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Baseball America's 2020 Holiday Gift & Gear Guide

62 1 Gear Guide Title

Baseball gear makers responded quickly to the shutdown of team baseball because of the coronavirus pandemic in spring 2020. Instead of simply hunkering down and pushing off product launches, they re-energized their connections to the baseball community, refocused their efforts on creating an improved core line of products and rethought the way products came to market.

With a baseball community largely held captive by quarantines, companies increased interactive opportunities, launched online discussions and shows with the game’s stars and influencers, developed training tips, pivoted to support players of all ages and even worked to create personal protective equipment to help healthcare workers.

Then, as players returned to the diamond, those updated products came with them, showing a purposeful approach to creating a library of gear with excess stripped away to provide baseball players what they needed in 2020: a chance to play.

CONNECTING WITH COMMUNITY

With baseball still in the minds of players across the country, even if tournaments and games were cancelled, it allowed companies like Easton and Baseball Lifestyle 101 to bring together a community of ballplayers.

From Delino DeShields Jr. to Justin Turner and so many more, Easton built connections by offering a home on its social media channels for a “Stay Ready” campaign that encouraged video and conversation about baseball and softball.

For Baseball Lifestyle 101, connecting with baseball culture was already part and parcel. But the pandemic really pushed forward what founder Josh Shapiro calls a movement.

With roughly 500,000 followers across social media, BL 101 has a sweetspot demographic of baseball fans aged 13 to 18 with more followers than 90% of Major League Baseball players and 90% of MLB teams. That means that when the pandemic hit, upping the entirely clean, family-friendly content to daily creation allowed BL 101 to bring in relevant players so young fans could hear directly from the people they wanted to see.

“It started out as one thing and really in an unexpected way has taken a lot of directions,” said Austin Hurwitz, Easton vice president of marketing and e-commerce. “It is about keeping conversations going, keeping the flow of ideas going. It is a really cool mix of pros, amateurs, parents of players, coaches of players, current players and retired players.”

Hurwitz said the project kept changing as it went, and he looks back at the effort as a “positive” that was needed at the time. “We say words like ‘community’ and ‘content’ a lot, but I genuinely feel a community of creators and influencers are better as a result of our dire circumstances and finding ways to be creative together,” he said.

Warstic enlisted the help of professional players, coaches, mentors and mental strength trainers to produce live online chats. Creating content that explored the core message of Warstic allowed the brand to help athletes to focus on the mental side of the game.

“We want to help them learn to merge mentality with mechanics and realize how important it is to believe in their ability to pick themselves up and fight is,” said Ben Jenkins, Warstic founder.

“As the country faced such a mentally challenging situation, we realized our message was very relevant to not only baseball and other stick sports, but to life in general during challenging times.”

Sometimes connecting with the community meant working for the community. G-Form, makers of protective gear, transformed its Rhode Island manufacturing facility to produce personal protective equipment face shields.

“In short order, we joined the nation’s effort in meeting a significant PPE shortfall to assist frontline healthcare workers,” said Rob Kelley, G-Form vice president of global marketing. “We proudly produced one million face shields within a few months.”

Nokona did something similar, transitioning from constructing leather baseball gloves in its Texas factory to manufacturing masks provided to local healthcare workers and first responders.

Customers were also given the ability to purchase baseball-themed masks, said Chip Sivak, Nokona director of sales and marketing. Nokona partnered with the Play Catch Movement, based in Texas and focused on improving the welfare of children and the quality of life for adults, helping inspire people of all ages to get outside.

In an effort to help get MLB back onto the field, Mizuno created face shields for major league umpires.

“We were certainly happy to do that and hoped it helped some of those guys feel safer,” said Clint Sammons, Mizuno brand manager of team sports. Mizuno also created face shields for players, sending them to sponsored teams and making them available to the public.

Before Mizuno shifted into crafting face shields, Sammons said they worked with as many athletes as possible to create videos that reached out to fans to encourage them.

“That was received well,” he said. “It didn’t feel right to push product. It was more about the understanding that we all need to stick together.”

Wilson, with its unique position of having multiple independent brands under its umbrella, from Wilson Gloves to DeMarini bats and EvoShield protective gear to Louisville Slugger, did something rare for the group, marketing all the brands together in gift pack giveaways in mid-summer when the return to play started back up.

This gave players a chance to enter to win products of their choice, from across the family of brands. And when a few of those annual tournaments did happen, Wilson invited in more teams, including teams they didn’t sponsor, in an effort to give more players the chance to participate.

