Line drivers: composite bats fuel high-end sales

In a sport in which participation numbers are relatively flat, new participants are not the drivers of sales figures–new products are. With that in mind, baseball hardgoods manufacturers are working hard on R & D to create products that perform better, while also being more appealing.

SGMA International’s Sports Participation Topline Report for 2006 reveals that baseball and softball participants in 2005 slipped 4.8 percent from 2004. But innovations in products are on the rise.

Nowhere is this influx of tech more apparent than in youth softball bats, where vendors are exploring new materials and designs to create a product that will give both themselves and consumers a competitive edge.

Matt Arndt, VP of Easton Baseball/Softball, notes that the “edge” comes in the form of composite materials used throughout the length of the bat. “We’re very excited and very focused on composite materials, carbons and fiberglasses, making composite bats in all the sports,” says Arndt. “We feel that composite bats allow us to make better bats due to the fact that you’ve got a lot more design flexibility with a composite bat than you do with an aluminum bat. We definitely feel that it’s the bat material of the future, in all sports. We feel that if you look five years from now, just like in softball, you’re going to see primarily composite baseball bats in the upper ends of the game.”

However, the view at Worth Sports is slightly different. While composites are important, aluminum still has its place in the hearts, and importantly, ears of the consumer, according to Tim Lord, director of products for Worth. “In baseball, we’re looking at hybrid technology [combining composites with aluminum] right now and we’re also looking at 100 percent aluminum technology,” he says. “Baseball is a little different. The ‘ping’ sound of aluminum is still a very desired sound and feel, so composites have not quite taken over the baseball world like they have the softball world.”

Over the past two years, the composite market, while hot with consumers, has been a hassle for vendors as sourcing issues have resulted in a constant fight to find supplies. “We’ve been through plenty of really frightening times, I could say in the past 10 years, but really the last two,” says Arndt. “We’ve had to scramble and look around, beg, borrow, do whatever we could to get carbon for the company. We’ve gone through times where maybe our safety stock got really tight and we didn’t have as much as we wanted and we had to look to alternative vendors, but we managed to get through it and from everything we understand and are seeing now, the supply is opening up a little bit as a lot of the big composite suppliers have expanded their capacities.”

One factor diverting carbon supplies has been the defense department, which is using more than it has in the past due to the war, according to Lord.

As the carbon issues become less immediate, vendors are able to focus more on designing and creating quality bats and less on finding materials. With that refocusing, a better, more exciting product is hitting shelves, which, combined with increasing travel team and “serious” participation amongst those playing, is driving sales of higher-end product. As Arndt sees it, “Not as many guys in high school these days are playing three and four sports. There’s a lot more ‘you pick a sport and focus on it all year.’ You’ve got more avid users, so maybe the high-end of the market is growing, whereas your overall participation might not be.”

Whether it comes as fully composite or as a hybrid, carbon fiber and materials like it are finding a place in the production of bats for baseball and are already prevalent in softball. The focus now will be on finetuning the use of these materials to create a bat that hits the ball as far as possible while minimizing vibration and improving feel.

WORTH The Amp Hybrid bat features a mixture of composite materials and aluminum. The Mayhem M7 is a 100 percent composite fastpitch bat. SRP N/A.

EASTON The Stealth Comp CNT features carbon nanotube technology made possible by Zyvex NanoSolve materials. The addition of CNT strengthens composite structures to allow for bigger sweet spots. SRP $389.

DEMARINI The Evo Ax features Half & Half Doublewall technology and a composite barrel. The Juice has a four-walled stacked composite barrel. SRP $329.99 (Evo Ax); $279.99 (Juice).

MIZUNO Both the Crush G5 and Wrath II feature a thin 13.16″ handle, while the Crush offers a complete composite construction and the Wrath II has a filament wound inner sleeve for consistent performance. SRP $300 (Wrath); $200 (Crush).

