Even with the impact of the pandemic – or maybe because of it – specialty sports are thriving.
While nearly every sporting goods team dealer and local retailer understandably dedicates the majority of their time to the Big Four – football, basketball, baseball and softball – that generate the most revenue, they are well aware that the so-called “specialty sports” deserve a fair amount of time and sales attention, as well.
Because if dealers don’t give sports such as soccer, volleyball, lacrosse, cheer and track and field – and even rugby – the amount of time that they deserve, they are losing out on a loyal, growing and committed customer. It can, indeed, represent the difference between a good year and a great one.
And, while these “other” sports may be classified as specialty or second tier, the rising levels of interest and participation in all of them are beginning to rival the major sports.
Leading the way in this growth are soccer, once the ultimate specialty sport that now has to be almost considered one of the Big Five, and volleyball, especially at the club level.
Soccer Kicks In
At the high school level, soccer continues to rise in popularity. According to the latest figures from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), girls’ soccer is the fourth most popular sport in terms of participation (behind track and field, volleyball and basketball), while boys’ soccer is the fifth most popular high school sport in the U.S., behind only tackle football, track and field, basketball and baseball.
In Wellington, FL, last year’s COVID-19 pandemic was the main reason why the local recreational soccer league downsized from 7-a-side to 3-a-side. The pandemic directly impacted the number of registered players, which of course also negatively impacted local sales of shorts, shirts, socks, shinguards, balls, cleats and mesh kits bags for Scotty’s Sports Shop in Wellington.
Now this fall, the recreational league in the town is back playing 7-a-side matches, which means local soccer sales are returning to some semblance of normal for owner Jerry Steuerer.
“Soccer is not a huge category for me, but I definitely felt the side effects to sales last fall and this past spring,” says Steuerer.
In New England, Betsy Frey, owner of Frey’s Sporting Goods, is busy selling soccer throughout the year, especially in the fall and spring. “Soccer is a good sport for me,” she says.
Most of Frey’s soccer sales are to younger children in rec leagues, though she does have a strong local high school business.
“For youth leagues, I supply the team T-shirt, socks, shin guards, soccer balls, nets and cleats,” says Frey. “For little kids who need cleats, they walk into the store with their parents, they try on a pair of shoes and then I let them run on the carpet, which takes them to the front door and back, to see if the shoes fit.”
As young soccer players turn into teenagers, they tend to go elsewhere to buy their soccer cleats.
“When the players get old enough to make decisions on style and color, I send them somewhere else to buy their cleats,” says Frey. “I don’t deal with high-end cleats.”
In Manlius, NY, located just east of Syracuse, Scholastic Sports Sales caters mostly to high school soccer teams.
According to president Justin Miller, the team dealer sells uniforms, soccer goals, corner flags, shinguards, sideline shelters and many, many pairs of soccer socks.
“We sell lots of Under Armour soccer socks,” he says.
In Terre Haute, IN, virtually every soccer customer and team gets what they need from Coaches Corner.
According to manager Doc Claussen, he personally delivers uniforms, soccer balls, corner flags, goals, shinguards, nets and many pairs of socks from Nike, Adidas, Pro Feet and Twin City.
FYI: The latest SFIA data indicates there were 12,444,000 outdoor soccer participants in the U.S. in 2020.
In Cedar Falls, IA, Derek Netten and his staff at Iowa Sports Supply keep high school soccer teams equipped with uniforms, goals, soccer balls, socks and shinguards. Iowa Sports Supply does not sell soccer cleats, simply because shoe styles change so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to keep the hot styles in stock.
“When it comes to footwear, many athletes can also order customized shoes from Nike, which makes it impossible for us to compete,” says Netten.
Down in Fort Worth, TX, many high school soccer programs in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area are purchasing their uniforms, socks and shinguards from Carey’s Sporting Goods, but like at many other dealers the cleat business is minimal for Carey’s.
“About 99 percent of the high school players have to buy their own shoes, so they buy them elsewhere, usually online,” reports owner Dan Carey.
