New IDeas
SPECIALTY SPORTS

Isn’t This Special

The ‘minor’ sports have a major impact on a team dealer’s bottom line.

In boys’ high school sports, four of the five top sports are 11-player football, basketball, baseball and soccer in the current NFHS sports participation study. The only interloper among these major sports? Track and field.

The story is somewhat different for high school girls, where the NFHS lists the top five sports as track and field and volleyball as first in second in terms of participation, then followed by the so-called major sports of basketball, soccer and fast-pitch softball.

So when the combined participation of boys and girls in high school sports is considered, coupled with the total spending on those sports, it’s fair to say that football, basketball, baseball/softball and soccer deserve to be categorized as the Big Four in team sports. Understandably, team dealers always cater to these big boys (and girls), but the smart ones know the business certainly does not stop there.

Obviously, one of the difficulties for team dealers when catering to a specialty/niche sport is having enough inventory in the warehouse and store to meet the highly specific product demands of well-informed and demanding athletes.

The Specialty Challenge/Opportunity

The sport of swimming is a perfect example of this quandary.  

According to Joel Dunn, a salesman for Performance Team Sports, Miami, FL, any retailer who specializes in swimming needs to invest in a wider assortment of goggles, swim caps, swim suits and practice accessories than a traditional team dealer like his business, which will only carry a handful of items in each of those four categories.

“In the case of swimming, the swimmers, their coaches and the parents tend to buy from swimming specialty retailers, which are more likely to have the exact size, design, color and model of what they need,” says Dunn.  

Of course, there’s always an exception. For instance, longtime Mesa, AZ-based team dealer Dennis Callison, at East Valley Sporting Goods, readily admits that swimming is a primary sales category for his business.

“Swimming is my number one sport,” he reports.

And in Hawaii, many high school swim coaches are reporting a growing move of non-competitive swimmers joining high school swim teams, just to be on another high school sports team, according to Stanley Costales, Jr, owner of Sports Line, Hilo, HI.

And then there’s wrestling, arguably the most intense specialty sport that attracts an extremely dedicated but shrinking number of participants. (Except for girls, whose numbers are growing significantly.) Unless you have an enthusiastic local participation base in states such as California, Illinois, New York, Texas, Ohio, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, Michigan, and Minnesota, which are the top-10 states for high school wrestling, wrestling remains the prime definition of a specialty sport.

But while wrestlers have a limited number of product needs, some dealers have found a way to pin down more sales.

“We really push player packs and spirit packs,” explains Randy Nill, president/owner of Nill Brothers Sporting Goods, Kansas City, MO. “These are popular with parents who like to wear hoodies, sweatshirts and team apparel at meets. The coaches are encouraging their wrestlers to buy them as well.”

Another plus for wrestling is all those girls suddenly needing singlets and the new two-piece uniforms along with headgear and warmups.

When it comes to wrestling uniforms, while wrestlers can wear a one-piece or a two-piece uniform, Nill says the vast majority of wrestlers in Missouri and Kansas prefer one over the other.

“In our part of the country, the singlet is the dominant uniform for wrestlers — boys and girls,” he reports.

Sticks and Poms

For years lacrosse has been labeled “the next big thing” in team sports and it has tried mightily to live up to that reputation and is on the verge of joining the Big Four, but nationally it remains as a specialty sport as it tries to expand its footprint. Growth remains strong, steady and showing signs of long-term strength, especially in the states where the sport is already being played.

The numbers tell the story. Since 2012, participation in girls’ lacrosse and boys’ lacrosse has increased 19 percent with a combined 213,452 participants in 2018-19, according to NFHS.

“My lacrosse business is growing like crazy,” reports Performance Team Sports’ Dunn. “My sales to private schools are strong,” he adds, pointing out that he sells more apparel, especially uniforms, than equipment.

“Whether it’s a cheerleading accessory, a letterman’s jacket, a high-tech swim suit or a pole vault pit, we can get what the customer needs and usually get it delivered in a day.”

— Debbie Long, Williams Sporting Goods

But selling lacrosse is not for all team dealers.

“I have been in and out of lacrosse twice,” admits Betsy Frey, owner of Holyoke Sporting Goods, Holyoke, MA.

And then there is cheerleading, another sport that constantly challenges traditional team dealers.

