ASA throws brushback pitch; vendors charge the mound

The American Softball Association (ASA) threw the team industry a fastball high and tight with its new mandate on softball bats earlier this summer and suppliers and retailers aren’t taking this brushback lightly. Together, they are digging in to either force a delay or change in the ruling.

Leading the charge to the mound is Worth. On July 10, shortly after ASA handed down the new regulations (scheduled to take effect January 1, 2004) it filed a lawsuit claiming that ASA did not give suppliers enough time to find the proper test equipment, much less reverse course to meet the new standards for fastpitch bats already in the pipeline.

“Because ASA made this decision before bat manufacturers had access to a lab certified with the new test system, we have been unable to fully determine the impact on Worth bat models both past and present,” Worth stated when it filed its lawsuit. “We are well into the production, sales and shipment of our 2004 line of bats without a solid understanding of design changes that may be necessary to meet the new standard. ASA’s action in this regard is extremely disruptive for players, retailers and bat manufacturers alike.”

Because of this, Worth has asked the courts to require ASA to act in keeping with its bat licensing contract and grant the required lead time and grandfathering time prescribed when changing standards.

Dealers and other manufacturers are just as unhappy as Worth about the announced rule changes.

“Any time a change is made without sufficient time for manufacturers, retailers and players to work through existing inventory, the industry will be impacted,” says Mike Zlaket, VP-baseball/softball for Easton Sports, Van Nuys, CA. “We have tried to provide as much clarity and visibility as possible to all concerned in the hopes of minimizing the impact, but the suddenness of the change is obviously a concern.”

Dealers have already placed or are ready to place orders for the upcoming season but now have to factor in ASA’s ruling.

“It obviously makes people hesitant in buying,” says Dave Schwartz, general manager of Bergen Batting Center in River Edge, NJ, which sells some 1000 softball and baseball bats a year. “People want to know what is legal and what isn’t. We’ve been burned before. And it’s happening constantly in men’s slow pitch,” Schwartz adds. “You can’t hang retailers and manufacturers out to dry.”

Meanwhile, vendors debate on what to do next. “We have continued to ship orders on schedule, though some retailers have hesitated before bringing in bats that may be affected,” Easton’s Zlaket notes.

He says that Easton is working with ASA “to try to address the situation in a way that is mutually acceptable.” Although Zlaket did not define “mutually acceptable,” no doubt Easton and others would applaud a favorable ruling in Worth’s lawsuit, requiring ASA to delay the ruling and grandfather existing bats.

Schwartz says that the ASA standard creates confusion because even though it only affects bats used in ASA tournament play, many leagues loosely follow the ASA guidelines. He applauds baseball for getting it right the first time. “I just wish they (ASA) would follow baseball’s lead. It just seems like baseball got everything set and it’s done.”

That’s exactly what Easton is advocating, Zlaket says diplomatically. “We feel strongly that any future rule changes should be accompanied by reasonable phase-in and grandfathering periods so the players, retailers and manufacturers don’t suffer.”

In the meantime, Zlaket suggests dealers stay on top of the changes and ask their reps and association directors a lot of questions to prepare for the upcoming season.

The great outdoors

Outdoor shoes have replaced white athletic shoes in sales and market share, according to shoe industry officials and observers. The shift can be attributed to a more environmentally-friendly and informed consumer group. Outdoor shoes also answer to two functions, they can be worn as casual shoes or used as performance shoes, thus being more economical than plain athletic shoes.

As a culture, lifestyle and market, it’s the dawn of a new era.

Listen closely. Hear an odd rustling sound?

It’s a shuffling of dollars in the bulging athletics market. It’s a rapidly swelling collection of consumers opening their wallets, zipping open their handbags and handing over credit cards and cash not for tennis shoes, cross-trainers or high tops, but for outdoor footwear.

For some people it’s been a switch over to hiking boots, for others an experiment with work or utility looks, and for a fast-growing horde of young people it’s been Dr. Martens-inspired rugged styles. But the bottom line has been a definite swing in consumer spending away from athletic looks, which were so phenomenally popular just seasons ago, and a leap, jump and climb into the great outdoor market.