A Spike In Volleyball Sales
With the club side of the business driving participation among the most serious players, volleyball continues to see participation increases even at the high school level. According to the latest figures from NFHS, girls’ volleyball is the second most popular sport high school sport for girls behind only track and field.
Many people don’t know this, but the birthplace of volleyball is Holyoke, MA, and as you would expect the sport is an important niche for Holyoke Sporting Goods.
In Massachusetts, volleyball is played by high school girls in the fall, high school boys in the spring and at the YMCA at various times of the year. For Frey, her high school volleyball sales are steady.
“High school volleyball teams are buying uniforms, volleyballs, nets and knee pads,” Frey says. “But, sadly, we don’t have a new youth volleyball league in Holyoke. We should have a youth volleyball league since the Volleyball Hall of Fame is in our town.”
In Whitehouse Station, NJ, volleyball is not the biggest sport for Darrow’s Sporting Edge, but it does generate consistent sales.
According to Vinny Iaione, custom sales manager, Darrow’s sells volleyballs, knee pads, compression shorts, nets, socks and undergarments. The one volleyball category that Darrow’s Sporting Edge does not stock is footwear, but shoes can be included in an order, if necessary. The same can be said for larger volleyball items such as ball hoppers.
In New Jersey, girls are playing varsity volleyball in the fall and boys are playing in the spring and in between many of those same athletes are playing club/travel volleyball. It’s not unusual for volleyball players to visit Darrow’s Sporting Edge on a Saturday morning prior to a weekend tournament in search of an extra pair of socks, knee pads or possibly an extra volleyball.
Scholastic Sports Sales produces a steady stream of revenue from volleyball.
“We sell uniforms, volleyballs, net systems, ball hoppers and knee pads to local high school volleyball programs,” says Miller.
In Indiana, volleyball is a major sport for Kratz Sporting Goods in Clarksville.
According to salesman Jim Brown, girls’ high school volleyball in Indiana starts in August and finishes in November and club volleyball runs from January to July, making it essentially a year-round sale. And now there’s high school volleyball for boys in Indiana in the spring.
“When you consider the number of small high schools in southern Indiana that don’t have football and the fact that every school plays volleyball, the sport of volleyball is a very strong alongside basketball as our second-best category,” says Brown. “Plus, we sell everything from head-to-toe in volleyball.”
While there’s very little recreational volleyball in Indiana for children, many elementary and middle schools are fielding volleyball teams.
“Volleyball is sold year-round for us,” says Brown.
In Ohio and West Virginia, the volleyball business is a steady and strong category for Zide’s Sporting Goods in Marietta, OH.
“We have some schools in our area that are really committed to volleyball and they purchase uniforms, volleyballs, nets, backpacks and knee pads,” according to VP John Zide.
While many team dealers around the U.S. struggled to sell anything related to volleyball in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that wasn’t the case for Iowa Sports Supply in Cedar Falls.
“Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds is really progressive and did a great job of keeping school sports going because sports are important for the mental and physical health of our kids,” explains Netten.
As a result, high school sports continued to be played in the Hawkeye State throughout 2020 and into 2021. Naturally, sales of volleyball uniforms, net systems, knee pads and volleyballs were steady.
However, while sports such as volleyball continued to be played, the ability of booster clubs to raise money for big-ticket items suffered, according to Netten.
“The biggest side effect of the pandemic was on the purchase of more expensive pieces of equipment, which caused schools to extend the life of certain items because the funds were not there to replace them,” he says.
In addition to catering to the needs of young volleyball athletes, Iowa Sports Supply also addresses the needs of volleyball fans. “We also have a strong online sales as we create electronic stores for fan wear,” says Netten.
FYI: The latest SFIA data indicates there were 5.4 million court volleyball participants in the U.S. in 2020.
Many high school volleyball programs in the greater Dallas Metroplex are purchasing their apparel and gear from Carey’s Sporting Goods and, according to Carey, they buy a lot of uniforms, socks, shoes, knee pads, balls, ball hoppers, hair ties and nets. Now the majority of Carey’s volleyball business is to area high schools, but he used to have a considerable number of sales to local travel volleyball clubs before they got too big
“We used to sell a great deal to volleyball clubs, but they started getting their own contracts directly with manufacturers, which caused my club business to disappear,” says Carey.