Dunn says that he only sells cheerleading when there’s an existing branding agreement in place with a school that pre-determines the brand to be purchased. The extent of his cheerleading sales is, for the most part, limited to player packs, shoes and some apparel.

Frey does sell cheerleading, but it’s with one stipulation. “I just deal with the coaches,” she says, not wiling to get into the challenges of dealing with cheer moms. “That’s the easiest way.”

Frey’s cheerleading business is getting stronger because local participation is growing. “One local youth football league has more cheerleaders than football players,” she says. “Kids are just not playing football here. But, we have more and more cheerleaders.”

In Beckley, WV, Spartan Sporting Goods has had an employee dedicated to providing face-to-face customer service specifically to cheerleading teams. And, according to owner Larry Foster, it makes great business sense to specifically focus on cheerleading teams and their product needs.

“The number of cheerleaders in each squad ranges from 12-20, which is more than, say, many basketball teams,” he notes.

Challenging the Big Four

While Doc Claussen, manager of Coaches Corner, in Terre Haute, IN, admits that football, basketball, baseball and soccer are huge parts of his sales portfolio, he also puts girls’ volleyball and girls’ softball alongside those core sports.  

“They are all critical to our longevity,” he says of the specialty sports he sells. “We try to do our best on every order and give the very best service to every customer.”

Foster feels the same way about of girls’ volleyball.

“As soon as the high school volleyball season finishes, the girls are playing club volleyball the rest of the year,” he explains. “My volleyball sales have boomed because of travel volleyball.”

Foster is in total agreement with Claussen when it comes to giving attention to sports outside the Big Four. “We take the smaller sports very seriously,” he says.

Over the years, Foster admits that his willingness to cater to the specific needs of specialty sport athletes has helped broaden the base of his business. “Our local golf teams order customized golf bags and logoed golf balls, our wrestling teams purchase uniforms, knee pads, and accessories and our cross-country teams buy uniforms, warm-ups and shoes,” he says. “And now swimming is growing here in West Virginia.”

Frey agrees that Foster’s customer-service mindset pays off, especially with the smaller sports that are starved for attention — and product.

“You can do well with secondary sports if you can establish yourself within the local niche in that sport,” she says, pointing out that it is vital in these sports to carry high-quality inventory. These players and coaches are extremely knowledgeable about product and styles.

“I always try to carry the best of any category that I stock and sell,” says Frey.

That attention to detail on specialty sports is shared by representatives from two team dealers in Texas -— Williams Sporting Goods in Paris and Carey’s Sporting Goods in Fort Worth.

“Whether it’s a cheerleading accessory, a letterman’s jacket, a high-tech swim suit or a pole vault pit, we can get what the customer needs and usually get it delivered in a day,” says Williams’ Debbie Long, who adds that specialty sports are a key contributor to the bottom line because of the relationships it has with key vendors in all of them. “We have access to catalogs and many distributors so we can sell and deliver anything.”

“We do it all and we treat every sport the same,” echoes Shana Benshoof, a customer service rep at Carey’s Sporting Goods.

The Single-Sport Problem

One of the reasons team dealers must never lose focus on specialty sports is because of the single-sport mentality and approach by so many young athletes.

“More and more kids are playing one sport year round,” points out Costales, Jr. “They are chasing that college scholarship. If so many of them only play volleyball, it’s best that you sell volleyball.”

Al’s Sporting Goods, in Wilmington, DE, is one of the best examples of how to approach these specialty sports, especially when playing the guessing game on how much inventory to stock. Owner Bob Hart’s solution is a stand-alone retail store coupled with modern technology to give them what they want.

For swimmers who need a new set of goggles, track athletes looking for spikes, or wrestlers ready to replace old headgear, they just walk into the Hart’s consumer retail outlet – Al’s Sporting Goods – to make their individual purchases.

“We also produce on-line stores for four or five swim clubs each year, which also allows parents and swimmers to buy fanwear,” says Hart. “In cheerleading, the biggest item we sell is shoes. In wrestling, we sell team uniforms, kneepads and headgear. In track and field, we sell cleats for sprinters, middle-distance races and long-distance runners.

“And,” he adds, “we sell to a privately run youth volleyball league that has 300-400 participants at the moment.” That, indeed, is a special sale.

View the full print issue here.