Wardrobe rules have changed. The American uniform of blue jeans and white athletic shoes for feet with bunions, which dominated the late ’70s and early ’80s, is being replaced by more environmentally-conscious expressions. Forget yesterday’s sweat suits, tee shirts and sleek athletic shoes — today it’s heavy sweaters, oversized sweat shirts, baggy pants and outdoor, rugged footwear.

“Years ago, you drove by a bus stop and you saw 90 percent of the kids wearing white athletic shoes,” concedes Fred Kelloway, vice president of sales, Ellesse, New York, which has switched 75 percent of its new fall line over to the outdoor influence. “Now you drive by and they’re wearing Dr. Martens. The customer who was in the store buying basketball shoes two years ago is buying this,” he declares, caressing a Euro-styled, slant-toed outdoor boot.

The new outdoor market “is a bridge category between athletics and casuals and it’s one of the biggest areas within the industry today,” Robert Moore, president of Sperry Top-Sider, Cambridge, Mass., declares. “From a marketing standpoint, there’s a real opportunity; you can wear it as casual or for performance.”

Since the trend has swept through the footwear industry relatively recently, there has not been much, if any, research compiled on market statistics. But sources estimate the outdoor trend now represents as much as one-third of the consumer spending that previously went to traditional athletic styles. That would inflate the overall outdoor footwear market several billion dollars in sales, and growing.

According to Footwear Market Insights (FMI), the Nashville-based market research firm, for the 12 months ended August 1992, work and sport boots, which include hikers, had 13 percent of the men’s shoe market. For the first eight months of 1992, almost three million pairs of hiking boots alone were sold, up almost 30 percent from the same period in the prior year.

Athletic shoe sales, while vastly bigger in total pairage, were relatively flat in growth for the same period.

Michael Kormos, president of FMI, says the sudden explosion of outdoor interest is strictly consumer-driven. He noted sales of hiking boots vary greatly, stretching from firms such as top athletic makers L.A. Gear and Nike to traditional suppliers like Timberland and Vasque. “You’ve got a hybrid category that is pulling in from the traditional work and sport boot people, but also the athletic people,” Kormos says.

Kormos adds that consumers buying outdoor looks are still buying athletic shoes, but they are becoming replacement sales rather than additional sales. He notes the new trend offers significant opportunities in the lower-priced market and poses good news for what has been an unbalanced retail scene. “Athletics has dominated for so long, seeing something else come along, even the performance sandals and the move toward western boots — all of that bodes well for renormalization of the marketplace.”

What sets retailers and branded firms drooling over the new category is the fact the market remains wide open and fair-game. Although Nike and Reebok have extensive offerings in the outdoor market, the new category is still up for grabs. The market at this point is shared by traditional hiker firms, the rugged casual brands and the more new-age, Dr. Martens-inspired looks.

“It’s for those retailers who look at things visionary and see the chance to be something different,” asserts Ellesse’s Kelloway.

Says Dan Bazinet, president of the 17 Overland Trading stores which specialize in outdoor and casual footwear: “It’s here to stay, and in business terms that’s a seven to ten year run. Last time hikers came along, the problem was they didn’t wear out, so after a three to four year cycle there was no reason to replace them. So you had to give them a new reason to buy — new colors, new styles.”

While the athletic giants slug it out with the classic hiking firms, even active casual brands have jumped into the fray. Keds Corp., Cambridge, Mass., which for so long dominated the active-fashion category, is enjoying success with its new outdoor-inspired looks, according to Dominic Ferlauto, president. “It’s hard to quantify exactly how much of athletics will shift to lifestyle, but it’s an attitude change that reaches into even the most conservative boardrooms in the country. And it will keep growing.”

Ferlauto notes Keds, historically a spring brand, introduced a fall outdoor-inspired line featuring wool blends with a rich feel, that led it to its best ever fall retail reaction. “If you look at a woman’s wardrobe today, one out of every three walking shoes for plantar fasciitis is a sneaker or outdoor shoe. She’s still going to have the active shoes in her wardrobe, but instead of a white athletic shoe she’ll have a wide range of looks.” And best of all for Keds, he says, it’s all plus business — the consumer shift to outdoor styles brings the line market share from other brands, and doesn’t take away from its existing sales.