Out in Hawaii, school sports have been shut down again, according to Stanley Costales, Jr., owner of Sports Line, in Hilo. That means high school volleyball for girls and football for boys are on hold. (In early August, the Hawaii Department of Education enforced a pause on sports until September 24 because COVID numbers were headed in the wrong direction in Hawaii.)
“I think they will play sports this year, but I’m not sure when they will play and I’m just not sure how many games they will play,” says Costales. “It’s not good right now in Hawaii for school sports. The only schools that are playing football and volleyball are the six private schools on the island of Oahu.”
Lacrosse Sticks It
Another sport working its way out of the ranks of “specialty” is lacrosse for both boys and girls. In fact, boys’ high school lacrosse is now played in 25 states, led by New York, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Florida. Girls’ lacrosse has similar reach, now played at the high school level in 26 states — New York, New Jersey, California, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania lead the way.
Overall, according to the NFHS, girls’ lacrosse is the 10th most popular high school sport for girls.
With New York being one of the hotbeds of high school lacrosse, it’s no surprise that Scholastic Sports Sales in upstate Manlius sells a great deal of lacrosse apparel and gear to local high schools.
“We have a pretty decent lacrosse business,” says Miller. “High school lacrosse teams are buying uniforms, helmets, gloves, balls, cleats, custom socks, rib pads and lots of lacrosse balls. We sell some sticks, but many of the players are buying from lacrosse specialty retailers.”
At Darrow’s Sporting Edge, most of lacrosse clients are the youngest players.
“We cater to younger players who are new to the game and they are looking for the basic necessities such as helmets, protective gear, sticks and gloves,” says Iaione.
FYI: The latest SFIA data indicates there were 1.9 million lacrosse participants in the U.S. in 2020.
According to Iaione, as lacrosse players get older and better their brand preferences change and they usually get more expensive tastes, leading them to purchase from more extensive online sites.
For decades, lacrosse was not a major sport in Florida, where football and baseball have consistently ruled the roost, but that is changing in the Sunshine State. This growth is reflected in the in-store inventory for Jupiter-based team dealer Medallion Sporting Goods.
“For us, lacrosse is getting bigger every year,” reports manager Kevin Licata, who sells to boys’ and girls’ rec, travel and high school lacrosse teams. “Most of our lacrosse business is done with the local rec program in Jupiter, plus a number of local high schools.”
Like other team dealers, his success in lacrosse is mixed. “We sell more equipment than apparel as many teams purchase their uniforms online from lacrosse specialists,” says Licata, who mentions that he has noticed a migration of youngsters from baseball to lacrosse in recent years.
“Lacrosse is like a real-life video game, where the stick is the joystick and you are trying to get the ball to hit the target, which is the net,” Licata says. “And, as one of my salesmen says, ‘Lacrosse is a game with a stick, a ball and a net. How can you not have fun?’”
The only issue that Licata (and other team dealers) is experiencing right now is inconsistency with deliveries of product from the supply chain in all sports, not just lacrosse.
Go T-E-A-M (Maybe)
Team dealers certainly have a love-hate relationship with selling cheerleading, a sport dominated by the likes of BSN Sports’ sister company, Varsity Cheer, and whose uniform and sizing demands are more than many dealers want to handle.
Yet in the U.S., there were 3.3 million cheerleaders in 2020, according to the SFIA, and 1.4 million of them are considered core participants who compete or practice 26 or more days a year.
“When you take into consideration the price, the quality of the product, the turn-around time and the longevity of the uniforms, Varsity produces a great uniform for cheerleading,” says Michelle Metzler, athletic director at Berean Christian School in West Palm Beach, FL, explaining why the brand is so popular with girls and their schools. “From time to time I’ll also buy some cheer accessories from omnicheer.com and superiorcheer.com.”
That’s not so say team dealers aren’t able to grab a small piece of the large cheer pie.
