Shine On Again!
A successful 2021 season has the diamond sports close to returning to pre-pandemic levels.
In the Spring of 2020, if you didn’t know otherwise you would have thought that baseball and fast-pitch softball teams, even the amateurs, were on strike. Diamonds were deserted. Dugouts sat vacant and bleachers were empty. Concession stands shuttered — not a hot dog vendor to be found. Nobody was seen rounding third and heading for home.
And, worst of all, team dealers sat in their offices twiddling their thumbs. Well, they may have been busy fielding cancelled orders and communicating with equally idle vendors. It was not a pretty picture. Heck, even the umpires were missed.
Fast forward to Spring 2021 and the picture was much prettier as the sports of baseball and fast-pitch softball found a way to co-exist and, in some cases, thrive during this new normal.
And, yes, even the hot dog vendors were back in many parts of the country.
The games of baseball and fast-pitch softball had come back to life and team dealers were kick-started back into gear. It maybe wasn’t high gear, but the diamonds once again shined after months of uncertainty.
Walk. Then Run
Of course, this progress was better in some states than in others.
“Given the nature of the pandemic, the fact that high school baseball returned in some capacity was a win for the game, the players and the coaches,” says Elliot Hopkins, director of sports, sanctioning and student services for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
“We look forward to a more robust return of high school baseball in the spring of 2022,” he adds. “Baseball will make a complete comeback.”
This past spring, the high school fast-pitch softball landscape was best described as uncertain, but at least state associations and their member schools remained committed to making the best out of a bad situation, according to Sandy Searcy, NFHS director of sports, sanctioning and student services.
“State associations worked hard to comply with a landscape that was constantly changing,” says Searcy. “They were innovative, creative and detailed in their planning to conduct a season and tournament series competitions.” It helped that NFHS has provided these state associations with general and sport-specific guidance relative to possible rule modifications to help navigate their seasons and that the NFHS decided not to make any rules changes either to girls’ fast-pitch softball for the 2020-21 school year.
“After the cancellation of high school fast-pitch softball last spring, it was refreshing to see girls get back on the diamond to do what they love to do,” Searcy continues. “While there were a number of postponements due to COVID this year, we were able to start and finish seasons around the country. Fast-pitch softball is back and participation will only improve next year. That is great news for schools, softball student-athletes and coaches.”
An Improved Outlook
That news differs around the country, but the outlook is overwhelmingly positive among team dealers.
In Massachusetts, the 2021 baseball and softball landscape is certainly an improvement over the Spring 2020 — but it was far from ideal.
“We played baseball and softball up here in Massachusetts at the high school and rec level this spring, but there weren’t as many kids playing sports as in the past, especially in rec ball,” reports Betsy Frey, owner of Holyoke Sporting Goods in Holyoke, MA.
“Overall, I think we only had 40 percent participation, compared to the past,” she adds, pointing out that one of her recreational baseball leagues that normally has at least 25 teams fielded only 10 this year for a rec season that normally starts in April but was delayed until May.
While Frey did sell a wide range of baseball and softball uniforms, gear and equipment, sales were not a home run — probably more like a ground rule double.
“Many people didn’t buy new items because they had unused and leftover gear from last year,” says Frey. “The one area that was strong was batting helmets because every youngster needed their own helmet.”
Another issue that Frey and other dealers had to contend with was untimely delivery of product.
“We are having a hard time getting what we need for these teams,” says Frey, who nonetheless is delighted with the current situation that is light years ahead of 2020.
“Hopefully, kids will start playing sports and things will pick up in the fall,” says Frey. “I have already seen signs for soccer sign-ups for the fall.”
Playing Ball in the East
In Delaware, baseball and softball teams were busy playing ball, but sales at Al’s Sporting Goods in Wilmington were not as brisk as in previous years.
“Overall, baseball and softball sales were good, but they were down a little because many teams had merchandise from 2020 that was not used,” says owner Bob Hart. “But I expect baseball and softball sales to improve next year.” He says he has already heard from some high school athletic directors about ordering new uniforms for next spring.