“It did open our eyes a little more to what we could do to give back to the community,” said Jennette Rauch, Wilson Global Marketing Director, Baseball/Softball

PRODUCT FOCUS

Color offers both a literal and figurative bright spot in baseball gear sales during 2020.

Jason Karlowski Sr., director of marketing for retailer Eastbay, said that baseball gloves and batting gloves started releasing in a larger array of colors, proving popular with consumers. He’s seen Rawlings Pro Player Models in unique colors, from red and metallic gold to teal and Wilson’s A2K line, offer new designs. On the batting glove side, which has authored a positive story for gear sales, Franklin has capitalized on MLB players experimenting with colors to see sales follow.

“MLB players are more willing to mix it up with batting gloves and cleats mismatching between brands and colors,” Karlowski said. “We expect the kids to follow the same suit as they emulate their favorite professional players.”

Easton launched the B5 Pro, a modern take on the Green Easton bat in late 2020. While this was planned before the pandemic hit, the tie to nostalgia during the pandemic, and the connections Easton made in the baseball community helped them have a more robust launch of the bat.

“Now it is just a great story and a little bit of levity in a trying year,” Hurwitz said. “It got validated in a really unexpected way.”

And while Hurwitz expects every baseball gear manufacturer had to change its catalog and timing, it allowed Easton to focus and gave them time to rework products without the ability of complacency.

Rauch said that Wilson wanted to continue to offer new products throughout the year, but there were still plenty of products they held off on, allowing the brand to focus on the most important, such as the new A2000 glove, a completely new design across the board.

Rauch said that with many stores not open or without budgets to bring in large swaths of new inventory, it “forced us to make some hard choices of what we really need, what do players really need?” In that vein, Wilson delayed launches and released lines in staggered small batches, instead focusing largely on one new product per brand.

It wasn’t that different for Mizuno, a true head-to-toe baseball equipment company. When the shutdown happened, Sammons said they took a step back to look at processes and planning, “identifying places where we could get better.”

Mizuno didn’t launch its entire slate of planned products, instead choosing to refine product that was ready to come to market. “As we move forward, you will see some great products come out,” Sammons said. “We are excited about the quality of stuff that just launched or is launching next year.”

“The pandemic and working remotely simply gave us more focused work time because, of course, there are no events,” Jenkins said. “So, for sure we leveraged that time to accelerate the development of Warstic products across the board.”

And with this focus for Warstic, by late April sales were not only back up to speed, but the brand has also seen a spike ever since and instead of letting employees go has grown staff significantly.

G-Form was able to focus on a booming mountain bike business during the harshest of the early pandemic months, but as baseball activity resumed in the summer, G-Form placed a focus on sprucing up its most popular lines.

As Nike took over as the official uniform provider for MLB in the 2020 season, the first year of the on-field partnership, Nike Baseball and Nike Softball also underwent a rebrand to Nike Diamond. Nike spokesperson Chloe Brener said this will allow Nike to elevate the dual-gender roster of athletes with new product.

Similar to other brands, Nokona used the pandemic time to focus on quality while developing limited-edition glove styles and expanding core products.

“It has also been a unique opportunity to connect with retail partners, customers and ball players to get feedback on our products and service,” Sivak said, “and their changing needs.”

That continued dialogue with fans allowed BL 101 to use the conversations not only as a home for fans to connect with players and influencers, but as a way for BL 101 to enjoy a live-flowing focus group and a place to show off its own gear.

Whether the “buzz the tower” cap, the “never bunt” tee or the “your girlfriend likes my swing” tee, BL 101 has staple items that have been around for years. But Shapiro is also exploring new ways to give the fans items they want, such as one-off items or the new BL 101 windbreaker.

“Because we spend so much time on the content side and building relationships with kids, we see what they want to wear,” said Bill Rom, BL 101 co-owner. “We are being nimble on purpose, listening to the types of things people want and putting those out consistently, instead of designing and hoping we can give people stuff they want.”

By placing an emphasis on supporting an increased demand for backyard games and youth sports, Franklin upped its resources for consumers in everything from plastic and foam bat-and-ball sets to batting tees.

As fans watched MLB players return to the field, it allowed companies such as Chandler Bats to remain focused on popular products, such as the model swung by Aaron Judge.

