Retaking the Field
A trip across the country highlights the challenges, successes and nuances of resuming regular team sports business.
The summer of 2021 is a time of rebirth and re-opening for America and, thankfully, for the team sports business as well. As more state and local governments and agencies give the go-ahead for a full reopening, the team market is enthusiastically ramping back up to full strength.
While this is certainly good news, the progression to “normalcy” is not uniform throughout the country due to a hodge-podge of state and local mandates. While states such as Florida and Texas have been fully opened for months, others such as California and Washington are just beginning to emerge from restrictions.
Meanwhile, everybody – from vendors to dealers – in the team market is still grappling with supply chain issues that are expected to continue through the end of this year and perhaps linger into early 2022.
Add to that the concern in many locales over how to handle changing school, club and league buying demands resulting from the pandemic-induced shortened and cancelled seasons and it is obvious this re-opening will not be painless.
But following the unprecedented challenges of last summer – remember all those uncertain schedules, late and limited ordering, cancelled/postponed seasons – overall as more teams swing into action, the mood among dealers is decidedly upbeat and hopeful. A trip across the country highlights the challenges, successes and nuances of resuming regular business after so many false starts in the past 18 months.
Let’s call it Back to Business 2.0.
A Mixed Bag in the East
“We’re getting there and people are ready to get back to sports. Coaches are committing and schools have budgets and want to use them,” reports Jarred Treiber, VP–strategic development at Medford, NJ-based Sports Paradise. The dealer has three locations – one each in Medford and Delran, NJ, and one in Harrisburg, NY – that service New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York. “Orders are up. People didn’t place orders during COVID and now they want to use their budgets and get new uniforms that they’ve waited two years to obtain.”
He believes business is rebounding: “We’re at least getting back to a new normal, but there will still be some apprehension.”
Treiber notes that product availability remains an issue. “Vendors and dealers can’t keep up with demand and it’s tough to get some customers to understand the supply chain issues,” he says. “People who’ve tried to buy appliances or building materials in past months get it, but others who haven’t really been exposed to the delays don’t comprehend the extent of the problem.
“We’re just now starting to get products back into inventory, but there will be some lag in catching up,” he adds. “We’ll still have to scramble, but things should be mostly back to normal in the fall, which is when inventory will hit warehouses.”
While the pandemic put a lid on most in-person meetings, which prompted dealers to rely more on remote ordering, Treiber believes that the market was headed in this direction anyway.
“A lot of business is remote, which is not necessarily all due to COVID,” he says. “For uniforms, we still meet with coaches and athletic directors in-person if they want to see us. But they’re most interested in price and availability — they know the brands already.
Treiber’s key strategy for getting back to business is to be able to pivot quickly by finding alternate resources and getting customers what they need, as opposed to what they think they need. “We don’t want to disappoint customers,” he says. “We’ve always been about service and now it’s a priority.”
Challenges in Massachusetts
Meanwhile, at Holyoke Sporting Goods in Holyoke, MA, owner Betsy Frey laments that business is still slow even as the region opens up.
“In baseball this year, we only did 40 percent of what we used to do pre-pandemic,” she says, pointing out that there are lots of schools that still have unused product and many students weren’t even in school until late-May since the state of emergency in her state didn’t get lifted until June 15.
While sports have since commenced, Frey thinks there may still be cutbacks.
“We’ll have soccer and football, but they won’t be as robust as they used to be,” she projects. In addition, schools are still sitting on lots of unused product and some leagues never opened up or got shut down early so they never wore out their equipment.
Shipping and inventory issues are only adding to Frey’s frustration.
With pandemic restrictions easing, team dealers are getting back up to speed.
“Shipping has been very slow, taking about 20 to 30 days to get product in — if the items are even in stock. Normally, shipping takes about a week,” she says. “There was also pressure from vendors to place orders early, but we weren’t open then so we didn’t place orders. And anyway, shipping departments couldn’t ship orders right away.”
Frey is now trying to complete her ordering for next year’s baseball season in the hopes of avoiding further supply chain issues.
As for in-person meetings, Frey relates that it’s hard to get past the front door of schools, especially to make deliveries: “Most business is now done via phone and email, plus a lot of athletic directors come to see us.”
Her strategy is to be proactive by “reaching out to customers and letting them know that we’re open and here for them.”
She adds: “COVID taught all of us a big lesson because we used to think that sports were recession-proof. The pandemic shut everyone down for months and I learned that you always have to watch your inventory and finances, and most importantly, plan ahead.”
Rocky Mountain High
In Colorado, the team market is getting back to normal, much to the relief and delight of Todd Garretson, owner of Garretson’s Sports Center in Greely.
“We were fortunate because even though team is a majority of our business, we did a lot of retail during the pandemic and now we’re ready to rock and roll for 2022,” he says. “I’m very optimistic. Pent-up demand will help things rebound. Things will be as good or better than in 2019 and we’ll see kids and parents going full steam ahead.”
However, Garretson admits that things are “a little spooky” for fall due to the uncertainty of product availability.
“Inventory is the number one thing because factories are waiting for containers to get unloaded and turned around and prices will go up on everything,” he says. “Eventually, inventory will catch up with demand, but it’s hard to predict when.” For example, no youth leather footballs will be available until January.
Coming out of the pandemic, Garretson had thought that schools wouldn’t buy as much, but in reality it’s been business as usual.
“We don’t anticipate a slowdown. We had to reorder baseballs four or five times this year and we will sell as many or more footballs as in 2019,” he says, adding that the uniform business remains steady.
He also reports that 99 percent of his customers can now be visited in-person with no restrictions. As a result, the business has been aggressively moving forward.
“We’ve grown and hired three more people — two roadpeople and a support person,” says Garretson. “Customer service is key and I’m optimistic that we’ll see our sales grow in the next year.”
Winning in Kentucky
Team sports in the Bluegrass State are quickly gaining momentum thanks to a full reopening.
“Over the past month [June] business really picked up,” reports Aaron Hutchinson, a salesman at Campbellsville, KY-based H+W Duke’s Sporting Goods, which also has one location each in Bowling Green and Elizabethtown, KY. “We’re already receiving orders for custom uniforms for fall into winter and leading into Spring 2022. This should be the biggest year ever for the company.”
[Editor’s note: H+W Sports and Duke’s Sporting Goods merged in early June, bringing together more than a century of experience in the sporting goods industry. The combined entity is now one of the top 15 Adidas team dealers in the nation; Duke’s was already the second-biggest school jacket seller in the country.]
Although COVID disrupted the usual selling cycle, business is now getting back on track for the combined entity.
“Baseball and softball teams had new uniforms so they didn’t need anything, but now they’ve played a season and are amped up and ready to go,” Hutchinson says. “Some schools skipped a year or held back, but they’re now back on-cycle and are getting uniforms and a lot of schools and administrators are back to a regular rotation.”
“Inventory is the number one thing because factories are waiting for containers to get unloaded and turned around and prices will go up on everything. Eventually, inventory will catch up with demand, but it’s hard to predict when.” – Todd Garretson, Garretson’s Sports Center
Since state mask mandates were lifted in the spring, reps are able to visit with coaches; however, a lot of customers and coaches turned to online ordering during the pandemic, so the challenge now is to rebuild those personal, one-on-one relationships.
According to Hutchinson, the goal is to sell one or two seasons ahead and the dealer has already started selling custom uniforms for Spring 2022. “People are on top of ordering earlier now and everybody is really excited about getting back to playing,” he says.
The main concern now is the supply chain. “We’ve seen a lot of delays from quite a few vendors, depending on where in the world the products are made. But a lot of our vendors are doing a fantastic job — smaller brands such as A4 and SanMar are reacting quickly.” He adds that rising shipping costs are also a big factor affecting the price of goods.
During the pandemic lull, the company focused on its corporate business, which includes supplying custom items to distilleries, car dealerships and even Amazon.
“The corporate business really sustained us over the past year and we’ve even been able to plug in a lot of team brands such as Adidas and Under Armour,” says Hutchinson. But now, the strategy is to go full throttle in the team market.
“We want to push the gas and be out in front of things and be ahead of the curve. We’re excited for the rest of the year.,” he says. “Usually, June and early July is a slow time but we’re crazy busy now, which is good.”
Momentum in Minnesota
While the team business suffered here during the pandemic, All Seasons Sports in Delano, MN, had an ace up its sleeve. “We were fortunate. We got through the pandemic because we also handle hunting and outdoor, which continued to boom in popularity,” says owner Shawn Lynch. “Some people enjoyed having more unscheduled family time and might be reticent to get back to team sports full bore, but overall our outlook is strong for the second half of 2021.”
On the product side, the situation is still a bit tricky. “A lot of organizations had product from the year before and also schools had budget constraints,” says Lynch, who is trying to stay ahead of the game but is having a challenge by a lack of fill-in product availability.
“We’re figuring out what to order — all in all, it’s a small wrinkle for us.”
Although COVID disrupted the usual selling cycle, business is now getting back on track for dealers, vendors and their customers.
Although in-person meetings with coaches and athletic directors have resumed, most of the dealer’s business is done remotely via email, phone and text.
Lynch believes that supply chain issues are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. “Inventory will be tight — you don’t catch up overnight,” he says. “Freight costs are also a factor and will add extra costs to each item.”
The key, he says, is to stay positive: “Control what we can, put the work in and the problem will take care of itself.”
The Golden State endured some of the most Draconian pandemic restrictions in the country and is just now starting to emerge from the nightmare. (Washington state suffered a similar fate and one dealer there, who asked to remain anonymous, remains so infuriated by the situation that he declined to comment for this article, fearing that he’d be tempted to launch into an unprintable diatribe.)