Meanwhile, down in Florida, where high school baseball and fast-pitch softball teams normally play 25 regular season games, schedules were reduced to roughly 15 — and many of those games were cancelled or postponed because of COVID outbreaks. Still, the regular season was played and state champions were crowned at all levels.
So while uniforms, bats, balls, gloves and cleats were sold, the bottom lines for team dealers were hurt because many teams delayed their uniform purchases for a year.
“Many teams are putting off their next team uniform purchase until next year or possibly later,” says Kevin Licata, manager of Medallion’s Sporting Goods in Jupiter, FL. “We are still feeling the pinch from the abrupt cancellation of baseball and softball in Spring 2020.”
Overall, Licata says his baseball business was about 70 percent of previous seasons. “The local youth leagues had a strong kickoff, they played their regular season games and the players are now transitioning to all-stars and travel ball. All things considered, baseball was strong this past spring,” he says.
Licata, too, has concerns about the reliability of the supply chain, particularly for hardgoods such as baseballs, mitts, cleats and bats.
Another issue for fast-pitch softball in south Florida is the competition for athletes from lacrosse and flag football. “Many softball players are leaving softball in favor of lacrosse and flag football,” says Licata.
Since, NAIA colleges – many of which are in Florida – have started girls’ flag football programs and they have scholarships to offer, it’s an incentive for a high school-aged girl to leave softball in search of flag football’s greener pastures.
In Vero Beach, FL – the location of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ former spring training home known as Dodgertown – baseball fared well during the COVID-19 crisis of 2020 for Dave’s Sporting Goods. And business has been solid this year.
“Everything shut down for about six weeks last year, but baseball was the first sport to return,” says co-owner Becky Whipp. “So far, it’s been a regular year for us selling baseball and softball because those two sports have rebounded well from the pandemic.”
Whipp’s youth baseball programs had an abbreviated season back in 2020, while local high school teams played about a dozen games before their seasons were abruptly halted, but the local travel baseball teams never really stopped playing.
Two other baseball clients for Dave’s Sporting Goods are local adult teams 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.”
While many team dealers don’t sell bats and cleats because of inventory challenges, Dave’s Sporting Goods does well in those categories.
“We sell bats and cleats because many team dealers don’t,” adds Whipp — bats from Rawlings and Louisville Slugger and cleats from Under Armour.
A Walk in the Park
In Indiana, it has been business as usual for high school baseball and softball in 2021.
“We had full seasons for high school baseball and softball,” reports Doc Claussen, manager of Coaches Corner in Terre Haute, IN. “Business was not as strong as it was in 2019, but I don’t expect baseball and softball sales to return to normal until Spring 2023.”
In addition to being a sporting goods salesman, Claussen is also an umpire for baseball and softball and in May alone this year he officiated 21 high school baseball and softball games. He did so many because many baseball and softball officials had decided not to return as umpires because of COVID concerns.
Because of its geographic proximity along the Indiana-Illinois border, Coaches Corner sells into Illinois schools as well, where sales were not as strong since the seasons for both diamond sports were delayed and considerably shortened.
“I’m expecting record turnouts for all sports, but I’m not sure if our supply chains can deliver what we need in time for all athletes on all teams in all sports.” – Stanley Costales, Jr., Sport Line,Hilo, HI.
“For schools in Illinois, we sold mostly scorebooks, field marking paint and game balls,” says Claussen.
Also in the Midwest, there was a brief six-week shutdown in the spring of last year in Iowa and then the governor instructed high schools to play baseball — and they did. As a result it was the only state to crown state champions in high school baseball last year. Traditionally, Iowa plays high school baseball in the summer and that tradition continues this year, which is good for sales.
“High school baseball and softball have been great in our state,” says Derrik Netten, president of Iowa Sports Supply in Cedar Rapids. “Participation is strong.”