Chandler, a company with former major league players involved in every aspect of the company, prides itself in using the same high-quality wood and manufacturing process for a bat swung by Judge or by someone who purchases it at Dick’s Sporting Goods, took time to refine its manufacturing process to speed efficiently.

“We can have true confidence with all players and partners they are going to get bats in a very timely manner with the quality they expect,” said Adam Greenberg, Chandler president and CEO.

Along with refining manufacturing, Chandler is in the process of moving to Port St. Lucie, Fla., into a purpose-built facility that will include a retail space and batting cage.

“We want to make sure people can come down and see where their bats are made,” Greenberg said, “swing their bats at the facility and get a feel for who we are.”

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NEW GEAR

Typically, Wilson makes upgrades to about half of its glove line each year, but the 2021 A2000 receives a full upgrade, both in performance and aesthetics.

“This year was a unique opportunity to do everything (at once),” said Ryan Smith, Wilson baseball gloves product manager, about the brand’s largest and most popular line of gloves. “It makes this a unique launch.”

The SpinControl technology has made previous appearances in special-edition models, such as the Wilson Western Series launched in the summer for what would have been the College World Series, and a handful of major leaguers and National Team fastpitch players were already using the SpinControl after testing it, but the 2021 A2000 lineup signifies the first real chance for SpinControl to enter the mainstream of Wilson gloves.

Easton’s big launch of 2020 was the B5 Pro. Easton, an arrow-making company born in 1922, made one of the first-ever aluminum baseball bats in 1969, but then really took over baseball in 1978 with the launch of the B5 Pro Big Barrel, a 2-5/8” barrel diameter that changed the game by dropping weight, offering up -3, -4 and even a -5 version.

By using a higher-strength alloy with thinner walls, Easton took the weight out of the bat without sacrificing durability, creating the B5 Pro Big Barrel first as a -4, four ounces of weight less than the length. Instead of players topping out at a 31-inch or 32-inch bat, the dropped weight from the 71/78 aluminum alloy allowed players to step up to a 33 or 34 while swinging the largest barrel yet made.

That same engineering know-how that gave Easton a unique perspective in the late 1970s and ’80s has moved into the new version, a one-piece aluminum model using a highstrength alloy that allows Easton to vary the wall thicknesses at different stages in the barrel, all without rings to stabilize it.

Easton hasn’t stopped there. The new Maxum Ultra also launched for Easton in November, upgrading the Maxum 360. This BBCOR design was driven by conversations with Division I college players, moving more mass to the barrel togenerate additional speed and power. Hurwitz  calls it the longest barrel in the game with the biggest sweet spot.

But Easton also focused on redesigning its ball gloves and batting gloves, “recrafted from the bottom up.” Hurwitz said they looked at the lines holistically from the pro to the adultto the youth and created something new for everybody.

In the world of new bats, DeMarini brought out The Goods, the brand’s hottest BBCOR bat It still offers CF, Voodoo One and The Good One Piece. All of the bats can also be customized for an additional $50 on the brand’s website.

Louisville Slugger doubled down on the Meta, bringing the success of that bat to the USSSA line. “Players love the feel and performance of the Meta at the BBCOR level,” said Jake Misener, Louisville Slugger brand manager.

“USSSA players can now get that same high-level composite bat in three distinct weight drops, so as they progress in their career, they can swing the best bat in the game at every level.”

Mizuno took the last eight months to focus on enhancing its custom glove builder. Sammons said that players are really embracingpersonalization in cleats and gloves as a way to show individuality and an increased interest in custom glove creation has led Mizuno to launch a major update, giving the flagship Mizuno Pro glove the most options of any glove builder out there now, Sammons said.

With so many products in the Mizuno portfolio, the other major release from the brand, launched in October, is the Dominant Knit Cleat, the first all-knit upper on a cleat,Sammons said.

“The fit is next level, the comfort is really, really good,” he said. Able to get them on the feet of MLB players before the season wrapped, Sammons said excitement has grown from MLB on down. “It was the first time in the last four to five years that we brought something unique to the market on the footwear side,” he said.“We are excited about this one, for sure.”

Nokona has embraced its ball glove leather in creative ways, including expanding proprietaryEdge construction to eliminate welting for less creasing. New special edition gloves launched in 2020. The Stars & Stripes ball glove includes a patriotic design, while the POP Lacing limited edition and newly introduced Western Stitch glove offer additional variations. The signature Walnut series has increased in demand, leading to including Western Stitch and POP Lacing throughout.

