New Ideas For a New World
Dealers need to think outside the court to stay ahead of the game.
The team sports game is changing – drastically and rapidly. This change is being driven by technology, which is enabling forward thinkers to bring their ideas to the market faster than ever. Team dealers, notorious for resisting this change, are suddenly realizing they have to get on board or risk being swamped by the tsunami of change that is making their business unrecognizable to those not staying ahead of the curve. So we scoured the news and new products – and new ideas – that are all around us as we prepare for a new decade. These ideas, and dozens more like them just waiting to gain attention, are examples of the kind of thinking that is allowing team dealers to remain relevant in this changing world.
Wrestling With Girls
THE IDEA: With girls’ wrestling gaining acceptance – and official recognition – in states from New Jersey to California, the thinking behind the Cliff Keen women’s two-piece uniform was that it would be another viable competition offering for girls to wear legally in both NFHS and NCAA Wrestling competition. “There is a belief by some that the traditional singlet actually may prevent some athletes – both girls and boys – from wanting to wear it due to its slightly revealing nature,” explains Cliff Keen senior VP Chad Clark. “So the two-piece uniform was approved by the NFHS for competition two years ago in hopes of drawing some athletes to the sport.”
THE CONCEPT: The Cliff Keen two-piece uniform is engineered specifically for the female athlete in mind, with specific cuts, fabrics and construction to make it fit well and perform in competition situations, Clark explains. And like the men’s or unisex uniforms it makes, the women’s two-piece also includes the company’s proprietary Compression Gear Lycra for fit.
DEALER RESPONSE: Clark reports that the reaction thus far has been solid as coaches and team dealers continue to get educated on what comprises a legal NFHS wrestling uniform.” “More folks are coming to us now for women’s-specific offerings,” Clark says, adding that the women’s two-piece in particular has been a good seller. He anticipates demand growing as more girls turn to the two-piece as an option.
THE FUTURE: “With women’s wrestling growing each year, I would imagine that we will keep the pedal to the floor with regards to women’s offerings, and more styles each year,” Clark says. “We do remind our dealers all the time that every wrestling uniform template we show in the catalog is available in a women’s cut also.”
ADVICE TO DEALERS: Anyone looking to go beyond the core four sports into niche markets can do no better than women’s wrestling. And with that growth comes increased female-specific product development from the major suppliers, making the new sale – and it is, by nature, a new sale – even easier to close.
A Flag is Planted
THE IDEA: It has always been a belief that flag football – and its off-season cousin, 7V7 – were safer than tackle football because there was limited contact. No tackling naturally meant fewer concussions and, as a result, little or no padding was needed. Team dealers applauded the effort to make the sport safer and slow the participation decline, but lamented the loss of lucrative helmet sales. Well, it seems there might be some product sales light at the end of the safety tunnel after all.
THE CONCEPT: In none other than the football-crazy Lone Star State, the Texas State 7on7 Organization recently became the first statewide group in the country to require that all of its players wear soft-shell helmets, starting at this year’s state tournament. “We’re living in a time where the perception of football is that mamas don’t want their babies to get hurt,” Doug Stephens, executive director of the Texas State 7on7 Organization, said in a recent New York Times article. While no helmet, soft or hard, can eliminate all head injuries, soft-shell helmets with shock-absorbing padding can reduce the risk of a concussion by decreasing the force of a blow to the head.
THE OPPORTUNITY: There are enough soft-shell helmets on the market now that scientists at Virginia Tech began rating them earlier this year. This growing demand has been a boon for companies like Gamebreaker, Westlake Village, CA, and Vicis, based in Seattle, the only two manufacturers to receive five-star ratings from Virginia Tech. Twelve different models of flag football headgear have been evaluated using the STAR evaluation system as part of the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings. Its impact tests evaluate a headgear’s ability to reduce linear and rotational acceleration of the head resulting from impacts a flag football player might see on the field.
THE PRODUCT: One of the most popular is Vicis’ Ultim Cap, which features a low-profile version of the same Vicis RFLX technology found in its Zero1 and Zero1 Youth helmets. The Ultim Cap offers a thin-walled layer designed to manage impact energy while delivering an unlimited field of view to elevate play and enable fast reaction time. Gamebreaker’s Pro Soft Shell Headgear, which retails for about $49, use D3O “smart molecule” foam that absorbs more force than typical foams. Schutt, All Star and Adidas are among the companies that also make soft headgear.
