Coming on fast

The women’s fastpitch softball category led the growth in the diamond sports industry in 1994. As a result, retailers are focusing their marketing strategies on the upcoming Women’s Professional Fastpitch, which will be held in June 1996. Industry experts attribute the significant growth of ther sport to the creation of baseball products specifically for women and the use of women as image models for baseball merchandise. The industry also witnessed a significant increase in the sale of baseball equipment, from $20 million in 1993 to $348 million in 1994.

The diamond sports category is expected to enjoy another solid year at the plate, with women’s fastpitch softball taking the industry by storm and technological advancements in bats scoring runs.

Despite of the negative press Major League Baseball (MLB) has generated over the past year, the diamond sports category enjoyed another solid season at the plate. And while early attendance figures for MLB have been off dramatically, suppliers continue to post runs on the retail scoreboard due to the increased popularity of women’s fastpitch softball as well as technological advances in baseball equipment.

American Sports Analysis, a trend report conducted for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) by American Sports Data, indicates that softball saw its player base increase 2.2 percent to 30.8 million in 1994 over the previous year. Baseball participation increased 9.4 percent from 15.6 million players in 1993 to 17.0 million last year.

Similarly, the U.S. wholesale value of annual manufacturer’s shipments, according to the SGMA, was consistent with participation growth. Overall, diamond sports equipment increased $20 million to $348 million in 1994. For the one-year period, gloves and mitts were up $7 million to $94 million in 1994; baseballs/softballs increased $7 million to $119 million; bats climbed $3 million to $83 million; and batter’s gloves jumped $2 million to $31 million.

Although males continue to make up the majority of players on diamonds throughout the country, the industry’s most significant growth area is now in the women’s fastpitch softball category. In 1994, fastpitch softball registered the most substantial gains in girls high school athletic programs, according to a report from Women’s Professional Fastpitch, a top division league set to begin play in June ’96 (see sidebar on page 42). Currently, there are more than 250,000 women varsity softball players active in more than 15,000 high school programs. The numbers are equally impressive at the college level, with more than 1,300 collegiate fastpitch programs at all levels, involving more than 29,000 players.

“Fastpitch has just gone through the roof in the past several years. Title IX helped spark the movement in women’s fastpitch for years. But we are past Title IX, and now women are playing the game because of the competition and fun the sport provides,” explains Jim Darby, senior vice president of promotions, Easton Sports, Inc.

FAST TRACK

Unlike years past, when the industry simply gave lip service to fastpitch softball, manufacturers have taken aggressive steps in the past 12 months to more effectively address the market.

Hillerich & Bradsby, Dudley Sports, Easton and Worth, Inc. have all employed a hit-and-run strategy of signing top-performing fastpitch players – expected to make the U.S. Olympic Team in 1996 – to endorsement contracts. And in each case, the relationships have resulted in signature lines of either fielder’s gloves or bats, or both.

Hillerich & Bradsby, manufacturer of Louisville Slugger baseball and softball equipment, was the first company to sign a woman softball player to an endorsement contract when it inked Olympic hopeful Lisa Fernandez to a deal last year.

Jay Strange, Louisville Slugger’s sales manager, says retail performance of the Fernandez line of single wall softball bats has been tremendous this past spring season, and is likely to prompt the company into adding products to the collection.

“It is a fair assessment to say that the Lisa Fernandez collection has done so well because girls now look to Lisa in the same way that boys look to a Cal Ripken, Jr. or Frank Thomas,” says Strange. “Girls’ heroes are now the Lisa Fernandezes, not the major leaguers.”

Earlier this year, Dudley Sports signed a multi-year endorsement contract with Julie Smith, the number one ranked defensive player in 1994. And similar to the agreement between Louisville Slugger and Fernandez, Smith has had a direct hand in the development of the company’s gloves and bats.

“For too long, women had to accept product that was designed by men, for men. The recognition by Dudley and a number of other suppliers to create product specifically for women by women has been a tremendous step in the overall growth of the sport,” Smith tells SGB.

Ken Baker, Dudley’s managing director, adds that the signing of Smith is just the tip of the iceberg in the company’s strategic plan to be the number one supplier of women’s softball equipment in the years to come.

“Two years ago, Dudley had no product in its line designed specifically for a woman. In 1996, we expect that 80 percent of sales will be in our women’s products,” explains Baker. At The Super Show in February, Dudley unveiled its Thunder Heat Series of women’s softball bats and gloves, and the Fast Pitch Series of bats.

Both Easton and Worth have also signed top women players to endorsements contracts. Easton has developed a signature bat for Sheila Cornell, a two-time All-American at UCLA and an Olympic hopeful, and will involve her in an advertising campaign leading up to the games. And Worth has tapped the services of Michele Smith, also an Olympic hopeful, who now has her name on the company’s Supercell fast-pitch bat and a softball glove.

Beyond signing specific players to endorsement contracts, a number of companies are directing their marketing dollars at the team level. Franklin continues to place strong emphasis on its Amateur Softball Association (ASA)-endorsed bats, fielder’s gloves and batter’s glove, and its sponsorship of the U.S. Olympic team.

In addition, Mizuno Sports USA recently announced an agreement with the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Properties to serve as a supplier of softball and baseball equipment for the 1996 games in Atlanta.

According to Lisa Kantor, Mizuno’s assistant marketing manager/baseball & softball, the company will back its sponsorship with its first retail offering of women’s specific softball equipment, which will include a softball glove and a batter’s glove.

“We plan to go after the women’s market aggressively in the years to come,” comments Kantor. She adds that the company will utilize Jill Justin, an Olympic candidate, in a number of advertisements to break in the near future.

