Touching Down
As new aspects of football come into play – including flag football, of course – dealers are ready for the 2024 season.
Over the past couple of seasons, tackle football has been regaining its pre-pandemic form. At last, the category – which for decades has been a team dealer stalwart – has stabilized. In the 2022-23 school year, 11-player football was the most popular boys’ high school sport, boasting just over 1.028 million participants, according to the 2022-23 NFHS Athletics Participation Survey. The total number of high school players during that time period was slightly above 1.032 million, 3654 of which were female.

But perhaps the biggest news is that flag football is expanding nationwide as the next emerging high school sport for girls. “Although the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) started flag football for girls about 20 years ago, most of the sport’s growth across the country has come in the past five to seven years,” states Dr. Karissa Niehoff, CEO of NFHS. She notes that nine states have sanctioned the flag football for girls, two others are expected to sanction the sport this year and 17 other states are in various stages of pilot programs.

“The popularity of flag football – for boys and girls – has been growing at the youth levels for the past 10 years. In 2023, about 500,000 girls ages 6-17 played flag football — a 63 percent increase since 2019,” notes Niehoff. “At a higher level of competition, more universities are beginning to offer flag football for girls, which will certainly enhance the appeal for girls playing the sport at the high school level.

“And internationally, the sport received a huge boost with the announcement recently of flag football as an Olympic sport for men and women at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles,” the NFHS CEO points out.

Even the NFL is in on the flag football action. The league, in partnership with GENYOUth and NFL FLAG, will distribute more than 4000 free NFL FLAG-In-School football kits for the 2024-25 school year. Through a renewed commitment of $1.5 million from the NFL Foundation, NFL FLAG-In-School offers opportunities for physical activity to students regardless of gender, ability or skill level. Since 2014 and through the 2024-25 school year, 37,000 kits will have been provided to U.S. schools and school-based community organizations, engaging an estimated 17 million students.

In the larger scheme of things, tackle football participation overall is continuing to rebound. The SFIA’s Top Line Participation Report 2024 reveals that from 2019-2023 tackle football increased 10 percent. The sport had 5.6 million players in 2023, up 3.3 percent (5.4 million participants) from 2022. Meanwhile, flag football climbed 7.1 percent from 2019-2023, totaling 6.9 million in 2019, and hitting 7.3 million in 2023.

With participation numbers trending in the right direction, dealers are feeling some relief, but there’s always room for improvement.

“Football was solid last year and we didn’t have a lot of inventory at the end of the year, which was good,” says Mike Bruno, GM of Grogan Marciano Sporting Goods in Mansfield, MA. “Shoulder pad sales were down slightly, but uniforms, apparel and helmets were good. Looking ahead, we’re cautiously optimistic.

“We did a lot of early buys with helmets and have been delivering uniform orders and we’re seeing more early birds [when it comes to ordering] than normal,” he adds, pointing out that he believes “it looks like it’ll be a good fall season.”

He adds that helmet technology – especially from Schutt – is becoming increasingly important to customers. Also, more people are looking for information on Guardian Caps and he anticipates more of that business in the coming fall season.

Bruno points out that spring football isn’t huge in New England — just a few colleges are involved. But overall participation in football seems to be holding steady. As for female participation in tackle football, he notes that the Women’s Pro Football Alliance includes the premier women’s team in New England, the Boston Renegades, winners of five consecutive WFA Pro National Championship titles.

Regarding flag football, “It’s slow and steady every year,” Bruno observes. “Its presence is growing, but it’s hard to get a number. At the youth level, we’re not really seeing it because it doesn’t change the equipment levels for us.”

At Oxford, OH-based Capitol Varsity Sports – which just celebrated its 70th anniversary – owner Bob Fawley is pumped about the business. “Last season was fabulous. It was the biggest season in the history of the company. It was over the top and we were thrilled,” he exclaims. “The upcoming season year-to-date is up so we’re still ahead of the game.”

He is also enthused about flag football. “Flag has a lot of growth in it, especially at the kindergarten to third-, fourth- and fifth-grade levels.”

Conversely, at Impress Athletix in Spring, TX (in the North Houston area), owner Lavoxkeia Jones-Carnes says football sales are down compared to previous years. But on the bright side, “flag football seems to be growing and parents are steering kids toward flag, especially due to the concussion issue,” she says.

“Football is still mostly male — women’s isn’t a big thing here, but flag is growing,” she adds. As the mother of two school-age kids – one of whom suffered a concussion playing flag football – she believes that manufacturers should devote more resources to developing protective headgear for the sport.

Jones-Carnes says that for Impress Athletix, the main challenge in the football category lies in competing with large dealers and buying groups for both product and business. “Many big manufacturers have limited inventory available for independent team dealers and this is compounded by ongoing supply chain issues. Access to big brands is my biggest problem in football,” she explains.

Like Jones-Carnes, Aaron Karsh, director of operations at Harbor City, CA-based California Pro Sports, believes that concussion awareness is having a big effect on the sport. He says that participation is down overall, but there’s been a little bit of a rebound since last year.

“Last season was good and busier than in previous years and with the upcoming season, so far, so good. We’re trying to get coaches to start the process earlier,” Karsh comments.