ADVICE TO DEALERS: Reach out to every football program that you sell, because they are all playing 7V7, as well as youth flag football leagues. Tell them about the product that is out there, and maybe show them a copy of this article about Texas. Because if they are doing it for football in that state, they soon are going to be doing it everywhere.
THE IDEA: Rip-It’s product development philosophy has always been to create products that serve the needs of the softball community. “We were told about one of the challenges that players face during games,” explains Allen Thompson, director of research and andevelopment. “Softball players play the game while on their period and that can lead to embarrassing stains and awkward situations.” In the past players would untuck their jerseys in an attempt to keep stains hidden. “While we were developing sliding shorts, we felt we could create a solution that would solve this problem.” The answer: Period-protection in its sliding shorts.
THE CONCEPT: Period-protection in undergarments is an idea that is entering the mainstream market. However, putting period-protection into athletic wear for women athletes, specifically softball players, makes Rip-It’s sliding shorts unique.
DEALER RESPONSE: “Coaches are not afraid of the conversation around period-protection for their players,” Thompson says. “As a whole, they have enthusiastically celebrated the arrival of these sliding shorts.” As for team dealers, those that are in tune with the issues their coaches face on (and off) the field have seen a significant lift in sales and wallet share through this new product offering, according to Thompson.
THE FUTURE: Rip-It plans to expand the line to include a value-priced option of sliding shorts. It will also be adding period-protection to compression shorts.
ADVICE TO DEALERS: Much like selling jock straps must have been difficult for female team dealers back in the day, period-protection can be a somewhat embarrassing conversation for a male roadman to have with a softball coach, so maybe let them bring it up first. But make sure to point out this type of specialty item when discussing some interesting new products. The girls can take it from there.
No Minimums? No Problem
THE IDEA: The team sporting goods industry has been putting team logos on all types of apparel ever since there has been a team business because athletes like to wear their logo and fans like to show their loyalty. Fortunately, these same kids love to wear sandals before and after practices or games to cool off their aching feet — and to look cool. Put the two ideas together and you have a unique product called SummerSkates.
THE CONCEPT: Canada-based SummerSkates realized the “ankle to toe” area as a missed sales opportunity for team dealers and a way for athletes to literally “walk the talk.” At the same time it identified sport sandals as the most universal footwear format of athletes for pre- and post- activity. Reviewing NSGA Research, president Kevin Hennessy realized the strong $600 million retail sports sandal market provided the business opportunity to create a performance, comfort and quality sports sandal at a value below the average retail market price of $35 per pair. SummerSkates’ product development premise was to be the ultimate in comfort, performance and quality while incorporating its North American trademarked signature design use of real sport laces that form the outer visible portion of the sandal band.
THE PRODUCT: The sport lace design has differing color diagonal accents that create a unique canvas for custom team logos. Its twill sublimated team logos are supplied exclusively by Stahls’. SummerSkates is offering customized product at under $30 to athletes and in 2020 is coming out with an All Black sport lace design that will also enable team logos to really pop while aligning with everyday casual fashion.
ADVICE FOR DEALERS: SummerSkates says it has produced more than 3000 custom team logo sandals for more than 250 team dealers in North America. Hennessy strongly urges dealers to seed the product and seems to be making it very easy to do so with the introduction of its “No Minimums for Team Webstores” program. Its an aggressive business model that provides a strong consumer price point, apparently healthy profit margins that come with low or no minimum requirements and a 15-business day custom re-order shipment guarantee.
Algorithms For The Team Dealer
THE IDEA: When the five finalists were announced this summer for the 2019 SFIA Start-Up Challenge sponsored by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, Emblem Athletic, a gear and apparel customization company, was selected for its use of machine learning algorithms and robotic manufacturing to completely automate the process of designing and delivering a professional personalized look for every team.
THE CONCEPT: Mike Nemeth, founder and CEO of Emblem Athletic, explains that like many products, its work was born from its own frustration with what was available to it as customers. “Before we started this company, we’d purchased some sublimated items for our own sports teams and observed a lot of opportunity for improvement,” he explains. “Many uniform builders had significant limitations and really seemed to be designed to make things easy for the manufacturer — not the customer. All of the automation technology that we’re building for Emblem starts with customer insight that everything should be easy. “
THE PRODUCT: Using a quiz-based survey, the Emblem process creates a unique experience that is essentially a next-generation uniform builder that isn’t really a builder at all. Algorithms, Nemeth explains, can determine a customer’s style and preference instead of asking coaches to pretend they are graphic designers.