THE NEW ALUMINUM

Another anticipated boost for the diamond sports category this year will be in the power of bats. A number of models are incorporating the C405 aluminum alloy, a material originally created by the aerospace industry.

“C405 is a major benefit on two counts. First, the aluminum on its own is lighter and stronger than anything else on the market. Second, we are able to enhance other areas of the bat, through such features as end-caps, without the issue of the bat ultimately being too heavy,” comments Doug Bennett, Worth’s senior vice president/marketing. Worth has incorporated the C405 alloy in its new line of Supercell bats.

Easton also utilizes the C405 alloy in its Reflex Series of baseball and softball bats. According to the company, C405 has tested to be nine percent stronger than Easton’s exclusive EA70 alloy and 13 percent stronger than CU31 alloy.

“The C405 alloy is a major advancement in bat technology, and we expect that it will be around for a long time,” comments Easton’s Darby.

Louisville Slugger’s most significant introduction incorporating C405 is its Power Dome Advanced Player bat. It is now the company’s lightest bat in the 2 3/4[inches] diameter category, while still featuring a full-barrel and Louisville Slugger’s “Concentrated Velocity Load” design for increased energy transfer upon contact.

Titanium – the category’s most advanced material – continues to be embroiled in controversy. ASA has ruled that titanium bats are legal in play leading to nationally-sanctioned tournaments, but that in other league play, an organizer can rule whether or not the bat can be used.

The U.S. Slo-Pitch Softball Association (USSSA), however, has not approved the use of titanium. Based on ASTM’s softball bat performance study, which USSSA adheres to, titanium bats do not meet a “Bat Performance Factor” of 1.20 or less.

Nevertheless, titanium bat suppliers indicate that early sales have been very encouraging, despite the controversy and high-price tag these models carry. “We have already sold approximately 90 percent of our titanium bat inventory,” says Worth’s Bennett. The company’s bat sells between $500 and $600.

Easton’s Darby adds that it has been a struggle for the company to keep up with consumer demand for its Tiphoon bat, which retails between $400 and $500. And Louisville Slugger says it has been surprised by the performance of its TPS Titanium, which sells at retail for approximately $600.

“It’s like any industry. If you can provide a better performing product, there will be a market for the item no matter what the price tag,” states Louisville Slugger’s Strange. “What has happened in many cases is that a team has bought one bat for the entire squad. And once players try out the bat, they want one of their own.”

CATCHING PRICE POINTS

Where the major action in bats is at the high-end, a number of manufacturers are trying to get a firm grip on the competitive price point market in the fielder’s glove category.

Wilson Sporting Goods will introduce two new lines of fielder’s gloves in 1996, which will both be priced under $80. The Staff Series is a collection of eight pre-oiled leather gloves that will be priced between $50 and $80, and sold primarily to the sporting goods channel.

The company will also offer the Elite Series of nine softball gloves, suited for every level of player, and priced between $50 and $80. The models will feature Wilson’s Pro Back with Velcro closure, ranging in size from 13[inches] to 14[inches].

Mizuno is targeting the younger consumer with the introduction of its Power Close concept featuring the company’s V-Flex notch, providing an easier closure. In addition, Mizuno will offer a first baseman glove and catcher’s mitt, retailing between $50 to $70.

Dudley will also make a play at the youth market in Spring ’96, with the rollout of an 11[inches] glove for approximately $29.99. “We will take the same strategy with the youth market that we have with women. Our main priority will be fit and performance, but we will also make sure that the glove is visually exciting,” explains Dudley’s Baker.

Worth’s plans call for an extension of its Red Dot fielder’s line to hit the $29 to $39 category, a price point the company has never addressed before.

And Spalding Sports Worldwide will now offer a softball performance series of six gloves that will retail between $59 and $79. According to Joe Baltronis, Spalding’s business manager for diamond sports, the line will be directed at both the men’s and women’s market, incorporating top-grain leather, Velcro closure and a darker tan leather.

GLOVE IN HAND

In addition to the fanfare that the latest stock of fielder’s gloves and bats traditionally receive, batter’s gloves have also become a focal point for manufacturers.

“I think consumers now understand the key benefits that batter’s gloves can provide. It has also provided many younger players with increased confidence at the plate, because of the reduction in sting and vibration,” explains Chuck Quinn, Franklin’s vice president of marketing and sourcing.

This past spring, Franklin launched its most aggressive marketing campaign ever for its line, airing four 15-second spots on ESPN featuring Barry Bonds and Cal Ripken, Jr. The spots will run throughout season.

In addition, the company inserted an eight-page “Guide To Hitting” insert with Barry Bonds in approximately 1.3 million April issues of Sports Illustrated For Kids magazine. The insert not only provided tips on how to be a better hitter, but promoted the company’s line of batter’s gloves, which is led by Franklin’s Diamond Digital Series, licensed for MLB’s Authentic Diamond Collection.

Wilson is also registering positive sales in the category, and hopes returns will get even stronger with the redesign of its Staff Elite series for introduction next season. The collection of 11 gloves will include Pittards Oil Tack leather, a two-finger design with leather reinforcement on the back fingers and TL-4 Way stretch back and thumb for a better fit.

“We continue to see double digit growth (in sales) in the category, so we are going to continue to address this market very aggressively,” says Wilson’s Fiorini. He adds that the company currently has 50 major leaguers wearing the Wilson batter’s glove.

Wilson is also introducing its Underglove, specially designed to be worn under a baseball glove for enhanced grip and control. It will feature DuPont’s Thermostat material to wick away perspiration, as well as a PVC matrix grip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *