New Game Plan

Youth football in America is changing with the times — and team dealers are changing along with it.

The fascination with tackle football in the U.S. seems to generate record levels of interest – from an attendance and viewership perspective – every year from a fan base that can best be described as avid and, at times, animated. Yes, Americans love their football and their passion for the pigskin, er cowhide, starts as soon as children put on a helmet or attach those flags to the belt around their waist.  

Yet it is no secret the participation in football at the youth level is struggling, as safety concerns are prompting many parents to question whether their children should be donning pads and a helmet before they reach their teens.

In fact, according to a recent study by the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, 63 percent of parents support age restrictions for tackle football, while the majority of mothers (63 percent) and fathers (58 percent) are in favor of setting a starting age for their children to begin playing tackle football.

“The goal of restricting tackling to older youth would be to decrease the risk of injury, by decreasing exposure to collisions until youth are older and more adept at controlling their bodies in space,” says lead study author Dr. Sara Chrisman.

Does this mean that football is a becoming a sport that everybody likes to watch, but very few want to play? Far from it, but the sport in the future may look markedly different than the game today’s adults grew up playing in their youth.

In the Trenches Year-Round

Although played primarily in the fall in America, football has almost always been a year-round sport for team dealers. Soon after the final whistle blows each fall, head football coaches start thinking and planning for the next season — checking the wear and tear on pads, reconditioning helmets and designing uniforms.

In warm-weather climates such as Florida, football coaches are always in the game —  whether it’s the pre-, regular, post-, off- or spring season.

“Head coaches in Florida are in touch with me immediately after every season finishes as they start making purchasing decisions for the next season,” explains Joel Dunn, sales rep for Performance Team Sports, Miami, FL. “The schools that order custom jerseys make their purchasing decisions in January and February. Schools that delay uniform-buying decisions are limited to stock.”

Dunn’s football business in January and February is not limited to selling uniforms. “We’re also busy with getting helmets re-conditioned,” he adds.

As Dunn looks forward to the kickoff of the 2019 football season in August, he’s optimistic that football will continue to lead the way.

“While football has been under attack in recent years, it’s still king,” Dunn says.

In Pennsylvania, where football is close to a religion in some regions, the football business is solid, but admittedly not as strong as it has been in the past.

“Football used to be a bigger part of my business,” reports Tom McCormack, owner of C&M Sporting Goods, Havertown, PA. He points to a number of factors: teams buying direct from the manufacturers, concerns about concussions, the financial cost and young athletes increasingly playing one sport year-round rather than two or three different sports.

“Many leagues, teams and organizations are buying direct for some of their bigger items such as uniforms, helmets and shoulder pads, which has hurt my business,” McCormack says, adding that many parents, after watching movies and seeing what happened to Junior Seau, are thinking twice about allowing their children to play football.  

In addition, registration fees to play football are at least $125-$150 in his area, not to mention the additional costs for equipment. “It’s cheaper to play other sports and many young athletes are playing one sport year-round,” and increasingly that sport is not football.”

The issue of team and school consolidation has also had an impact on McCormack’s football revenue. Still, he does sell footballs, integrated pads, some helmets, some uniforms and some shoulder pads to leagues, teams and organizations. Families and individual players are purchasing mouthguards, receiver gloves, cleats and accessories.  

Thanksgiving Leads to Next Season

In Indiana, the football business cycle for the next football season starts in late November. “Every year, we start processing uniform orders immediately after Thanksgiving,” says Jim Brown, a salesman at Kratz Sporting Goods, Clarksville, IN. “But, it’s never too early to place an order.”

While football is still number one for Kratz Sporting Goods, the volume of sales is not as strong as it used to be. While Kratz does sell football helmets and shoulder pads, sales are hurt because so many helmet and equipment companies are selling direct. “We only sell two helmet brands,” Brown says.

He makes up for the softness in equipment sales with a strong uniform business, for both practice and games. “We are seeing strong sales of more protective clothing worn underneath jerseys and uniforms,” he says.

In order to stay current with the retail and team dealer competition, Kratz has a strong presence on the Internet, with an expanded online sales effort bolstering its traditional business.

In Michigan, Jack Pearl’s Sports Center in Battle Creek is busy catering to a strong football culture in his area.

“We are a full-line football retailer that sells from rocket leagues (youth football) to small colleges, but high schools represent the core of our football sales,” according to owner Joe Pearl. “We sell everything football, with the exception of footwear.”

Pearl said that improvements in technology, with the infusion of sublimation, have reduced the turnaround times on the delivery of new jerseys. “As long as I get orders placed by June 1, I can deliver the finished product before the beginning of the season,” he promises.

According to a recent study, 63 percent of parents support age restrictions for tackle football, while the majority of mothers (63 percent) and fathers (58 percent) are in favor of setting a starting age for their children to begin playing tackle football.

The Participation Challenge

While football remains strong in Michigan, Pearl believes that the concussion and injury issues have negatively impacted participation in freshman and junior varsity football. But the biggest threat to his football business is the growing interest of travel baseball.

“We are losing some football players to the existence of travel baseball in the fall,” Pearl explains. An antidote to that is the growth of summer 7-on-7 football and, for younger players, flag football.