At any rate, team sports are at long last being played, although the progress is gradual.
“We’re getting there, but we’re not up to full strength yet. Leagues are starting to play again and club sports are getting back to normal,” says Aaron Karsh, director of operations at California Pro Sports in Harbor City, CA. “Our outlook is good and we’re hoping that everything will get back on track. In California, the calendar moved up a bit so things are more of a challenge this year.”
Karsh notes that orders are up because school teams didn’t play a lot last year.
“Programs that had money bought uniforms, but didn’t use them and others didn’t buy uniforms but now need them,” he explains, adding that there is still uncertainty with fundraising.
Supply chain issues are still causing headaches and there are numerous ripple effects. Karsh explains that during the pandemic, many overseas manufacturers changed their tooling to suit changing market demands, while others had trouble obtaining parts such as thread and zippers, all of which impacted product production and availability.
On the bright side, “This presented a good opportunity for us to get rid of back stock from two to three years back and allowed us to move through some of the older stock that we have,” he says.
Overall, Karsh is looking forward to attending more in-person events. California Pro Sports has a retail trailer that it takes to tournaments and it also wants to be more proactive in retail.
Echoing the sentiments of other dealers across America, Karsh declares,” I’m excited about being back in a normal cycle and hope it stays that way.”
While pandemic shutdowns have been agonizing for team dealers, vendor reps have had their share of angst, too, particularly because they’re in a profession that relies on building and maintaining in-person relationships. For most reps, the road is once again beckoning and the full reopening of business can’t come soon enough.
“I’m seeing some dealers and I’ve had a few meetings with team salesmen and have done a few Zoom meetings with dealers,” says Don Leonard, president of Winston-Salem, NC-based Crown Sport Sales that covers North and South Carolina. He has met with schools periodically in coordination with team dealers to sell various products and did travel some during 2020 — that was all appointment-based and usually involved meeting with only one or two people, fully masked and with social distancing. “I am traveling now, am fully vaccinated and continue to wear a mask as needed,” he says.
While Leonard says he “did okay” during the pandemic and avoided contracting COVID-19, he admits that while his travel expenses were down, so were his commissions.
He anticipates that supply chain issues will continue to be a headache for the next 12 to 18 months due foreign sourcing. However, he says, “Several of the companies I represent manufacture their products in the USA, and I think that helps.”
Leonard also observes that the mood of most team dealers is optimistic.
“They are starting to see an uptick in business and are scrambling to get product,” he says. “Everyone wants to see product on the shelves. The schools want the dealers to have it and the dealers want the manufacturers to have it available to ship ASAP. There may be an adjustment period for a while until things get back to the new normal.”
Reopening in Georgia
In Georgia, Derreck Cole, co-owner of Cole Athletic Sales in the Atlanta suburb of Cumming, is glad that for the most part business is back to normal and he’s back to traveling. Employment at his company is holding steady and there are currently four people working in the agency.
Looking back, he recalls that, “March, April and May 2020 were challenging, but the Paycheck Protection Program helped a lot with payroll costs.”
Fortunately, “in the Southeast things opened up rather quickly and everyone is now busy. Dealers seem to be positive about the future,” says Cole, who points out that as the business heads into football season there will inventory challenges, but everything should straighten out in 2022.
“I’m crossing my fingers,” he says.
CAREing in North Carolina
Meanwhile, Chuck Overman, president of Overman & Associates in Mt. Holly, NC, says that while he’s able to get in to see dealers, there are still a number of buyers that are not back in the office and are continuing to work from home.
“Most people will go to the office for presentations of new product and I can see buyers, but not all of them are team guys,” he reports. He says that he is traveling somewhat, but it’s not as crazy as before, although he is grateful that the national and regional trade shows are also getting back on the schedule for 2022.
Interestingly, Overman mentions that there does seem to be some CARES Act money out there that schools have to use it or lose it, so there’s a chase for those dollars.
Certainly, supply chain issues remain top of mind.
“It’s a tangled web,” says Overman. “Lots of subcontractors in Asia closed, there were issues with labor and parts and ports can’t get containers off of ships fast enough,” he points out, believing that it will probably be mid-2022 until the situation is resolved.”
He adds: “Recently, there was a leather football shortage and now there is a composite football shortage, too. There may not be any footballs available in Spring 2022.”
Nevertheless, Overman says that dealers are optimistic and they think the business will come back — but it isn’t where it needs to be yet.
A Resilient Team Business
All three reps firmly believe that sporting goods is a very resilient industry that will recover from the pandemic impact along with the rest of the business world.
“People will pay to play and pay to be entertained by sports,” Leonard points out. “Sure, there will be adjustments to be made in the way we do business and how we interact with others, but it’s a great industry in which to be involved.”