Baseball Bat Sales Take A Hit From New Rules

With the warmer weather, comes that distinctive sound of spring, “Play Ball!”

But the sound of baseball being played may ring less loudly in the future.

Confusion about new rules in the NCAA this season, combined with a change in National Federation of State High Schools [NFHS] rules for the 2001 season, as well as other market factors caused a 10 percent drop in baseball equipment sales in 1999, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. And the trend may continue into the new century.

Much of the ’99 drop was attributed to retailers and teams delaying their purchase of new bats while they looked to clear older inventory, and feared buying new bats until they were sure they would comply with the new rules. The rules changes dealt with limiting the performance of metal bats and, at the high school level, making the senior softball bats heavier.

“We held back on buying adult bats until we found out exactly what was going on, just like everyone else did,” said Ernie Munro, team hard goods buyer for Hibbett Sporting Goods. “The change has forced us into a markdown situation on the old inventory, which hurt us as well. It is just a bad situation for retailers.”

Part of the problem, according to Sebastian DiCasoli of the SGMA, was a short window to clear out inventory due to the timing of the rules changes.

“The rules were passed last summer to begin this season,” DiCasoli said. “Manufacturers are living with the rules, but are frustrated with the reasons for them and the way the timing was handled. The NCAA has every right to set rules, but the manufacturers and retailers would have benefited from a longer lead time.”

Even with the impact felt from the NCAA rules changes, the SGMA fears the repercussions from the impending NFHS rule changes may have a greater effect on sales and participation in the game. Both are predicted to drop in 2000 and beyond.

In fact, according to the SGMA’s State of the Industry Report, the number of people who played baseball at least once in 1998 dropped to 12.3 million, down 18 percent from 1987. The report further states that “manufacturers are concerned that these rules changes mandating heavier bats could make high school and youth sports more defense-oriented and less exciting to play. If offense becomes de-emphasized, players may gravitate to other sports or activities, thus decreasing baseball participation.”

The hit the industry may take from high school changes could impact overall sales to a far greater degree, according to DiCasoli.

“There are about 400,000 high school players, where the NCAA has only 15 percent of that,” DiCasoli said. “There is a lot more at stake in the long run for both manufacturers and retailers from the NFHS rules changes, especially if it affects participation long-term.”

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