baseball is our busiest sport — 12 months a year.”

The Mid-Atlantic Plays Ball, Sort Of

For Al’s Sporting Goods in Wilmington, DE, whose clients come from four states – Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey – the challenge was that each state had implemented its own rules on playing sports, which impacted their buying decisions. For owner Bob Hart, it was not easy keeping track of each state’s ever-changing policies.

Most recreation leagues and travel teams started late, while the local high school teams in the four states had a week of practice before the season came to a grinding halt.

“Even with a late start, only half of our Little League teams played last year,” says Hart. “And we had no high school teams playing baseball games at all.”

During a normal sales cycles, Hart sells baseballs, T-shirts, hats, pants, socks and belts to local youth programs. Hart’s sales of cleats from Under Armour, Nike and Adidas were down as well.

Another negative residual of COVID-19 was the much-smaller amount of baseball business Al’s did at Christmas.

“We didn’t sell nearly as many bats during the holidays as we normally do,” adds Hart. “It was either a case of last year’s bat was not used or there is uncertainty about the baseball season being played in 2021.”

Battling in the Midwest

At Jack Pearl’s Sports Center in Battle Creek, MI, owner Keith Manning is optimistic that high school baseball and other spring sports will start on schedule in Michigan.

“They are trying to keep our spring sports on track and start them on time,” says Manning. “The high school baseball season should be 12 to 14 games this year.”

It’s important for Manning’s bottom line that high school baseball is played this year since it represents half of his baseball revenue. “I sell head-to-toe in baseball with the exception of cleats,” he says. He does sell a few bats, but the bat category is “hit or miss.” No pun intended.

Outside of high school baseball, 35 percent of Manning’s revenue is from travel ball, while recreation baseball accounts for the remaining 15 percent. Unfortunately, rec baseball programs in the greater Battle Creek area have been shuttered since last March and their immediate future remains unknown.

“Rec baseball for this year is still up in the air in our area,” admits Manning.

In Lima, OH, the baseball sales were “slim pickings” for Lima Sporting Goods, according to owner Dan Kirian. High school and junior high school baseball seasons were cancelled first and then the local recreation leagues followed suit. Later in the summer, some local high school teams decided to play a few games against one another, but nothing was sanctioned by the state.

“Some area travel teams did play games by traveling to Indiana to play in tournaments,” adds Kirian. “We sold them some gear and equipment.” He remains cautiously optimistic that baseball will be played in Ohio in 2021.

Out in the western states, 2020 was not a pretty picture for Jerry Ocuda, owner of Turf Sporting Goods, Las Vegas, NV.

“We are so glad that 2020 is over and we are optimistic that 2021 will be better,” he says.

High school baseball just never really got started in Nevada last spring, which is impacting business this year.

“High school baseball had two or three pre-season games and then everything got cancelled,” says Ocuda. “We delivered the order for Little League and, fortunately, got paid for it.”

Local travel teams in Las Vegas played games, but they had to travel to Arizona and Utah to find open fields and opponents since they were not allowed to play games in Nevada.

“Selling to travel teams really helped us get through the pandemic,” says Ocuda.

Baseball Is A Survivor

At the beginning of 2020, the world of baseball looked fine. Less than three months later the bottom dropped out. But perhaps it takes the perspective of a major supplier to the baseball business to give a final viewpoint on the upcoming season.

“The timing of the COVID-19 crisis was a perfect storm for the baseball industry,” says Pat Ryan, global product director for the Baseball/Softball Division of Wilson Sporting Goods, who points out that baseball equipment’s busiest shipping quarter is the first quarter.

“Just after we shipped a good majority of our sell-in for 2020 products, the baseball world stopped,” he recalls. “Baseball ceased at all levels before it really started and essentially an entire year of play by the majority of players was lost. Our largest customers shuttered their doors for weeks at a minimum, while others closed for the season or permanently.”

The baseball world was heartened when Major League Baseball did begin play again in an abbreviated season and some stores gradually reopened, but play was uneven across the country. Travel ball was played more, while recreation ball was a huge challenge and many communities did not play at all due to the local pandemic-related rules.

But despite the obvious difficulties, 2020 was not a total loss.

“We saw strong consumer demand for new, innovative products, as well as strong overall demand in online sales,” Ryan says.  

There’s no doubt about the level of interest in getting back to playing baseball in 2021.

“We can say definitively that there is a strong desire to play and to resume full baseball play,” says Ryan, who thinks that there is a lot of pent-up demand for new products and for people to get back to doing the things they love to do.

“Throughout history, baseball as a sport and as a business has survived pandemics, wars, economic recessions and depressions,” Ryan adds. “Nobody knows the exact timing of a full recovery, but we do expect to bounce back above 2020 business levels in 2021. The challenge and goal will be to get back to pre-pandemic levels of 2019, as soon as possible.”