Again, the one major issue for Netten has been a slow delivery of product. But, Netten and his customers have resorted to their own Plan B.
“If teams can’t get what they need, they are pivoting and going to an off-brand,” says Netten. “It’s been super frustrating, but people have been adjusting on the fly when it comes to buying product. I have heard that many of the suppliers are understaffed, which adds to delay of product being shipped.”
Gambling on Participation
In Nevada, high school baseball and softball teams had limited 12-game schedules, but even then most teams did not play all because of continued positive COVID-19 tests. But at least it was an improvement over the spring of 2020, according to Shawn Huff, manager of Turf Sporting Goods in Las Vegas.
“We had no sports in Spring 2020,” said Huff. “It was better this spring.”
And, Huff is keeping his fingers crossed that business next spring will show a continued improvement. That’s a bet which Huff is willing to make.
Youth baseball was played this past spring in Las Vegas, which helped generate some equipment and uniform sales, but the overall lack of play at the recreation, travel and high school level in the last year caused one local sporting goods store in Las Vegas to go out of business.
Out west in southern California, the 2021 recreational baseball business was an improvement over what took place in Spring 2020, but it was not as good as it was pre-COVID.
“Our rec baseball business was all right, definitely better than we expected it to be, but not as strong as it was in prior years,” says Rhonda Giummo, owner of PRG Enterprises in Menifee, CA. “Teams are continuing to buy uniforms, hats, belts and socks.
Out in Hawaii, sales in the last 12 months have been as bad as one could expect.
“Since last spring, business has been horrible,” says Stanley Costales, Jr., owner of Sport Line in Hilo, HI. “It’s been like Death Valley.”
That’s because while many parts of the U.S. were playing limited schedules of high school baseball and fast-pitch softball this past spring, it was all quiet, for the most part, throughout Hawaii.
“For the most part, Hawaii was a non-participant in high school sports this past spring,” says Costales. On the island of Oahu, private and public high schools had a short three-week schedule for baseball and softball. On the other Hawaiian islands, high school baseball and softball were not played.
“But all indications are that we will return to normal this coming fall, which means we will have baseball and softball next spring,” he adds.
But, Costales, too, is concerned about the ability of manufacturers to supply enough merchandise in a timely manner.
“I’m expecting record turnouts for all sports, but I’m not sure if our supply chains can deliver what we need in time for all athletes on all teams in all sports,” he says. “Meeting the demand for product may be difficult in the coming months.”
But, Costales says that’s a better problem to have than one where no teams are playing sports at all or not ordering product.
Inside the Numbers
The NFHS conducts a high school sports participation study each year, but because of the disruption to high school sports in 2020 there was no survey conducted for the 2019-20 school year. The most recent figures for high school sports participation are from the 2018-19 school year.
Back in 2018-19, fast-pitch softball was the fourth-most popular high school sport for girls, with 15,877 schools.
According to the NFHS, 364,221 student-athletes played high school fast-pitch softball in the U.S., a slight drop from the 369,450 high school fast-pitch softball participants during 2017-18 school year.
Of those 364,221 high school fast-pitch softball players, 2,183 were boys.
Fast-pitch softball ranks number five in high school participation with 362,038 players. (The largest high school sport for girls – based on the number of participants – is track and field, with 488,267.)
The top 10 states for high school fast-pitch softball participation are Texas, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Florida and New Jersey.
High school baseball is the fourth most popular sport for boys, according to the NFHS, with 484,024 players. A few of them were girls — 1284 to be exact.
Baseball ranked third with 16,170 schools.
The top 10 states for high school baseball participation are Texas, California, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, New York, Michigan, New Jersey and Missouri.
Boys do not have the exclusive domain when it comes to playing baseball. To cater to the female baseball player, Baseball for All executive director Justine Siegel reports that in the last 12 months there have been a number of promising developments in the world of girls baseball, including the creation of eight new girls’ baseball teams in Cleveland, Dallas and San Diego.