Up To Bat
The new products, technologies and key issues facing the baseball category at retail and beyond.
While Major League Baseball may be baseball’s marquee vehicle, the lifeblood of the game remains at the youth level and, well, maybe a little older. From five-year-old T-ballers who play at local public parks to the 70-plus year-olds who gather every November to play in events such as the Roy Hobbs World Series in Florida, baseball retains its hold as the National Pastime because it can be played at so many different levels.
And, of course, it is just over 18 months until baseball (and softball) return to the Olympics in Japan in 2020 The leadership of USA Baseball and the athletes who will represent Team USA are fired up about the pursuit of Olympic gold.
“It has been a global effort to have baseball and softball reinstated for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo,” says Paul Seiler, executive director of USA Baseball. “We look forward to showcasing to the world what we feel is the greatest game on earth.”
Global growth and exposure may be good for the game, but America’s retailers take a decidedly more local approach to America’s Pastime.
Baseball at Retail
The baseball business has become virtually a year-round category for many retailers, especially those in the South, Southwest, and in California.
In Holyoke, MA, baseball is the main revenue generator for Betsy Frey, owner of Holyoke Sporting Goods. “My youth baseball business is very good,” says Frey. “My cleat and youth bat business are good. My sock sales are fantastic.”
But one outside factor, which does positively impact sales, is what happens at nearby Fenway Park in Boston. “When the Red Sox are winning, interest in baseball grows, which helps with participation and sales,” Frey explains.
In New Jersey, the sun never seems to set on the baseball season, which is a financial boost for Darrow’s Sporting Edge, in White House Station, NJ. “There is no end to the baseball season — just when one season ends, another one begins,” says Darrow’s manager Nicole Ericson. “We have rec leagues and high school baseball in the spring, travel ball in the summer, fall ball in the autumn, and then it’s winter training.”
In south Florida, the weather allows baseball to be played outside 12 months a year. That means that selling baseball is a year-round endeavor for Jerry Steurer, owner of Scotty’s Sport Shop, Wellington, FL.
“While I do sell equipment, about 80 percent of my overall business is selling uniforms and screenprinting,” says Steurer. “The vast majority of the baseball teams I do business with are local recreational leagues and many of the travel teams in the area.”
The Bat Battles
Even though business remains strong, the sport of baseball has faced some unique challenges in the past year.
First and foremost were the bat battles — uncertainties among retailers and their customers about which bats were legal to use in youth leagues around the country. By all accounts it was good news for the retailers and dealers who sell bats, not so good for the parents and players who had to shell out for another bat because of changing regulations.
The introduction of the new USA Baseball-mandated USABat standard on youth baseball bats last year was arguably the biggest new product/new performance standard introduction in the history of the game, since the youth bat market is the biggest bat market in baseball.
Russell Hartford, USA Baseball’s director of the USABat program, was pleased with the overall introduction of the new youth baseball bat performance standard, which became official on January 1, 2018 after years of planning and preparation.
“USA Baseball is proud of the USABat standard’s success in its inaugural year,” says Hartford. “Establishing and implementing a wood-like performance standard to protect the long-term integrity of the game for our youth athletes has been the goal of USA Baseball and our national member organizations from its inception.”
The first season certainly provided a learning experience for USA Baseball, its youth bat licensees, retailers, team dealers and players.
In many respects, manufacturers, retailers and team dealers were playing a guessing game when it came to deciding how many youth bats to produce, which ones to buy and where to send them. Making matters more complicated was the fact that the new performance standard allowed bat makers to manufacture and sell both 2 ¼-inch and 2 5/8-inch diameter bats.
But that begged the question of how many of each bat to produce. There was no clear-cut answer.
Rawlings and Baden Sports now admit that they underestimated demand.
“We shipped nearly four times of what we had planned leading up to the standard change and we still didn’t have enough,” reports Kyle Murphy, director/BUL–bats/batting gloves, for Rawlings Sporting Goods. “We placed our bets on the bigger barrel, so most of our supplier capacity was directed that way. I think we made a wise gamble, as we did not lose many 2 ¼-inch sales.”
“Demand for our youth bats increased dramatically last year and made it difficult to keep certain models in stock, even with our most optimistic forecasts for the category,” reports Jay Helmick, senior VP at Axe Bat/Baden Sports.
“We definitely could have sold a lot more had we had the inventory. Demand for youth Axe Bats far exceeded supply,” Helmick adds. “We heavily favored 2 5/8-inch barrels in our forecasting and that turned out to be in line with what our customers wanted.”
Murphy says the overall consumer response to the new bats from Rawlings was positive, despite the fact that every new USABat-standard bat was not as responsive as the older, BPF standard bats.
