The baseball and softball equipment sales picked up in spring 1998 following a prolong slump. Retailers expect two-fold sales increases in sales for 1998 despite the drop in exports caused by the Asian economic crisis. The change is attributed to the women’s increased interest in fast pitch softball and the advent of new products such as aluminum bats with graphite inner cores and titanium leather batting gloves.
Following a category-wide slump, high-tech product is leading a diamond-sports rally.
Few sights evoke a more revered image of Americana than a Little Leaguer digging in his spikes at the plate or outfielders shagging fly balls. But in recent years the baseball and softball categories seemed to be gaining more notoriety for their stalling – indeed declining – participant base and for inventory backlogs clogging retail warehouses.
This spring, however, diamond sports appears to be emerging from its slump. Inspired by such high-tech products as aluminum bats with graphite inner cores by Easton, titanium leather batting gloves by Mizuno and a recreational market of would-be sluggers willing to purchase high-end training devices, team sports companies are projecting increases for the baseball/softball category.
And retailers are reporting that adult leagues and, in some cases, a heightened women’s interest in fast pitch softball, are stimulating spring sales. Moreover, top-of-the-line price points, such as $250 and $300 rawlings softball bats, are leading the market’s resurgence.
In fact, a number of U.S.-based firms anticipate double-digit increases in the domestic market this year, despite a woeful export market depressed by the economic problems of Asia, specifically Japan, where diamond sports sales are plummeting as much as 40 percent after nearly a decade of increases.
“We’re conservatively bullish,” claims Herb Markwort, president of Markwort Sporting Goods, noting that the company could post double-digit gains domestically. Led by sales of products such as its Stash eps glove, designed to minimize ball impact on sensitive areas of a player’s hand including the thumb, Markwort notes that the “high-end” performance market is responsible for the category’s gains.
That observation is echoed by many major baseball/softball companies.
“Finally the industry is clean on inventory,” asserts Jeff Fiorini, vice president of marketing for Mizuno USA’s diamond sports division. “People were tentative for a couple of years and inventories built up,” he adds, noting that over a two to three-year span the retail pipeline contained twice as much merchandise as needed. Dealers, he notes, had to “stop and assess” their inventory situations and clear out excess product, which they have done in the past few years. With that accomplished, the market may now look forward.
According to Steve Lombardi, Jr., CFO and third-generation member of family-owned Lombardi Sports in San Francisco, the “baseball [and softball] business is on the rise following a tough time in which the bat business,” in particular, had “started to dwindle.” With recent product introductions such as Easton’s Redline bat, the enhanced Redline Z-Core bat and the Monster Barrel bat, Lombardi says sales are reviving. Gloves are posting an increase, he adds, in the high single-digit range.
Moreover, Lombardi affirms, the store needs to maintain a credible baseball/softball department to continue to be regarded as an authentic sporting goods retailer. “The [baseball/softball] department is a small department – it’s a six-figure per year department,” explains Lombardi. “We have a lot of departments that are million-dollar departments. But diamond sports is viable.” With no official Little League teams in San Francisco, Lombardi says 90 percent of his diamond sports business is softball.
On Deck Circle
Women’s specific products are another area demonstrating slow but notable gains this spring, vendors say. Easton, for example, is expanding the depth of its women’s product offerings.
“From a product standpoint, there is more selection and variety,” explains Mark Talarico, Easton’s director of U.S. baseball and softball sales. “In the past we basically only offered a women’s sliding short along with bats.” Now, Easton’s line includes gloves, batters gloves, bags and women’s-specific fast-pitch catcher mitts. The company also hired a full-time women’s fast pitch promotions coordinator, Pam Newton, last year.
And with a wider variety of SKUs and price points offered, the women’s portion of the line now accounts for about five to 10 percent of Easton’s diamond sports business, and continues to grow, Talarico adds.
Three different women’s fast-pitch accessory bags will be available for shipping in August, with suggested retail prices of $25, $40 and about $70. And, Talarico says, “Instead of offering one price-point batters glove, we’ll offer three price points, with the [positioning] of good, better, best?’ The batters gloves will retail for about $8, $14, and $20 – approximately the same price points as the men’s line – with consumer interest, he notes, expected to be “at the high-end.”
The top of the market is likewise stimulating Mizuno’s sales. The company claims it is seeking to “change the ceiling of retail prices” in ball gloves, according to Fiorini. While aluminum bats are sustaining considerable price increases, gloves have not kept pace. With the launch of the Mizuno Pro Limited ball glove – carrying a suggested retail of $350 – Mizuno is marketing a glove with an estimated 50 percent higher retail price than current models, Fiorini says. Some batting gloves will retail for $50. In effect, he adds, Mizuno is seeking to “position [the brand] at the top of the pyramid.”
The strategy appears to be working. Approximately 10 percent of Mizuno’s line will be positioned for the elite market.
The kids that are playing ball seriously are also purchasing the high tech models – or any technology destined to improve their batting averages or fielding percentages. This quest is not only stimulating high-end titanium bat sales and glove purchases, but increasing sales of training devices.
Products such as Rawlings radar baseball – which calculates the time it takes to release a ball until it impacts a catcher’s mitt – are among the category’s top sellers Other training products, such as “pitch back” nets and batting T’s are likewise strong retail sellers.
“The consumer doesn’t mind spending more if it is an enhanced product and gives them an advantage,” says Carl Ferraro, executive vice president of Regent Sports, which has signed a licensing agreement with Spalding to market a new line of training accessories, including a “deluxe” return throw device carrying a retail price of $99. Says Ferraro, “If there is more value to the [product], the serious player will spend for it.”