Nokona has expanded its proprietary ball glove leather into everything from belts to wallets and personalized backpacks and a Nokona Ballglove Leather Jacket.

Warstic used 2020 to focus on metal bats, such as the Bonesaber BBCOR and USSSA alloy bat with a pro-style knob engineered from scratch. At the same time, Warstic advanced its wood bat line by adding new models, such as the WSKP11. They updated their Workman III batting gloves and have new versions of the Hawk2 and Gunner metal bats coming in early 2021.

While the launch of the new EvoShield catcher’s gear was originally put on hold, it did release in 2020, helping that brand to expand and create protective options across every facet of the game. For the first time, the leg guard comes as two pieces, allowing EvoShield to feature its patented gel-to-shell technology on the lower leg guard to help create a better custom fit in the gear.

“We wanted to incorporate the gel-to-shell technology into the product somehow,” said Krista Lenss, EvoShield product line manager.

“The proper application for it was the leg guard. You are able to get a custom-molded fit on the bottom part of the leg and as a result it keeps the entire leg guard on nice and firm without shifting around.

“That is the first huge point of difference and the second part of the gel-to-shell piece is a separate piece from the upper. When you pair the two you are able to achieve a custom fit.”

Rawlings, while placing a focus on new gloves, also launched a composite barrel Quatro Pro BBCOR bat with a light swing weight and sting control in a new handle, along with a Velo BBCOR with a new hybrid design, longer barrel, faster bat speed and new profile.

Old Hickory focused its efforts on interacting with its “fans,” said Travis Copley, Old Hickory sales manager, increasing the brand’s social media presence and sending out weekly emails.

This increased communication even led to new ideas for the brand, he said. Old Hickory expanded its Steel Pressed finish to the amateur market while adding additional color options to existing lines.

The biggest launch for Nike Diamond cleats came in the Nike Alpha Huarache 3, which introduced React foam to the cleat for a balance of traction and cushion. The brand’s “sole plate” is better positioned to allow for comfortable movement while still allowing metal spikes to bite the ground.

Eastbay said turf shoe sales were trending significantly up as many players were forced into batting cages.

Along with that, Karlowski said Eastbay has seen a move toward metal to molded cleats and the Nike Alpha Huarache Elite 3 Low MCS has proven quite popular, along with the Under Armour Harper 5 Low ST, which combines both metal and molded.

In keeping with the trend of color, Franklin added Chrome to its custom glove generator and has expanded its color options across multiple lines.

The Elite Batter’s Elbow Guard, G-Form’s most popular baseball product, with the brand’s SmartFlex technology that remains soft and flexible during play and hardens upon impact, expanded in 2020 to include special-edition colors.

Kelley said G-Form has its sights set on new product in 2021, including a custom elbow guard program that will get unveiled at spring training.

LOOKING FORWARD

The late 2020 announcement of Rawlings acquiring Easton will put a new spin on the two brands moving forward. Mike Thompson, Rawlings executive vice president, said both brands are strong, and neither is going away, continuing to operate independently to highlight the strengths of each.

“Together we are stronger,” he said. “We complement each other. There are certain things they do really well and certain things we do really well.”

Thompson said that with Rawlings a leader in ball gloves and baseballs and Easton a leader in the bat space, it is like one plus one equaling three. Adding in the fact they are both highly respected brands with strong histories in the game, Thompson said the end result is “innovation at an accelerated pace,” giving customers more options.

For 2021, Rawlings will continue to focus on core products to get everyone back playing. And as the “official ball glove of Major League Baseball” for 2021, expect to see the MLB logo on most Rawlings gloves.

Due to pandemic-related restrictions on sharing equipment, Karlowski expects to see items like batting helmets—which are popular right now in matte finishes—and catcher’s equipment to get purchased more by individuals instead of teams.

And as baseball starts to embrace individualized designs, “we expect to see manufacturers and players responding with bright, vibrant new multi-color combinations, patterns, metallics and prints,” he said. “We expect to see this expand outside of the All-Star Game and become more prevalent on an ‘every game’ basis.”

With a continued focus on 2021, brands won’t fully leave 2020 products behind. “Because the product managers were right-sizing the line this year, they were able to be a lot more thoughtful going into next year,” Rauch said. “We are looking at the cut cut cut way we do everything. Is status quo the best way or can we be better at this? So much of that is make sure we are being flexible and nimble.”

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