FOOTBALL

Muddle in the Huddle

As the U.S. recovers from the coronavirus crisis, the fate of fall football remains in question.

The cancellation of the spring sports season was a catastrophe for team dealers, but they dealt with it and have moved on. Summer camps remain a question in many parts of the country as well, but most dealers are positioned to react as needed to what happens in their territories.

And then there is fall football — a make-or-break time for dealers around the country, with the emphasis on the “break” if the season is not played by their schools. Team dealers, being an optimistic group by nature, are betting on the “make” part of the equation, although the expectations vary significantly by region and health mandates are certain to determine whether and how there will be a return to play.

In a recently released article, “The Future of Football,” SFIA stated, “The decision made on when students will return to local schools will dictate the timing and manner that football/all sports will return. Nothing happens until kids are allowed to head back to school, for school, community and travel sports.”

The association also noted that schools are not focused on sports at the moment, “because they are figuring out how to … plan for multiple education contingencies next year. And by the way, their budgets are increasingly shot.”

The general consensus is that if football is to start at all it will probably do so slowly, especially at the youth level, and while major efforts will be launched to get kids onto the field, spectators at games may be limited. Options to modify schedules, such as starting pre-season later and running seasons deeper into November/December, are also on the table.

Although school administrators, coaches, leagues and organizations across the country are preparing for the fall football season, they are wary of what conditions may bring.

“A huge factor at the moment is the experience communities will have with initial ‘opening up’ scenarios. If places like Georgia and Texas open up with minimal health/virus problems, that will inspire and pressure the rest of the country to resume play. If there are problems, and especially if the virus flares up in these locales, that will imply very bad news for fall sports,” according to SFIA.

To Play or Not To Play

“I’m 75 percent certain that there will be a football season this year and I just hope for the best,” says Todd Garretson, owner of Greeley, CO-based Garretson’s Sport Center. “I don’t think that people will tolerate no sports in spring and summer and then again in fall.”

Fortunately, Garretson’s completed a lot of its football business in January and February, meaning that uniform orders are mostly done and helmet reconditioning is already in the system. “For fall sports we’re in pretty good shape,” he says. “We do our own lettering and can react quickly with spirit packs — we’re ready to go. We just have the intangibles to deal with, such as how many kids will go out.”

But the uncertainty is as widespread as the virus itself. “We just need to know when the season will begin. If you give people a date, you give them hope and a chance to plan. Not knowing dates is what drives everybody nuts,” Garretson remarks.

“If authorities pick a date and go with it, the season could be strong,” he adds. “Once we get an okay, we’ll see numbers come back to what they were last year. People are so ready to play.”

On the East Coast, Mike Bruno, GM of Grogan-Marciano in Mansfield, MA, reports that he’s already received a rash of orders for core products from schools for 2021.

“The schools have budgets now, so they have to use the money,” he explains. “As of now, there will probably be a football season. New England got hit pretty hard, but people are expecting to play. Budgets will be lean and mean.”

He points out that school administrations are trying to finish the current fiscal year and work on the next one. “It’s total limbo for schools, dealers and manufacturers. We need health directives from officials in the state. We’re still planning for a season.”

Bruno admits that it’s hard to tell if there will be a full or a shortened football season, but he’s expecting a normal schedule. “August 20 or so is the start of football practice in the East, but in the South football starts earlier. This [slight delay] could work to our advantage.”

At Valparaiso, IN-based Blythe’s Athletics, owner Mike Blythe is a bit more circumspect. “I’m hoping that football season will happen,” he says. “We’re holding orders for practice packs and the like and we have a lot of business hanging out. We won’t order product until we know if the season will be held and then we’ll rely on suppliers. We didn’t pre-book because we didn’t want to get stuck with goods.”

Elsewhere, prospects are much dimmer. “I don’t anticipate any football season this year,” admits Shawn Lynch, owner of All Seasons Sports in Delano, MN. “This is a long-term disaster. The hard part is that the things [we’re doing to prepare for the season] are just to keep the status quo. Whatever [inventory] we get stuck with in 2020 will affect 2021. We all have inventory left over in the North and this will affect us by region.