In Holyoke, MA, young cheerleaders visit Holyoke Sporting Goods to purchase necessities such as uniforms, warm-ups, pom-poms, hair bows and hair ties. The one cheerleading product category that Frey does not sell is footwear.
At Darrow’s Sporting Edge, cheerleaders also come in for their accessories, according to Iaione, including their cheer sneaker.
“A regular sneaker is not the correct shoe to wear in cheerleading. Instead, the right kind of shoe in cheer is actually a size or a size-and-a-half bigger than your normal shoe size because of the cushioning in the shoe,” Iaione explains.
Another popular cheerleading product is the pom-pom. At Darrow’s, many of the poms must be special ordered because it’s impossible to stock every single color combination that a cheerleading squad would ever need for a pom-pom.
FYI: There are more than 165,000 high school competitive cheer athletes from more than 7000 schools across the U.S.
But sounding the theme most dealers would agree with, Jared Frink, manager of Pacesetter Sports in Terre Haute, IN, is not cheering for cheer sales. “We used to do a lot of cheerleading sales, but not too much anymore,” he says. “Now, we get the occasional order for a uniform or an accessory to fill in the gap for a cheerleading squad.”
Others seem to agree with not jumping on the cheer pyramid.
“We don’t do too much business in cheerleading, we never have,” points out Bob Hart, owner of Al’s Sporting Goods in Wilmington, DE. “We just don’t get too many orders, but we do get the occasional order for cheerleading shoes.”
“Cheer is not a major category for us, but we do sell to a couple of private schools,” adds Dave Whipp, owner of Dave’s Sporting Goods in Vero Beach, FL, who sells uniforms, pom-poms, hair bands and hair ribbons. “We also sell spirit packs that contain socks, shorts and practice T-shirts, but we have lost the shoe business to online competition.”
Running For Sales
Social distancing has been the norm for the past year-and-a-half and no sport is more socially distant than track and field, so as expected high school-level track remains at the top of popularity polls. In fact, NFHS reports that girls’ track and field is the most popular sport for girls and the second-most popular sport for high school boys.
Scholastic Sports Sales has a vibrant business equipping local high school track and field teams with whatever it needs to participate in the sport.
“We sell spikes, singlets and a wide variety of hard goods like custom hurdles, discuses, shot puts, pole vault pits, pole vault poles and the cross bars for the pole vault and high jump,” says Miller, who also sells team sportswear to fans and family members through its online store.
Track and field is also a very consistent category for Zide’s Sporting Goods. According to Zide, schools in Ohio and West Virginia are purchasing uniforms and all the necessary hard goods such as hurdles, relay batons, pole vault poles, shot puts, discuses and the padding for the pole vault and the high jump pits.
Many of Zide’s track and field customers order player packs that contain the basic necessities – team T-shirts, sweatshirts, customized practice gear and warm-ups – that are required by the school.
Zide believes that the key to continued strong sales in a sport like track and field is to maintain consistent contact with the head coach throughout the year, reminding him or her that you are available to assist with a customized or regular order at any time.
FYI: The latest SFIA data indicates there were 3.6 million track and field participants in the U.S. in 2020.
Any high school track and field participant in Iowa is probably using some equipment purchased from Iowa Sports Supply. According to Netten, he and his associates keep participants and their schools in Iowa equipped with uniforms, spikes, hurdles, relay batons, measuring tape, shot puts and discuses.
“We supply many high school track and field programs with what they need to compete,” said Netten.
In Terre Haute, IN, Clausen and his sales associates at Coaches Corner do their best to maximize their track and field sales, but the problem is that many hard goods in the sport have a long lifespan before they need to be replaced.
“Every three or four years, we’ll get a call to replace hurdles or install a new pole vault pit and it can be every seven years before a timing system is replaced,” Claussen says. “To extend the life of some hurdles, many schools will simply replace the kick board on the hurdle, which is cheaper than buying a new hurdle.”
Every year Claussen will receive orders for uniforms and singlets and spirit packs, which will usually include a pair of shorts, a cotton/fleece warm-up, jogger pants and possibly a sublimated team singlet. And Coaches Corner is selling more fan gear these days for fans, fellow students and family members through its own electronic stores.
