Clear Standards Fuel Bat Sales

Amazing what a little clarity can do.

With the NCAA and National High School Federation (NHFS) regulations regarding bat specifications finally in place, aluminum bats have been a star performer for sporting goods retailers. Manufacturers of the bats are forecasting that the rocketing sales will continue through the new year.

“This year has been phenomenal,” said Tony Palma, president of Easton Sports. “When the NCAA and NHFS made their announcements that there would be no more rule changes, the floodgates of consumer demand for men’s slow pitch softball bats opened.”

Palma reports that Easton’s baseball bat business is up 80 percent this year.

Louisville Slugger also is experiencing significant sales increases, up 40 percent in the first quarter of its July ’00 to June ’01 fiscal year.

“Normalcy has been restored to bat retailing,” said Marty Archer, president of Louisville Slugger, a division of Hillerich and Bradsby. “Players and retailers are no longer as much in the dark on what they should or should not be buying.”

And what should they be buying? In order to conform to the current NCAA specifications and the future NHFS regulations (which will go into effect on January 1, 2001), the new bats must be 2-5/8″ in diameter around the barrel with a-3 weight-to-length ratio.

Choices include Easton’s BT2-Z ConneXion Z-Core, which uses the company’s Focus Flex technology, allowing the handle and barrel of the bat to act independently. The separate handle and barrel are permanently bonded together with an elastomer known as ConneXion that eliminates vibration and helps extend the bat’s “sweet spot” from the taper to the barrel’s end,

Louisville Slugger offers the TPX C555 line of bats, made with a new aluminum alloy technology from Alcoa that provides particularly high strength and dent resistance. The TPX Air C555 features a three-compartment, nitrogen-filled chamber in the barrel; when the bat makes contact with the ball, the force of impact is localized in one of the compartments, tripling the incremental pressure and returing it back to the ball. The result is greater “pop” off the barrel along with solid sound and feel. A Platinum model, without the air technology, also is available.

“From our point of view, the aluminum bat windfall will carry through to next year,” Palma said. Archer agreed, “Kids will be buying new hats to replace their old ones that no longer meet the standard.”

The predictions of the manufacturers are echoed by retailers.

“With the rule changes and the new products being required for next spring, we have seen a lot of replacement bat business over the last six months,” said Greg Vanover, sporting goods buyer for Chick’s. “I’d expect that to continue for the first four months of 2001, at least.”

Mad dash: now that sales of basketball shoes and crosstrainers have cooled

Athletic shoe manufacturers are re-emphasizing running shoes due to a shift in consumer preferences. Customers are buying fewer basketball and crosstraining shoes in favor of running shoes. To capitalize on this trend, Nike and Fila USA are focusing on performance running shoes rather than fashion styles. Nike launched its new Visi-Zoom Air technology at the 1998 Super Show and plans to use this new performance technology in future running shoes.

Although vendors may be at a loss to explain why demand for running-shoe silhouettes remains strong while sales of basketball shoes and crosstrainers have dropped, they are taking advantage of this trend. During the recent Super Show in Atlanta, several athletic footwear firms re-emphasized their performance running-shoes, taking aim at companies like New Balance, ASICS, Brooks and Saucony, all of which enjoyed a strong 1997.

Fila U.S.A. and Nike are perhaps the two most prominent examples. Sparks, Md.,-based Fila, reeling from consumers’ diminishing interest in wearing athletic footwear for fashion, has begun to take a more performance-oriented approach to its products. Although the company confirmed it will continue to be a design and style innovator, Fila also wants to build its reputation around the performance aspects of its plantar fasciitis shoes for women. Officials at Beaverton, Ore.,-based Nike, which was founded as a running-shoe company and has a heritage of producing technical running shoes, also said it plans to emphasize this category and remind consumers of the company’s leadership position in performance.

“Running is coming more into focus again,” said Fila Category Manager Harry Friedman, “because retailers are saying that basketball and other [athletic] categories are down, and they are looking for other shoes that will sell.”

Running shoes are selling well, he said, because participation in the sport is still strong and consumers like the feel, look and fit of the shoes. The performance aspects of these shoes are important, he said, because runners are so dependent on their footwear for bunions, more so than other athletes. “You’re a little more sensitive to injury and more sensitive to the fit and feel of the shoe in running,” said Friedman. Runners will not generally purchase running shoes, he added, unless they are sure they will be comfortable and perform well.

Friedman confirmed that vendors sometimes feel compelled to create new midsole technologies even when dual-density EVA may be almost as effective: “For the most part, companies develop technologies to make a better product,” he said, “but if you don’t have a technology, it is more difficult to sell.”

During the Super Show, Nike touted its newest technology Visi-Zoom Air, which will be placed in a new running shoe, the Air Citizen, to debut for fall ’98. Kirk Richardson, category manager for running at Nike, said at the Super Show his company plans to re-emphasize the authenticity of its products — including those in the running category — with consumers. He added that Nike aims to convince consumers that athletes wear its shoes, not because they are paid to do so, but because Nike offers the best products on the market.

But officials from smaller firms said they are not overly concerned that larger brands are taking a more aggressive approach to the category. Tom Daley, global marketing manager at Brooks, Bothell, Wash., said the running-shoe market is growing because of a “heightened awareness about the health benefits of running” among consumers, who want performance features, not flashy marketing. “Our product makes sense, because our tennis shoes with high arch support have a purpose,” he said.

In 1997, Brooks’ revenues in the United States grew 48 percent, to nearly $40 million. Daley said he expects continued growth, because of Brooks is positioned in the market as a performance running-shoe brand.

“If running is a hot trend, we do benefit from that — I won’t deny it,” he said. “But the people who are generally into hot fashion and new styles aren’t generally the people who buy our shoes.”