Tennis’ new racket

Tennis. It used to be so simple. White shorts, white shirt, white socks and white shoes. Throw in a wooden racket and you were ready for a day on the courts.

Today, however, tennis rackets are manufactured out of everything from graphite to boron, no color is considered taboo as far as apparel is concerned, and following on the advancements of racket technology, footwear is now in the midst of the most rapid changes in the history of the game.

1991 will see the introduction of specialized tennis footwear with manufacturers matching shoe characteristics with age groups and even playing styles. This year will also feature fashion breakthroughs at the U.S. Open – fashion breakthroughs which are sure to make tennis purists roll over in their grave, as Nike and Reebok debut the industry’s first performance-tennis shoes with black uppers.

After several years of little or no increases, sales of tennis footwear rose from $780 million in 1989 to $800 million in 1990, according to the Sporting Good Manufacturers Association (SGMA), North Palm Beach, Fla., and manufacturers expect that number to continue climbing during the coming year. And, manufacturers argue, had it not been for the advent of cross training, tennis could be an even larger market than it is today. “Tennis footwear hasn’t been increasing the way the athletic category as a whole has been,” says Mike Skinner, senior product manager at Prince Manufacturing Inc., Lawrenceville, N.J. “To some degree we would say that cross training is still growing, but we see cross training slowing down and tennis getting ready for an uptick.”

“Cross training was making a fashion statement that tennis wasn’t making,” says John Wilson, tennis product manager for Reebok International Ltd., Stoughton, Mass.

But that’s about to change. The sport of tennis is on a rise, and manufacturers are infusing new looks and color palettes to generate even more interest in the category.

To generate interest in the sport, Wilson says Reebok is “breaking the rules by introducing an all-black tennis shoe in a traditionally all-white sport. Tennis is ripe for that. Tennis is a traditional sport and tennis products have tended to be somewhat conservative. We wanted to make a statement.”

Like other athletics categories, 80 to 85 percent of all tennis footwear won’t be used on the courts. But that’s not stopping companies from designing more mens shoes for plantar fasciitis around what they perceive to be the needs of tennis players.

For example, in the fall, Reebok will offer one line of tennis shoes, called The Club Collection, for the player over 24, another line of shoes, The Court Victory Collection, for the 18-24 market, and yet a third line of tennis shoes, The Classic Collection, for the person who doesn’t even play tennis.

“There is an increased participation among juniors,” says Wilson, explaining why companies like Reebok are focusing on fashion as well as performance to bring excitement to the category. Indeed, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) reports that junior-tennis memberships increased by 14 percent in 1990. Reebok isn’t alone in pursuing the junior market. Nike Inc., Beaverton, Ore., will launch separate lines for the over-and-under-24 markets in the spring, and Adidas also has plans to go after the junior market in a big way.

As if this doesn’t sound radical enough, retailers and consumers should hold on to their rackets, because this fragmentation of the market is just beginning.

Wilson Sporting Goods, River Grove, Ill., is ready to break the market down even further with a line of tennis shoes for spring 1992 that are designed to match players’ shoes to their playing styles. “We’re concentrating on the different types of players,” says Tim Cronin, general manger of footwear at Wilson, of the new line called Player Performance Matched. He says the Wilson Pro Staff and Plexus shoes are designed to offer more stability to aid baseline players who play longer points and move from side to side, while another new shoe called the Turning Point is lightweight and geared to give the serve-and-volley player more quickness on the court.

Cronin says Wilson also is developing a third line that will mix a little of each for the all-court player. “We were trying to be everything to everyone and we’re nothing to nobody,” he says, adding that Wilson has temporarily shelved its basketball and cross-training shoes for bunions and hammertoes to concentrate on tennis.

“Everyone has to have a reason to exist,” he continues. “We are not, at this point, a powerhouse in footwear. But we think we can be. Right now it’s only an issue of time.”