The track and field business is steady and strong for Carey’s Sporting Goods, according to Carey, who says whatever a track and field team needs, he will deliver it.
“We are head-to-toe in track and field,” Carey says. “We sell singlets, spikes, relay batons, starting blocks, hurdles, shot puts and discuses, plus the padding for high jump and pole vault pits.”
(Editor’s Note: Senior writer Mike May is an avid rugby participant, so even though it remains a minor sport for America’s team dealers we allow him to write it up every year!)
For years in the U.S., there were just a handful of rugby specific retailers — Matt Godek Rugby & Soccer Supply, Triton Rugby Gear and Rugby Imports, to name a few. Each sold rugby balls, jerseys, shorts, socks, cleats (aka, boots), mouthguards, T-shirts, tank tops, practice accessories and memorable bumper stickers that had catchy slogans such as “Yes, Mom, I Still Play Rugby,” “No Guts No Glory,” and “Give Blood, Play Rugby.” The majority of orders were placed via 800 numbers and product was shipped via UPS. Very few transactions were completed in their stores since Godek was based in Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., Rugby Imports was (and still is) headquartered in Rhode Island and Triton operated from California.
Yet today there are 1.24 million rugby players in the U.S., a slight drop from the 1.4 million players in 2019, according to the SFIA. Clearly, the presence of COVD-19 negatively impacted participation.
Of those players, 435,000 are considered core participants who are playing or practicing rugby eight or more days a year. More than 80 percent of these core rugby players in the U.S. are male.
FYI: On Saturday, October 23, the U.S. men’s Eagles will host world powerhouse New Zealand, aka the All Blacks. The game will be played at FedEx Field in Landover, MD.
The rugby landscape has certainly changed and now it’s not just men and women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s playing on the weekends. Young boys and girls are now playing and rugby remains a major club sport on hundreds of collegiate campuses — it has also achieved varsity status at a growing number of schools. Rugby 7s is now an Olympic sport and has been since 2016. And there are a multitude of outlets – possibly too many -- that sell practice gear, uniforms, game essentials and accessories.
While in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, there was a steady flow business for that handful of rugby retail outlets, now there are many retail rugby outlets – most of which are websites -- such as World Rugby Shop, Ruggers Rugby Supply, American Rugby Outfitters, Rhino Rugby and Steamroller Rugby Supply, to name a few.
According to Rugby Imports president Marc Hoder, rugby’s retail scene in the U.S. is now “a cloudier picture, as there are too many retail competitors.”
Rugby Imports has been in business for nearly 50 years and Hoder has definitely seen it all when it comes to selling the sport of rugby in the U.S. He continues to focus on high school squads, collegiate rugby teams and adult rugby clubs. And it’s fair to say that there are probably as many girls and women playing rugby in the U.S..
“Right now, it’s close to a 50/50 split when it comes to male and female rugby players in the U.S.,” Hoder points out.
One of those first-hand witnesses to rugby’s rising popularity with females is Christine Newcomb, who plays for a club in Providence, RI, and is an assistant coach for Brown University’s women’s rugby team and is a team store manager at Rugby Imports. She played her collegiate rugby at the University of North Carolina–Wilmington.
“It’s pretty exciting to see the growth of women’s rugby here in the U.S.,” Newcomb says. “At Brown we have roughly 35 women on our rugby club and we are actively recruiting more female high school student-athletes to enroll at Brown and play rugby.”
For Hoder, the key to financial success in selling rugby is to focus on the fundamentals, which is the key to success in playing rugby, too.
“Our bread and butter is selling balls, jerseys, shorts, socks, mouthguards and protective gear,” says Hoder, who also puts up electronic stores for club-specific sales.
While the fall rugby season is now underway, the last 18 months have been a financial struggle for every retail outlet in rugby, especially a fully staffed brick-and-mortar retailer like Rugby Imports.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we took it month-to-month and we survived thanks to individual purchases of jerseys and balls plus the bailout assistance from the federal government,” says Hoder. “Now, we are really looking forward to the rugby rebound this fall.”