Specialty Sports

A Special Core 4

A inside look at how team dealers are selling four ‘specialty’ sports.

Four of the more interesting and niche specialty sports – girls’ wrestling, rugby, track and field/cross-country and pickleball – are a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities team dealers face in selling specialty sports. Here we take a look at each and how they are offering a ray of hope for beleaguered team dealers in 2021.

Girls’ Wrestling: The Real Deal

The numbers speak for themselves. According to the latest figures from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), there are 21,124 girls from 2890 schools in 43 states wrestling at the high school level. The top three states are California (6014 female wrestlers from 759 schools), Texas (4421. 337) and Washington (1864, 238).  

And, according to USA Wrestling and the NFHS, wrestling is the 17th most popular high school sport for girls in the country.  Another point worth making is that 18 state high school associations have their own girls’ high school state wrestling championships. A few years ago, that number was just six.

At the collegiate level – specifically, NCAA Divisions I, II and III – women’s wrestling has been recognized as an emerging sport, which means that this fall all schools with women’s wrestling programs will follow NCAA guidelines.

The most recent research from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) reveals that of the 1.9 million wrestlers in the U.S., 361,000 are female. And of those, 131,000 of them are considered core participants who are training or competing in wrestling 26 or more days a year.

“Girls wrestling is the fastest growing sport in the U.S.,” says Elliot Hopkins, director of sports, sanctioning and student services of the NFHS.  “We have over 20 states that have their own girls’-only state championships and more are looking to add that to the full complement of their wrestling program. Girls want to wrestle other girls. The NFHS is working on solidifying appropriate weight classes so there is a consistency among all female competitors across the country, just as it is with the boys. The future of girls’ wrestling is extremely bright and once we have uniform weights it will grow even more.”

“Wrestling for girls and women is growing like crazy right now. It’s easily one of the fastest-growing sports for females and the sky’s the limit,” says Gary Abbot, director of communications for USA Wrestling in Colorado Springs, CO. “We’ve seen consistent growth and changes in culture. As empowerment for women and girls has grown and become more accepted, people are excited to create more opportunities.”

The actual number of high school female wrestlers in the U.S. is probably higher because girls in states such as West Virginia don’t wrestle against other girls. Instead, they are trying to take down and pin the boys.

“Girls participation (in wrestling) is slowly growing in popularity, but in West Virginia the girls are still wrestling against the boys,” explains Wayne Ryan, assistant executive director of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission. The good news: West Virginia did have a girls-only invitational tournament last year for the first time and had 42 girls participate at the high school level.

“They have always been allowed, but that was the most we have ever had,” Ryan reports.

According to Chad Clark, senior VP at Cliff Keen Athletic, there are certain sections of the U.S. considered to be hotbeds for girls’ wrestling.

“It’s growing everywhere, but there certainly are pockets that have seen more steady growth,” he says. Among them: California, Oregon, Michigan, Texas, Florida and throughout the Midwest in general.

For team dealers the buying experience seems to be the same, regardless of gender.

“They (girls) are purchasing singlets, but in a female cut,” reports Clark. “Same with two-piece headgear. It is the same as men’s, but not required for high school. Beginning in Fall 2020, it will be required for NCAA women’s teams.

“Even though we have been making women’s singlets for close to 20 years, we have seen significant growth the last three years in female purchases,” says Clark.

Rugby: A True Niche Sport

It’s better to have played rugby and lost rather than to have played any other sport and won. That’s the rugby mindset and, not surprisingly, the true niche sport attracts passionate participants due to its unique appeal.

Since so many dealers do not sell rugby – yet – here’s a quick primer:

• Rugby actually has two divisions – rugby union and rugby league. Both versions have scrums, tackling, rucking, mauling and goal kicking, but rugby league features 11 players on each team, while rugby union has 15 players a side, unless they are playing the shorter version of 7-a-side rugby. The vast majority of the world plays rugby union.  

• The 15-a-side version is contested at the Men’s and Women’s Rugby World Cups (RWC), staged every four years. The Men’s RWC was most recently played in Japan in 2019, while the Women’s RWC was played in Ireland in 2017.  

• At the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, fans watched 7-a-side rugby (men’s and women’s). The same 7-a-side competition is on the Olympic docket in Japan in 2021.  

• It’s worth noting that the U.S. women’s and men’s 7-a-side teams are highly ranked in world and are very competitive. The men’s team is led by 2017 and 2018 World Rugby 7s Player of the Year Perry Baker, who hails from New Smyrna Beach, FL.  

• For decades, the vast majority of rugby players in the U.S. were men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Now, young children, college-age students and women have a strong and growing presence on the American rugby scene.

• As for those men in their 20s, 30s and 40s back in the day, a few of them have transitioned into coaching rugby and many have moved on to playing Old Boys games, which involve traveling to special tournaments throughout the year.  

These diversity of these groups of rugby players bodes well for the future of the sport and for rugby equipment sales in the U.S.

There are 1.4 million rugby players in the U.S., according to SFIA, whose president, Tom Cove, is a former rugby player.

Nearly 85 percent of all core rugby players in the U.S. are male, with the hotbeds in the South Atlantic and Pacific Coast sections of the country.

In the last decade, the key to the emergence and growth of rugby across the U.S. has been to get athletically inclined boys and girls exposed to the game at a young age, which is helping to expand the base of participation and potential sales for rugby retailers, many of whom now have a digital presence in the retail marketplace.

The website for long-time retailer Rugby Imports – www.rugbyimports.com  -- in East Providence, RI, makes shopping for rugby gear, apparel and accessories quite simple.  On Rugby Imports’ website everything rugby is available  — jerseys, socks, shorts, boots, scrum caps, mouthguards, kit bags and a wide variety of rugby balls by Gilbert, even a set of goal posts.

“Most of our customers are between 20 and 30 and then 45-plus,” says Julian Bellman, business development and operations manager for  Rugby Imports. “The reason for the wide gap is that the younger group, in my opinion, focuses on the discounted items and/or individual ball purchases, while the older demographic focuses on our traditional jerseys.”

As with other sports, the state of men’s club rugby, women’s club rugby, collegiate rugby, high school rugby and youth rugby is in limbo due to the current restrictions caused by COVID-19.

“I think that all clubs want to be out on the pitch doing things,” adds Bellman, who reports that most conferences and leagues have canceled their fall seasons. “All I know from my network and the individuals I talk to is that everyone wants to get back out there. Everyone misses rugby.”

But Bellman does not expect a resumption of play any time soon. “According to state and USA Rugby guidelines, there are no sanctioned rugby events permitted, last I looked,” says Bellman. “That being said, any team or organization holding a rugby event would be doing so without approval.”

Longtime rugby retailer Matt Godek, founder of Matt Godek Rugby & Soccer Supply in Fairfax, VA, has been an eyewitness to the growth and development of rugby in the U.S. since he first started playing rugby in the late 1960s in South Carolina. He made the transition to selling rugby gear, apparel and accessories in the mid-1970s, but he didn’t stop playing.

“While I spent more time selling and marketing rugby, I have never really retired from playing,” Godek says. “Old Boys rugby players never admit to having played their last game. There’s always another game to be played down the road.”

Just as the game of rugby has evolved in the U.S., so has Godek’s rugby business; for decades he operated out of a physical building in Fairfax, but he now operates a virtual retail storefront — RugbyStore.com and 800.USARugby.com.

While participants range from age eight to those in their late 70s/early 80s, their buying patterns are different.

“For the younger players, they are wearing T-shirts, shorts and socks, all of which can be purchased locally,” says Godek. The older, more experienced rugby players are the ones buying their jerseys, shorts, socks, cleats (aka, boots), kit bags, mouthguards, scrum caps and accessories from established rugby retail outlets such as his.

“Rugby-specific retailers can offer a value-added service which helps them stand apart from a general sporting goods retailer or a team dealer,” says Godek. “Only a rugby retailer can put the whole package together properly when it comes to processing a rugby team’s order.”

While Godek sells a number of rugby balls, it’s not like selling basketballs, footballs and baseballs.  Rugby balls are a product with distinction and special identity.  

“Every rugby club wants a customized rugby ball with its team logo on it,” he says.

In his years of selling and promoting rugby, he has one major observation.

“The average competitive playing career for any rugby player is roughly six years,” says Godek.  “It’s a tough sport where there’s player-to-player physical contact in practice and in games. And, people are being thrown to the ground. Obviously, some participants play for less than six years and others play for longer than six years. Those long-time players eventually become avid participants on the Old Boys scene.”

But one thing that stays with all rugby players is the sport’s camaraderie and fellowship. It’s a powerful bond that very few, if any other, sports have.  

“There are not too many sports that bring people back together for 50- and 60-year anniversary celebrations like rugby does,” says Godek.

That loyalty to a sport is one of the positive, profitable side effects of the rugby-playing experience  — players remember the power of their activewear.

“The functionality of rugby activewear lends itself to rugby-themed purchases for non-rugby business needs,” says Godek. “Rugby activewear withstands many demands during practices and games. Those same qualities in clothing are needed by people who work in other lines of work. Rugby activewear has other practical applications outside of the sport.”

XC & T&F: Bookend Sports

The arrival of COVID-19 back in March left the majority of high school track and field athletes stuck in their starting blocks, but every effort is being made to ensure that cross-country runners don’t suffer the same fate this fall and that track athletes don’t have a repeat experience next spring.

The sport received a boost when it was classified as one of the safest sports amidst a pandemic because of its inherent social distancing.

“Our cross-country and track student-athletes simply want the chance to train and compete,” says Michelle Metzler, athletic director at Berean Christian School in West Palm Beach, FL. “They are all inspired to perspire, especially those that had their spring seasons cut short.”