THE FUTURE: As more teams come through the system, Emblem is able to improve its recommendations on design and observe style trends in real time. Additional expansion into custom fit options with greater choice for all athletes based on their measurements – not a size chart – is next.
ADVICE FOR DEALERS: Don’t be a troglodyte. It is no longer a question of when technology will impact over the team business — it’s already doing so in a big way. So embrace it, whether it is the Emblem Athletic technology or the increasingly powerful uniform builders and team stores. Your younger coaches certainly are, so join in on the fun and don’t be made to enter the 21st Century kicking and screaming because you like the way you always did it. That’s a recipe for going out of business.
Catching Up With Girls’ Style
THE IDEA: When Easton and Jenn Schroeder sat down, they laid all the issues with current gear on the table. Schroeder, a Team Easton ambassador as well as well-known instructor and founder of Jen Schro Catching, presented the problems she has encountered with her gear over the years. So the two decided to partner on a line of softball catcher’s gear with one simple, yet mostly overlooked, concept — make it fit specifically for a softball player and her body. “We can’t wait for catchers across the world to reap the benefits of our hard work,” Schroeder says. “This gear is everything I would have wanted to wear when I was playing and then some.”
THE PRODUCT: The recently released catcher’s gear collection made specifically for female catchers’ bodies includes two sets: Jen Schro The Very Best, and The Fundamental by Jen Schro Catching. Both sets of gear are available as retail box sets as well as individual pieces, in a variety of colors, and both meet the NOCSAE standard for all levels of play. As the name suggests, Jen Schro The Very Best includes top-of-the-line advances in helmet, chest protector and leg guard technologies, including Clear Dri and Aegis antimicrobial lining for the helmet, a form-fit system as well as patented silicone grip abs for the chest protector, and neoprene knee straps as well as inner knee padding for the leg guards that are all designed with the female athlete’s body and movements in mind. Beyond technology, the gear integrates countless visual details and inspirational messages. The Fundamental by Jen Schro offers many of these core qualities at a lower price, so every young female catcher can experience gear designed just for them. “This gear is unique because for the first time, it’s made for her,” says Schroeder. “Everything that has been a problem over the years has been addressed and some.”
THE DEALER RESPONSE: “Dealers are excited for this gear as well, because for too long we haven’t had something specific for the softball player,” Schroeder adds. “Finally a player will have something of her own, made for her.”
ADVICE FOR DEALERS: News flash: Girls’ bodies are different than boys. Apparel and gear like the Easton Schro line are being developed to fill the demands of these girls for their own products. Dealers who offer female-specific product know it sells. Those that don’t sell it better pay attention.
Not So Private Label
THE IDEA: Private label product at Dick’s Sporting Goods now account for 14 percent of its top line sales. The margins are better, supply is easier to control and it certainly builds the brand. Team dealers, too, would love to have their own apparel line, but 98 percent of them don’t have the resources, desire or experience to get on a plane, tour factory after factory and then develop a line.
THE CONCEPT: Ken Kennedy, managing director of FSG America, has been on that plane and toured many a factory in his 25 years in the business and he spotted an opportunity to bring that expertise to team dealers who would love to put their name on a uniform line. “It is incredibly costly to develop a full sports apparel brand,” Kennedy says. FSG has more than 400 SKUs, which would mean a dealer would need to source fabric, develop sizing, test for fit and function 400 times — simply too difficult a task. “Everyone wants to do this, but reality is it is too difficult,” he says.
THE PRODUCT: The FSG America concept is basically a completely custom brand, with FSG handling all the logistics.
DEALER RESPONSE: Kennedy says the response has been overwhelming, so much so that FSG purchased the Russell Team factory in Mexico and will be moving manufacturing for all of its North American customers there. “Dealers either get it or they don’t,” he admits. “We are not for the faint at heart. Theyneed to commit to making this program their number one offering after the shoe brands and that is difficult for some — everyone has long-term loyalties and salespeople are reluctant to change. It takes strong leadership at the top of the team dealer to recognize the need for private label and to execute it.”
THE FUTURE: FSG will be offering quicker turn times, including a five-day ship on core items in full custom cut and sew. It will also be bringing out a 3D builder for the custom branding that private label needs.
ADVICE TO DEALERS: Private label is not merely a nice option for team dealers looking to stay relevant. With the major shoe brands taking more of the business direct-to-consumer, it is imperative for dealers to develop a brand loyalty. Some believe that in the future it will be manufacturer and brand owner — everything else is a middleman. Why not be one of the winners?