Just because the manufacturers are breaking the category down into segments, however, doesn’t mean retailers are going to follow suit. “They’re doing their job well,” says Mark Hoffman, tennis footwear buyer for The Athlete’s Foot, Atlanta, Ga., of the manufacturers. “They’re creating the type of problems for buyers and consumers they want to create. They want to divide the line so if you miss an sku you miss business. But as a buyer I still only have |x’ amount of dollars to chose from. They’re doing a good job by making you think. It’s a marketing tool by the manufacturer. They want you to buy several collections.”

Most manufacturers agree that to survive in the market, the shoe needs its own unique technology. “You have to have something,” says Gary Wakley, vice president of marketing for Adidas USA, Warren N.J.

And the game that’s receiving the most play by manufacturers for spring 1992 is lightweight-tennis footwear.

“We feel it’s an extraordinarily good opportunity,” says Kathy Button, director of marketing communications for Converse, North Reading, Mass., of the tennis category, “particularly because of the lack of dominance of any one brand.” Converse has increased its tennis offerings this year and is one of many manufacturers breaking out a new line of lightweight tennis shoes.

“If the key thing you’re trying to do is help the consumer play well, then you want to help him pick up footspeed,” Button adds.

Puma USA, Inc., Brockton, Mass., which already has lightweight tennis shoes at retail, says the real problem is getting people to pick the shoe up from the display. “People walk into a store and see 3,000 sku’s of white shoes. You need to have something to make people jump at you,” says Puma’s executive vice president John O’Rourke.

Puma’s new marketing campaign, The Quickness of Light, offers consumers footspeed, but Puma also has made a subtle jump onto the fashion bandwagon. While still offering a traditional white tennis shoe, it is trying to lure consumers by adding color to the sole and the sockliner and thus make the shoe stand out on the shelf rather than the court.

Prince has developed its own technology, an arch-support strap, that lets a player adjust arch support by tightening a strap on the outside of the shoe. Last year, Reebok applied its Pump technology to its tennis shoe and Nike again infused its Air technology into tennis shoes. “The game has changed by virtue of the equipment,” says Skip Lei, footwear marketing manager for tennis at Nike. “We’ve seen the boom happen in footwear and apparel both. The consumer is demanding a more technical product. They want durability, stability, traction and cushioning. We consider those the four major food groups in footwear. Some will put a greater amount of preference on one or the other.”

He adds that there are so many manufacturers making high-quality sandals for high arches, fashion has become even more important. “It’s fun,” he says of the added colors. “Consumers want to have fun with apparel and footwear. We spend time researching the market to see what real people want. Bud Collins may not like it, but that’s not who we’re going after. Kids are wearing clothes influenced by surfing and that gave us an influence. We see people responding very well to that. There is always going to be a call for white, conservative shoes. When we started picking colors we wanted to go to the younger environment, which is the power of the market.”

Until now, he says, Nike was comfortable letting the over-25 conservative market go to another manufacturer. But in 1992, Nike will offer a collection called Supreme Court, to attract that market as well. “It will be toned down, not as wild,” Lei says.

But shoe construction is still important. Prince’s Skinner says since introducing its new arch-support strap, footwear sales are up 58 percent over a year ago. “Technology is critical in today’s marketplace,” he says, “especially if you are trying to break in. You’ve got to give a dealer and the consumer a reason to buy your shoe.”

Ironically, the high-tech shoes, which generally sell for $80 and up, aren’t being sold to the core-tennis players, of which there are 6 to 7 million, according to the American Tennis Industry Federation (ATIF) in Palm Beach, Fla.

For example, the Athlete’s Foot’s Hoffman says the Nike Air-Tech Challenge, the shoe worn by Andre Agassi, is sold as more of a street shoe than a court product. “Nike says it’s a technical shoe, which it is,” he says. “(But) I would argue that 80 to 90 percent are being bought as street shoes.”

The debate goes on. “Fashion is what gets you the big bucks,” says Chuck Himber, national sales manager for Sergio Tacchini in Compton, Calif. He says Tacchini has been suffering from lackluster sales because of its fashion. “Eventually we need to change our design to make it more fashion than function.”

