Trends to Watch – Teamwear

Looking for a product line that leads to annual reorders and additional add-on sales? Youth sports and teamwear apparel is the market to target. “Youth sports is a lucrative opportunity, especially if you’re already involved,” says Patrick Doyle, owner of Proforma Synergy (asi/490543).

Doyle is a hockey parent who has put in more than 200 hours at the rink, and now he’s started providing uniforms and other products to the teams in his area. Margaret Crow, director of marketing for S&S Activewear (asi/84358), agrees with Doyle. “There’s so much opportunity in the teamwear market,” she says. “After you’ve identified the opportunities and serviced the team, there are consistent reorders.”

Getting in the door definitely seems to be the biggest challenge associated with selling teamwear. “It’s a wonderful business with sustainable margins,” says Mark Mertens, president and CEO of A/4 Moshay (asi/30121). “It’s relationship-driven. Customers are hard to get, but they stick with the suppliers that add value to their transactions.”

So, how can a distributor establish contacts and win new clients in the youth sports market? The first step is to “research the schools in your area to find out about their booster clubs and current team uniform needs,” advises Crow. Knowledge and connections definitely play a major part in winning new youth sports clients.

“It’s challenging to sell sports apparel if you don’t understand the culture,” Doyle says. “If you walk into a club’s or coach’s office with the wrong products, you don’t stand a chance of winning the client. You have to do your due diligence to learn about the products that are out there, view the online offerings of large uniform distributors, visit the schools and programs you’re targeting, attend their games. You need to become part of their culture.” Indeed, before you can even make product suggestions, there’s a lot of information to gather from these sources – including the needs of the team, plus the products, price points and performance characteristics that players and coaches are looking for.

Though Doyle cites supplier websites and representatives as good sources for details, he puts one information source above all the rest. “Go talk to a hockey mom,” he says, “or a football mom, or any sports parent, really. Go talk to them and ask where the pains are. They’ll tell you.”

Being a part of the team culture means having access to the parents and players themselves, which might possibly be the most important source of information required to get your foot in the door. “Sitting in the hockey rink for so many hours, I talked to a lot of moms who complained about the cold seats,” Doyle says. The team jackets offered to the parents and boosters were warm, but they cut off at the waist, leaving their bottom halves exposed to the cold, metal bleachers. “I sourced a jacket that had a longer fit,” says Doyle, “and I offered them a jacket that they could sit on the benches with and still be warm and comfortable.”

Demonstrating an inside knowledge of the culture and needs of any team, like Doyle has done, is a surefire way to win the business, especially if their current vendor isn’t taking the time to listen.

While finding out the needs and issues of parents and players, it’s also vital to get the viewpoint of the coaches and athletic directors. “Coaches, athletic directors and league commissioners are busy and inexperienced with uniforms,” Mertens says. “They require lots of additional handling.”

This is especially true when you consider the number of highly personalized uniforms and products someone like a commissioner is responsible for, as compared to a traditional corporate buyer. “The vendor that is both prepared and willing to spend the extra time to help with fitting and the ordering process will get the initial order and be invited back next season,” Mertens says. Doyle agrees: “I like being able to walk in with a full solution. It makes everyone’s job much easier.”

Walking in with that full solution means you understand the challenges and needs of the market. “One of the biggest challenges in selling is that leagues, teams and schools often require many customizations in color, fabric and style,” says Shaukat Shaik, president of Force 2000 Athletic Apparel (asi/55056). Having distinct team colors represented accurately throughout their teams is important to coaches, but they may not know how to articulate exactly what their color needs are. Working with a vendor that is able to customize is important. Another challenge is the need for quick turnaround on most orders. “When an order is placed with us, we ship it that day and the distributor has it within just a few days to get the decoration done,” says Chad Trollinger, marketing director for Augusta Sportswear (asi/37461). Service and availability of uniforms are crucial when it comes to making the coach’s job easier.

Another great tactic for finding new clients and building relationships is by reaching out to the booster club before asking for the uniform business. “Approach the booster club with a fundraising idea for the team to get your foot in the door,” says Crow. “You can start by offering printed T-shirts that the club and the students can sell to raise money. You’re helping them right away, and providing the benefits of dealing with you as a supplier.”

Once you’ve worked with them on one successful project, you can share your uniform samples and show them what you have to offer. This idea also works in reverse. If you currently have clients in youth sports and teamwear, consider what money you might be leaving on the table with fundraisers and non-uniform products. “In many cases, add-on sales are where the profits are to be found,” says Mertens. “Accessories, coaches’ gear, travel uniforms and hard goods can turn an order that is marginal into a winner.”

It’s a strategy that Doyle has employed with his youth sports clients. “If you sell them workout gear, drinkware, even spirit-related items,” he says, “you can make a little more money on each sale. If you keep increasing your sales by just a few percent by doing that, think of the dollars you’re adding to the bottom line without doing the extra footwork to find new clients.”

Finally, succeeding in this market is all about being thorough and patient. “Schools and leagues will stick with who they are currently buying from rather than go through the motions of looking for a new supplier,” says Crow. “Sometimes there is red tape to cut through in order to become an approved vendor. You have to be persistent, patient and available. Know that you may approach a potential client for a year before you get the first order.” But, once you start building that relationship, it stands to be a loyal and profitable one.

from Emroidery Business Insights Newsletter