“Overall, the response was very favorable,” he says. “We picked up significant market share.
“That said, I can’t say the players, parents or coaches were thrilled about the performance change,” he says, adding that “we often heard that we had the best ‘dead bat’ on the market.”
Adding to the confusion in 2018 was that USSSA remained tethered to the 1.15/BBF performance standard, in effect making two main performance standards on bats in youth baseball. Having two types of bats on retail shelves left some parents shaking their heads in disbelief and hesitant to buy either bat.
“In many states where both USA Baseball and USSSA are played, the consumer focus was to buy the new USABat, which was mandatory and they pushed off a new USSSA bat purchase,” notes Murphy. “Also, I believe there was some confusion as to how the USA Baseball/USABat standard change affected USSSA, which caused buyers’ hesitation to spend.”
The good news: There are no new bat standards on the horizon for youth baseball.
The Flap Around C-Flap
The issue of the legality of the C-Flap, the now ubiquitous protective attachment for batting helmets from Markwort Sporting Goods, shows no sign of going away. Anyone watching a Major League baseball game this past season could hardly miss the likes of Bryce Harper, Christian Yelich, Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton sporting the extra protection.
Those are some pretty strong, unpaid endorsements that are doing nothing to get the product approved for use in youth baseball.
“It’s very gratifying to see the C-Flap being worn by the best players in baseball,” says Herb Markwort, president and CEO of Markwort Sporting Goods, who remains frustrated in the lack of official acceptance of C-Flap by youth baseball governing bodies, but remains undaunted in his effort to change minds.
The C-Flap is actually a piece of plastic attached to a batting helmet to protect a batter’s cheek and jaw. Markwort manufactures and sells the C-Flap, which is then attached to the helmets with three screws.
So far, so good, except that the C-Flap remains illegal to use at many, if not most, youth levels. Why not?
According to Markwort, it’s a case of good news and bad news.
The good news is that many players and their parents love to buy and install the C-Flap on their batting helmets.
The bad news is that when the C-Flap is attached to a batting helmet, the installation can nullify the SEI certification to the NOCSAE standard on the helmet because the original helmet has been altered. In layman’s terms, that makes the helmet legally unacceptable.
NOCSAE’s overriding concern is that consumers will purchase a C-Flap thinking it will give full-face protection, although it does not protect the eye/eye socket, lower jaw and the teeth. As a result, Markwort Sporting Goods has been told that any batting helmet with C-Flap attached needs to be tested and certified from scratch as a new and unique batting helmet.
So currently each model of each batting helmet that C-Flap attaches to would technically need to be tested and certified — and every year when new batting helmet models come on the market they would also have to be separately tested with the C-Flap.
Markwort’s argument is that since there is no standard for the C-Flap, there is no required testing for it. Any batting helmet with a C–Flap on it that is tested and certified by a NOCSAE/SEI approved lab and certified by SEI to meet the standard for baseball batter’s helmet actually meets the standard, with no additional cost or time requirement than is needed to pass the helmet standard.
However, the overriding control is with the original equipment manufacturer, (OEM).
“The OEM has the choice to accept or not accept any accessory product on its products that are certified by SEI to meet the NOCSAE standard for that product.” – Gregg Hartley, SFIA
“The OEM has the choice to accept or not accept any accessory product on its products that are certified by SEI to meet the NOCSAE standard for that product,” explains Gregg Hartley, of the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), who sits on the NOCSAE board. “If the OEM accepts the accessory product, the original product is still SEI certified to the NOCSAE standard.”
“Our position regarding the C-Flap remains the same,” notes Elliot Hopkins, director of sports, sanctioning and student services for National Federation of State High Schools (NFHS). “If the baseball helmet manufacturers approve the addition of products to their helmet, they honor their warranty and it meets the NOCSAE performance standard with it attached, then we would consider allowing the C-Flap.”
In the meantime, C-Flap remains illegal to use in games sanctioned by the major youth baseball associations ranging from Babe Ruth to Little League to Cal Ripken for one reason — if not certified by NOCSAE, there is no insurance liability If a player gets hurt wearing a helmet with a C-Flap.
NOCSAE Need to Know
In less than a year’s time, beginning January 1, 2020, all chest protectors worn in high school baseball and all NFHS-licensed baseballs must meet the NOCSAE standard and have the NOCSAE seal/stamp on them.
Some baseball makers have already made the complete transition to producing NOCSAE-stamped baseballs for NFHS play. For this year only, any NFHS-licensed baseball, whether or not it has the NOCSAE seal/stamp, can be sold by team dealers and used in NFHS baseball games.