Others question the sales of tennis shoes that are splashed with colors. “Colors look good on a wall, but when you get down to it, it’s the white, classic-looking colors that are selling,” says Deb Dumel, director of marketing and product development for Tretorn, Brockton, Mass. “I think the tennis market is in for some very nice growth in the next few years,” says Brian Sullivan, vice president of K-Swiss, Pacoima, Calif. “The growth is coming from two directions: The court-tennis consumer – the participant – is on the move again. It’s a growth category. And we have a whole flock of 12-to 16-year-olds who are taking it up, in addition to the tried and true who are picking up their rackets again.

“The second growth area is the growing fashion demand for clean, classic- looking tennis shoes. Glitz is out. What’s cool is classic and conservative in a quality way. In footwear, when they are looking for a classic item, they are looking for a tennis shoe.”

The Athletes’ Foot’s Hoffman believes the core tennis players max out at around the $80 price point and are wearing a mix of tennis shoes, such as the Wilson Pro Staff. “That’s not the kind of shoe you’re going to buy to knock around on the weekend.”

“I think the tennis player is more price sensitive,” says Bruce MacGregor, vice president of product marketing for Avia, Portland, Ore. He says the bulk of tennis shoe sell in the $60 to $80 range. “Tennis players play so much that they know they will have to buy so many pairs during the year anyway, and they rationalize by saying, Why should I pay that much for something that will wear out quickly?'”

The appeal just isn’t what it used to be for tennis shoes as a casual look. “That’s the next step we have to take,” says Adidas’ Wakley. “We have to make tennis appeal as street shoes. It’s a cyclical thing, and tennis shoes haven’t been fashionable for quite some time. We have a chance in the spring of 1992 to make inroads.” He adds that the company has signed with tennis guru and coach Nick Bollettieri in an effort to lure top players in their development stages. “They seem to be trend-setting players,” says Wakley.

Bollettieri has introduced the tennis world to the likes of Agassi, Monica Seles and Jim Courier. “We’re concentrating on the younger player,” says Adidas’ Wakely.

While tennis is still not as popular as it was in 1978, when there were 32 million players, according to Brad Patterson, executive director of the ATIF, the game is on its way back. Patterson says the ATIF describes players as those 12 and older who play at least once a year.

Participation bottomed out in 1985 with 13.5 million players and has been climbing through the 1980s to 20.1 million in 1988, 21.2 million in 1989 and an estimated 23 million players in 1990.

He attributes the increase to new programs that encourage players of equal ability to play together. In the 1970s, he explains, people tried the sport, didn’t get matched up with people of equal ability and then quit the game in frustration. “Development programs are making it easier for kids to get into tennis,” he says, and he points out that 100,000 more rackets were sold to juniors in 1990 than in 1989. In addition, he says, more juniors are becoming interested in the game because they can better relate to a game with a surge of teen sensations such as Jennifer Capriati, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Monica Seles and Agassi. “Those are teen players who the kids can relate to. They see Agassi, who has an MTV-rock-star aura, and that gets the kids interested.”

And it translates into sales for the manufacturers. Nike, for example, reports that since signing Agassi three years ago tennis footwear has grown from $30 million in sales $100 million.

“For us,” says Don Wood, Nike product line manager for apparel, “there is no question that he brings visibility, and there is no question he has helped sales.” Nike is projecting double-digit growth for tennis footwear and apparel in 1991.

Since signing Jennifer Capriati, Diadora reports footwear sales have increased 50 percent. “It’s difficult to tell how much is due to Jennifer and how much is due to the product,” says Ann McIntosh, advertising merchandising manager for the Kent, Wash.-based company.

Sergio Tacchini reported marginal growth in footwear but considerable increases in apparel sales following the 1990 U.S. Open, where both the men’s and women’s winners, Gabriela Sabatini and Peter Sampras, were outfitted in Tacchini from head to toe.