“Budget cuts will come into play for 2021 and I don’t know the long-term, lasting effects,” he adds. “For schools, sports aren’t considered essential and will likely get cut.”

The COVID-19 Impact

There is no doubt that the pandemic will have a serious impact on team and school budgets and, by extension, team dealers.

“Sales will be down a little bit, but people have been cooped up for so long they can’t wait for sports to get back,” says Blythe. “We’re seeing more fundraising, especially in our online team stores, because school budgets are tighter. We’re ready for it and are trying to stay ahead of the game.”

He points out that they are behind in sales from not having a full basketball or baseball season and they are ready and raring to go when things do open up a bit. “We’re hungry and eager to get our business healthy again and are trying to regain what we lost this past season,” Blythe says, noting that that there will be new norms for every sport, not just football, and dealers “will have to tweak things to make their stores profitable again.”

At Grogan-Marciano, the expectation is that business will be down – by how much, nobody knows – especially for youth leagues, because parents will likely be hesitant to sign kids up until the situation blows over.

“This year, we probably won’t move as much product as usual and COVID-19 will kill the next fiscal year. Schools are already acting like budgets will get hacked. If money loosens up, we may backfill later,” says Bruno.

He feels that booster clubs and players will have to pick up the slack to get the products that they want. “We don’t know how bad it’s going to be yet — that’s the rub. We’ll just adjust as things pop up,” Bruno says.

For full-line sporting goods dealers such as Garretson’s Sport Center and All Seasons Sports, the team side of the business may be suffering, but diversification into other categories is proving to be a saving grace.

“We’re a full-line sports retailer so we’re okay. But if you’re strictly a team business, you’re in limbo. Cash flow is the biggest concern — you can’t make sales if activities are taken away,” says Garretson. “Everybody is playing catch-up and there will be a domino effect. Whenever governments don’t have tax money coming in, schools will probably feel the pinch. Teams will have to rely more on booster clubs and private donations.

Garretson’s has been in business for 55 years and team accounts for more than half of its business, but these days it is selling a lot of weight equipment, trampolines and golf carts — “everything we can get our hands on. Hunting and fishing are also doing well and we’re selling lots of bait and fishing equipment.”

Likewise, Lynch is seeing rising demand on the non-team side of the business. “People are transitioning back to fishing, hunting, bicycling and outdoors because they’re family-friendly activities. When all is said and done, people might not be as involved in team sports as before,” he opines.

A ‘New Normal’

Even though coronavirus restrictions are gradually being lifted, the ability of team dealers to operate in an environment that is not yet free of the contagion will require patience and ingenuity. Changes are already underway for businesses and football itself will likely undergo adjustments, too.

For dealers, recovery will hinge on the introduction of new product categories, keeping up with possible new uniform and equipment requirements and making customers feel comfortable.

Some Bright Spots

There are some bright spots, though.

“Face shields for helmets will be a big seller and cleaners and detergents for equipment will also be important,” predicts Blythe. “For fans, face masks and neck gaiters with school logos might be extra items we’ll be able to sell. We’re figuring out what fans will want and be required to do.”

As part of the effort, Blythe designed a special coronavirus varsity jacket patch (see story on page 14). “It’s been a big hit with high school kids, it’s selling very well and is a historical reminder of what happened this year,” he explains. “You have to keep thinking ahead and make people feel comfortable. If you can innovate and get in early on things, you’ll be okay.”

For Grogan-Marciano, masks could figure prominently in the equation. “If there is a football season, will they allow fans and will masks be required? If states make a decision, we need to be prepared,” says Bruno. “Once the store reopens we’ll have masks for sale, but we’re not sure if they’ll be branded or just vanilla. We’ve ordered logoed masks, but it will be a question of timing and lead times because it takes three to four weeks for custom orders.”

Meanwhile, Garretson isn’t totally convinced that masks will be mandated for football players due to the requirement for mouthpieces, but he has no doubt of rising demand among fans.

“So far we’ve sold over 1 000 custom masks — it’s almost a fashion piece for schools,” he says.