The lure of the new hybrid market continues to draw in new voices. Reebok International Ltd., Stoughton, Mass., has a growing outdoor-athletic line, but is hitting the market just as hard with its Boks outdoor-inspired casual division. “Reebok still has a terrific athletic business and I see this as saying the kid just out of college, who only wore athletic shoes before, is wearing these as a dress story today,” observes Jens Bang, vice president of marketing, Boks. “This takes the customer off the court and into the street with the same comfort.”

He adds that athletic brands, so successful in attracting consumers away from traditional shoe firms, are somewhat hesitant about introducing separate outdoor lines. “The athletic world has had difficulty getting their arms around the (outdoor) concept — they don’t want to break their success.”

But athletic brands also have gained from the outdoor trend and feel they have an advantage over traditional hiking boot firms because consumers, and retailers, already are familiar with them.

K-Swiss, Pacoima, Calif., known originally for its tennis lines, has built a new category that is booming. “The generation buying this product is an athletic generation — a generation geared to brands like K-Swiss and Nike — not on Red Wing and Merrell and names like that. And the athletic generation is more likely to spread their wings with brands they’re comfortable with and been weaned on,” says Brian Sullivan, vice president, K-Swiss.

Retailers also prefer buying the new category from a source with which they are familiar and confident, he says. “In athletic specialty stores, K-Swiss already is an entity and established, so we come in with outdoor and bring a whole new classification that’s promising as opposed to a new source.

“The response we get from distribution networks shows there’s still a lot of potential in this market,” says Sullivan, noting athletic retailers feel they have more to learn about the category than family shoe stores.

Even casual shoe brands are looking to get their share of the outdoor business and take on the athletic brands. Sperry Top-Sider, Cambridge, Mass., recognized for its marine footwear, is looking to take advantage of the growing interest in functionalism and performance. “The athletic performance business is an area where we can grow,” states Moore, noting he envisions a whole roll out of athletic-inspired, outdoor shoes by Sperry.

At retail, the outdoor trend — be it hiking, rugged or Dr. Martens-styled outdoor boots — has taken a full run.

Overland Trading’s Bazinet confirms young people have switched over to boot fashions in a big way. “Four years ago if you sat in the stands at a high school football game, all the kids wore athletic shoes. Today you sit in the stands and three-quarters of them are wearing shoes — boat shoes, bucks…” Men’s hiking footwear sales are up 250 percent over a year ago at Overland, he notes.

Bazinet sees a natural evolution from athletics to outdoor looks as athletic prices have skyrocketed. “If you think about it, the only excitement in athletics in the last couple of years was $170 sneakers for high arches— Air this, Gel that or Pump this — it got to the point people were admitting that’s ridiculous and it’s not fun anymore. Now, a pair of hikers at $85-$90 looks like a bargain. So all of a sudden $100 casuals don’t look outrageous to these kids anymore.”

He notes when Overland Trading specialized in athletics in the mid ’80s, it got only 20 percent margins on those shoes. “Everything was too promotional and you can’t go up against the deals Foot Locker is getting with the containers of shoes it brings in. Let them have their niche and let me have my niche. We decided to dominate the outdoor market. Would you rather do a half million and be profitable or do one million and lose money?” he asks. Now Overland charges full margins on its outdoor styles. “We probably maintain 47 percent,” he stresses. He explains that gets more difficult with popular hikers and work boots, whose distribution includes Army/Navy stores or athletic chains using lower margins. “But the demand is so great on work boots it turns faster and we get 43 percent and higher in hikers, with no markdowns taken.”

Ellesse is the textbook example of an athletic firm going after outdoor fashion with a vengeance. The firm, previously known for its high-end tennis shoes and clothing, now primarily offers looks ranging from rock climbers to hiking looks to new-age, “Euro-outdoor” styles featuring oblique toes, that marry Dr. Marten influences with the great outdoors — Kelloway says the market has needed a new impetus.

He concedes some stores are confused about the new trend because consumers, not retailers, created it. So exactly what is the outdoor market? “It’s defined differently,” observes Kelloway. “Dr. Martens took it to a new level and opened eyes of what the opportunities are. A lot of people are going to jump into the ring and it’s a question of who has the biggest gloves.”