“In flag football, more girls are playing and it’s been a big success,” he continues, describing it as “a valuable opportunity for the girls and for our business.”

He adds, “Uniforms are pretty standard and they’re a major part of our business. Lots of kids are moving from tackle to flag and there’s more girls’ flag.”

Keith Manning, owner of Jack Pearl’s Sports Center in Battle Creek, MI, is also upbeat. “Last season was pretty good, sales were up and we had no issues getting equipment and uniforms. We’re projecting sales to go up again this year,” he reports.

However, he has also noticed a decrease in participation and the flag football business is mostly focused on first and second graders. He hasn’t seen many girls playing, either.

“Participation of kids is a challenge,” Manning says. “The number of helmets and pads sold each year affects our business, particularly since fewer helmets are being purchased and reconditioned.”

Meanwhile, at Columbus, IN-based Hoosier Sporting Goods, owner Michael Bodart says that business is stable. “Last season was about the same and things look steady going forward,” he reports, with two travel/youth programs and a couple of high schools and middle schools on the customer list.

He adds, “We’re not doing any Spring football, but it is going on. Participation is continuing its upswing from its low point [during the pandemic].”

While he hasn’t seen much happening with women’s participation or flag football, he notes that, “Overall, football is a viable category for us, even regarding spiritwear.”  

Supply Chain Glitches Fade

“Supply problems aren’t nearly as bad as before,” says Grogan Marciano’s Bruno. “The supply isn’t at pre-COVID levels, but it’s close. It really about the supply chain and forecasting now. As of today, we have no concerns about uniforms or protective gear.”

Interestingly, Bruno opines that collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore is somewhat worrisome, particularly since the port is used heavily by major manufacturers such as Baltimore-based Under Armour. The general fear is that the flow of ships in and out of Baltimore could hurt the local economy, strain supply chains and scramble deliveries along the U.S. East Coast.

“The supply chain is doing better — it’s not like it used to be,” echoes Manning, of Jack Pearl’s Sports Center. “Helmets are still an issue when it comes to getting them in a timely manner, but there are no problems with footballs or shoulder pads — we can still get fill-ins.”

Likewise, Bodart, of Hoosier Sporting Goods, believes supply snags are mostly resolved. “There are no supply chain issues anymore. We only deal with soft goods, no hardgoods, so that helps. We’re doing a lot of uniforms, so there are no problems for us.”

As Fawley, at Capitol Varsity Sports, points out, “For the past two years there was no inventory. Now we’re seeing late helmet closeouts from manufacturers as the supply chain gets filled. It just depends on the products. Helmets and shoulder pads are all available, but we have to chase smaller products such as inflatables and girls’ products where there are gaps in sizes.”

Although product shortages are far less prevalent than they were over the past couple of seasons, tight budgets are a cause of concern for many dealers headed into the 2024 season.

“As always, schools here don’t have the budgets as in other parts of the country,” explains Bruno. “For us it’s about having core product in stock in August when football practice starts. Schools don’t have a lot on the shelves — they want to be lean and mean. We’ll fill in products when the August rush starts and we’ll try to stay ahead of it.”

And Fawley has noticed that things have slowed a little bit since last year, when schools still had some pandemic money. “Now schools are slowing down on spending due to inflation and the fact that COVID money is drying up,” he says. In his opinion, the uniform business has changed due to sublimation, particularly because of the cost savings. “But sublimated football uniforms don’t wear as well or last as long as traditional uniforms,” he notes.

Reconditioning Issues Persist

There seems to be more than enough reconditioning business to go around, but there are still some significant issues such as ongoing labor shortages and rising costs.

“Football across the board is starting earlier and this has moved up timelines, especially for us as a reconditioner,” says Fawley. “The business is still good and most challenges revolve around the cost of parts and the cost of insurance.”

Labor is still an issue for reconditioners, he says, because it’s still very hard to get labor and they have had to turn down some business due to labor shortages. “It’s prevalent across the spectrum of reconditioners, but the severity varies by region.”

Fawley adds, “We were doing between 1.7 million and 1.8 million helmets during the pre-COVID peak and between 1.3 million and 1.4 million during COVID. This year, we’ll be reconditioning 1.5 million to 1.6 million helmets, so the business is bouncing back.”

For some dealers, offering reconditioning services is about as appealing as chewing on tinfoil. “It’s a necessary evil,” remarks Bruno. “Reconditioners have had their challenges. It’s more of a service that we offer, but it’s a giant headache. We don’t do a lot. Our numbers are down 15 to 20 percent in reconditioning, sort of on purpose because we’ve passed on some of it.”

On the other side of the country, Karsh is not a big enthusiast either. “We don’t do the reconditioning ourselves, but we facilitate it for customers. It’s a big can of worms,” he says. “It’s a constant evolution. It’s a necessity, but it gets complicated — refreshing and refurbishing is not the same as reconditioning and recertifying for play.”

At Jack Pearl’s Sports Center, the reconditioning business is busier due to Spring football. “We send helmets out for reconditioning, but costs have risen 25 to 30 percent over the past couple of years,” says Manning. “People are almost better off buying new helmets.”