That enthusiasm to run races is felt throughout the U.S.

“With over a million students participating in outdoor track and field and almost 500,000 students participating in cross-country, the overall state of high school cross country and track and field is still looking good,” says Julie Cochran, the NFHS’s director of sports for track and field and cross-country. “With many students disengaged from activities for over five months, the physical health concerns of the virus are being weighed against the mental health concerns of students being separated from school and education-based activities.”  

It is taking the joint efforts of local government leaders and health officials working with powers-that-be in academia for cross-country to have a high school season this fall.

“States have reviewed plans for conducting activities and working with their local governments to make sure that sports can be offered at some point for schools,” adds Cochran. “These are tough times and creative plans are being put in place by many state associations around the nation. Many of the states are continuing to offer cross-country this fall and some are altering what traditional starts and finishes look like to help with physical distancing.”

According to NFHS, track and field is the number one high school sport, in terms of participation, for girls in the U.S., with 488,267 participants. Track ranks second for high school girls, in terms of sponsoring schools, as 17,012 high schools have a girls’ high school track team.  

For high school boys, the numbers are larger — 605,354 boys at 17,052 schools. For boys, only 11-player football has more participants and sponsoring schools at the high school level.

In the U.S., there are 4.1 million track and field athletes, according to SFIA. Of those, 2.1 million of them are considered core participants who are running 26 or more days a year.  

Although the participation numbers are impressive, track and field is not necessarily a huge money-maker for team dealers.

In Wilmington, DE, Bob Hart, owner of Al’s Sporting Goods, says that track and field generates a steady stream of sales for his firm.

“We sell uniforms and a decent number of spikes each year,” says Hart. “From time to time, we sell items for the field events like a shot put and a discus. Track is a nice little business for us.”

In Marietta, OH, Rod Zide, owner of Zide’s Sporting Goods, says he and his salesmen give as much attention to any track and field order as they would a bigger purchase in another sport.

“We make sure that an order as small as 12 shirts is given as much attention as an order of 150 football helmets,” says Zide. “Our goal is to make sure every order in every sport gets delivered on time, if not early. We sell everything from hurdles to field equipment to spikes.”

In Clarksville, IN, Jim Brown, a salesman at Kratz Sporting Goods, says his track business depends on the level of passion and local interest.

“There are pockets of Indiana where track is popular and there are areas where the sport struggles,” says Brown, who reports that a sport like basketball in Indiana thrives in every community.

In Ogden, UT, track and field represents a “very small” part of total sales for Save On Sporting Goods, according to owner Justin Nakaishi, who sells mostly uniforms, spikes, and a few items used in field events.

Nakaishi says that one of the problems with selling track and field is that items like hurdles, shots, javelins and the apparatus for high jump and pole vault have long life spans and the construction of actual track facilities is not an annual expense.

Pickleball: A Sweet Deal

Pickleball – yes, the name is funny, get over it – remains one of the best-kept secrets in the world of sports. But, that may not be the case for much longer and many would be surprised to find out that it has been played for more than 50 years in the U.S..  

A review of www.usapickleball.org reveals that it is being played at more than 8000 locations in the U.S. and more than 100 new pickleball locales are popping up on a monthly basis. Clearly, pickleball is a sport that is on the rise.

So, what exactly is pickleball? Well, it is a combination of tennis, badminton and table tennis. It can be played by two people (singles) or four (doubles) in a venue similar to a tennis court, but with the dimensions of a badminton court and and a different net height and width. The ball is very similar to the perforated ball used to play whiffle ball.

While pickleball was invented in the mid-1960s as a sport for children played in the backyard, today the majority of participants are older, although an interest in schools is emerging..

“We continue to see significant growth in northern states and most of this growth is through indoor pickleball,” says Justin Maloof, executive cirector of USA Pickleball, which is based in Surprise, AZ.

The latest participation study from SFIA indicates that 3.46 million people played pickleball in the U.S. in 2019.  

That number is expected to increase in 2020, despite COVID-19, in the opinion of Terri Graham, Minto U.S. Open Pickleball Championships co-founder and the longtime business director for Indoor Racquet Sports at Wilson Sporting Goods.

“After speaking to the manufacturers, the number-one item they sold out of were portable nets,” says Graham. “It was impossible to find any pickleball net about a month into the COVID-19 shutdown. Starter sets and balls also were selling out as new players were setting up a net in their driveway in order to find some (physical) activity for their families. We also see families playing all over the country on public park courts.”

Graham and Maloof also report that pickleball players are buying their gear from both traditional retail stores and online outlets.

“Dick’s Sporting Goods carries a great selection of pickleball gear now,” says Graham., who points out that the website Pickleballcentral.com is the largest online store.

And sales forecasts for the sport for the balance of 2020 and into the early part of 2021 look rock solid. Clearly, pickleball’s days as being one of the best-kept secrets in the world of sports are numbered.

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