One key football issue for team dealers is how to deal with inventory.

“We’re trying to have enough inventory on-hand when customers need it, but not have too much, and we also have to be aware of manufacturers’ ability to ship product,” explains Bruno. “For winter and spring ordering we’re dealing with manufacturers’ shipping ability and we’ll try to stick with core items like balls so teams can play.

“It’s a total mess,” he continues, lamenting that many dealers will probably have a lot of carryover product for 2021. Bruno also notes that if his business has to move this year’s product next year, it will affect budgets and deliveries for 2021, meaning that purchasing for Spring 2021 will be low.

Furthermore, Bruno mentions that some inventory concerns are tied to a dealer’s location. This spring, for example, many teams in the south had received product and played a portion of baseball/softball/lacrosse seasons before the pandemic hit. But because New England started later, players never got on the field, so there were more cancellations.

“It’s more complex than just what will happen with football. The situation will affect everything and everyone for two years, 2020 and 2021,” he says.

Another challenge is how to cope with the emotions that COVID-19 is sparking among staff and customers. Lynch says, “We have to be sensitive to the fears and concerns of customers and employees. Having a well-rounded staff that can give customers confidence in your shop is the biggest challenge.”

The Lasting Impact

Certainly, everybody is longing for a return to a world without the novel coronavirus — or at least hoping for a vaccine, cure or treatment so things can get back to a semblance of normality.

“Sports are a big part of American life and people need hope. I’m hoping that this isn’t permanent,” says Garretson.

Blythe concurs: “In the future, we may lose fans in the stands such as grandma and grandpa, but maybe not players because youth are less affected by the virus than older folks. People are not giving up on sports.”

Lynch is also confident that this, too, shall pass. “I don’t think anything’s forever. It will take a generation or decade for people to forget, but the impact won’t be permanent.”

Bruno, too, thinks that the current situation is transitory — it’s more a question of how long the hit will last. “The biggest thing is the uncertainty,” he says. “This isn’t like the [2008] recession — this is an external factor and there’s no game plan for this. We’re all at the mercy of state health officials. They’re making it up as they go along, just as we are.”

A Clean Sweep

Now that states are lifting lockdowns and gradually reopening their economies, “non-essential” brick-and-mortar businesses, including sporting goods stores and team dealers, are trying to anticipate and comply with new operational requisites. The federal government has provided safety guidelines and criteria for phased openings, but businesses still have to contend with a patchwork of local rules and regulations that can vary by town, city and region within the same state. But one mandate remains sacrosanct: sanitization.

“We’ll have to react if certain conditions are set, such as requirements for masks and equipment cleaning. As a store, we’re just starting to get stock orders in and we’ll spray or wipe everything down before the products go into inventory or out the door,” says Mike Bruno, of Grogan-Marciano, which serves both Rhode Island and Massachusetts. “Generally speaking, we’ll lean on wrestling products such as BattleSkin wipes, lotions and soaps that can handle COVID-19. Plus, we’ll have to play by two sets of rules — what Rhode Island is doing and what Massachusetts is doing.”

Like many other dealers, Garretson’s Sport Center is fielding more requests for sanitization products. “Schools will be demanding disinfectants, wipe downs and sprays and some recommendations and requirements will be determined by state governments,” says Todd Garretson.

Chad Clark, SVP of wrestling gear maker Cliff Keen Athletic, confirms an uptick in sales of cleaning products. “For sure, we have seen an increase in the sales of our germicidal mat cleaner called ‘No Funk.’ We have also been selling a ton of the Defense Soap products lately,” he reports.

“I’m sure COVID-19 may be behind this to a large degree, but I also chalk it up to the fact that so many wrestlers are buying smaller home mats and are working out/ training from home.”

At Blythe Athletics, making customers feel comfortable in the store is crucial.

“We have disposable masks for people to wear when entering the store, we have 6-foot markers on the floor for social distancing, we’ve installed plexiglass shields at the cashier, and we have a tight cleaning regimen in place,” says Mike Blythe. “Also, curbside pickups will be huge.”

View the full print issue here.