“I’m always promoting flag football in our area,” Pearl says. “It’s a fun way to introduce kids to football.”

In the Deep South, it’s often said that there are two big sports played by young athletes — football and spring football. Yet that passion for the pigskin seems to be waning a bit in the Bayou state.

“I have been selling football to local youth football leagues for 47 years, but the numbers have come down in recent years. It’s clear that participation is headed in the wrong direction,” reports Charlie Mathews, owner of Cenla Sports, Alexandria, LA. “The declines in participation are due to concerns about concussions and the increased popularity of travel baseball in the fall.”

Mathews says the drop in youth football participation impacts his bottom line because all local youth football players buy their helmets, shoulder pads, pants and accessories from his store. Mathews also sells infrequently purchased items such as goal posts, first-down chains, blocking sleds and tackling dummies.

But those declines in youth football leagues have an immediate effect on high school football in the area. “The numbers are down for freshman and junior varsity football, too,” added Mathews.

But in the neighboring states of Arkansas and Texas, football, especially high school football, is as popular now as it ever has been.

“Football is still a priority, there are no budget cuts,” reports Scott Speights, a salesman at Southwest Sporting Goods, Arkadelphia, AR.

“Football is our largest revenue generator,” echoes Jim Davis, CEO/sales at Williams Sporting Goods, Paris, TX. “Texas is a place where there’s a budgetary priority on athletics, especially football.”

“Football is alive and well in Texas,” agrees Don Carey, owner of Carey’s Sporting Goods, Fort Worth, TX. “Football is my largest volume category.”

Speights explains that because high school football coaches are busy with conditioning and weight training throughout the summer, they like to reward their players with high-end uniforms and equipment.

“The players in Arkansas want nice, high-end uniforms and they get them because it’s their reward for putting in the work over the summer,” he says, adding that Riddell is king in helmets in Arkansas and it’s no big deal for schools to pay as much as $400 for a helmet.

His footwear business remains strong, with players buying multiple pairs for practice and games. “Cleats are where players show their individuality,” he says.

One part of the football business that Southwest Sporting Goods doesn’t cater to very much is youth football.

“While the business is good, many of the leagues don’t have their rosters set until two or three weeks before the start of the season and they still want to order customized uniforms, which is too late in the buying season,” Speights says.

In Arkansas, tackle football at the scholastic level starts in the seventh grade, with freshman football played by eighth and ninth graders. Athletes below seventh grade are often playing more flag football than tackle.

“At the youth level, for every 10 flag football teams, there are two tackle football teams,” Speights says.

In Texas, Davis and Carey are busy catering to their gridiron clients throughout the year.

“In football, we sell the whole nine yards,” says Davis — uniforms, cleats, helmets, footballs, shoulder pads, tackling dummies, tackling wheels, scoreboards, goal posts and even the special customized tarps that cover the tracks surrounding the football fields.

“In football, we are a full-line team dealer,” stated Carey. “If teams need anything, we provide it.” And even though most helmets have a shelf life of 10 years, Davis sells some every year to most of his teams.

“By replacing five or six helmets a year, a school is not having to replace an entire set every 10 years,” Davis says. “That makes it easier on school budgets.” Uniforms are usually on a three-year rotation, with older uniforms passed down to JV and freshman teams.

Despite the evolution of electronic stores, Carey says the majority of his football business is still done the old-fashioned way. “In Texas, most of the football business is conducted between the head coach and the sales rep,” he says.

Davis does cater to local youth football leagues, but there are some hurdles to overcome. “You are often dealing with different decision makers every year and there’s no annual consistency with people in charge of the leagues,” he explains. “And, the local leagues need a bigger window of time to place their uniform orders every year.”

But, Davis says, because youth football is a family affair, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters are a source of additional team and spirit wear sales. Also helping the bottom line is the growth of  7-on-7 football, which is played in May and June.

“7-on-7 football is now a big deal, though it’s not school-sponsored,” says Carey. “The coaches are volunteers, usually some of the parents of the players.”

He is also a big proponent of flag football at the youth level. “Young kids need to start out playing flag football and not play tackle football until they reach middle school,” he says. “We need to focus on teaching them the game of football and don’t make it a physical game with blocking and tackling.”

Football on Ice

In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, football is popular, but it’s got competition for another contact sport.“Football in Minnesota is big, but not as big as ice hockey,” reports Mike Klinnert, manager of JK Sports, Fergus Falls, MN. “Football is not our niche, but we do sell a few shoulder pads, mouthguards, footballs, knee pads, thigh pads and a few accessories, as well as selling T-shirts and sweatshirts through online stores.”

For Universal Athletic – with offices and salesmen in Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota – football remains a strong and vibrant category.

“Our early order business has been strong with equipment and uniforms and our focus currently is finishing up our spring football and 7-on-7 league business,” says sales manager Brian Pepper.

“Once that is done, it leads us right into our summer camp season and putting together our team spirit pack and fan apparel sites. There is not much down time for football selling anymore.”

Pepper believes the heightened awareness of injuries in football and, more specifically, concussions, has allowed his sales team to easily sell the benefits of better equipment. “Really the biggest decline for us has been in the practice pant, girdles and biolight pad category,” added Pepper. “We have not lost sales, just replaced them with integrated pants, girdles and shorts.”

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