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Selling Sports

In Aaron Wilkinson’s family, selling sports awards is a longtime tradition. As owner of Wilkinsons Trophy & Athletics, a 35-year-old business in Provo, UT, Wilkinson clearly recalls his grandfather saying that trophies are recession-proof—during economic downturns, parents enroll their kids in local sports rather than take pricey vacations.

Selling Sports

Personalization Retailers Discuss How Buying Trends are Changing

By Jane Martinsons

(Originally published in the August 2015 issue of Recognition Review.)

In Aaron Wilkinson’s family, selling sports awards is a longtime tradition. As owner of Wilkinsons Trophy & Athletics, a 35-year-old business in Provo, UT, Wilkinson clearly recalls his grandfather saying that trophies are recession-proof—during economic downturns, parents enroll their kids in local sports rather than take pricey vacations.

Wilkinson says those words still ring true today, even after the Great Recession. “People are still ordering trophies,” he said. “They still love trophies.”

Still, he and other awards retailers are seeing new trends in sports awards sales. Both Edsel Emery, owner of Emery Engraving LLC in Chester, WV, and Jason Elkins, owner of Team Direct in Thornton, CO, are seeing customers’ interest shift from traditional trophies to resins and medals, particularly in youth sports.

“The kids like resins better than trophies because they’re fun and interesting,” Emery said, noting that kids entering his shop immediately gravitate toward resins. “They start playing with them right away. Whether it’s (an award with) a sports player or a moving ball, they are attracted to it and like it,” he said. “Coaches actually like them, too, because they have a lower price point.”

It’s a lucrative niche, said Emery, who provides as many as 200 participation awards at an end-of-the-season youth or pee-wee sports banquet.

In the past year, Elkins has seen a decline in traditional trophy sales as more consumers purchase resins, in part because of the wide range of options. “We’re seeing suppliers come out with new resins every year,” he said. “They offer something different all the time, and that is what my clients are looking for. We’re seeing vendors and suppliers come out with new molds and designs, and our clients like that.”

He stresses that providing options to consumers is critical in a world of easy online shopping. “As both an online and a brick-and-mortar company, we offer a full lineup of whatever we can get our hands on,” Elkins said. “We offer products from all the major suppliers, not just one go-to supplier. We need variety to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace.”

AGE DIFFERENCES

The popularity of resins doesn’t apply to high school sports, where awards go only to star athletes. These awards tend to be higher quality, more expensive crystalline or acrylic awards, Wilkinson said.

Emery and Elkins agree that the market narrows as kids age. “High schools are very traditional and don’t give out a lot of awards,” Emery said. “You have your Most Valuable Player (MVP), and your outstanding freshman, sophomore, and junior. At the outside, you have 6 or 7 (awards) for a high school team.”

Because of this, “I try to go for the wow factor,” he said. “I look for things that are out of the ordinary, such as big plaques, nice resin attachments, or maybe sculptures. (High school teams) are looking for something that’s more valuable or exciting. I add resin attachments, mounts to plaques, or pane inlays to make them look a lot more special.”

Elkins, who provides awards for end-of-season events at eight area high schools, notes similar buying patterns. He also says he is countering an overall decline in sports awards by focusing on servicing leagues rather than individual teams. “In our area, we have numerous leagues for one sport,” he said. “By offering promotions to leagues rather than teams, we’re seeing a greater return on investment.”

Why has there been a decline in the sale of traditional trophies? Elkins notes several reasons, particularly in the youth market.


Jason Elkins’ Team Direct created this championship belt as a corporate award—a great example of the bleed-over he’s seeing from sports awards to corporate markets. “They create a sports-type culture for benchmarking and meeting key performance indicators. We find they also want recognition and awards to reflect this culture,” Elkins said.

First, he believes that there are too many sports seasons, with baseball, football, and soccer now having multiple indoor and outdoor seasons. “It’s just too much to (give out awards) every season. The kids are getting them three times a year for one sport, typically in recreational-type leagues,” he said. “Parents are getting hit for lots of fees or fundraisers, and (awards) are just one more thing they have to get for their kids. I think they’re looking to spend less than they were previously.”

Second, teams are recognizing players in ways other than handing out trophies, awards, and engraved gifts. Some are turning to gift cards, toys, or end-of-season events. “A team’s budget for those type of things is less (today),” he said. “On average, we are producing products that are less expensive than before.”

Third, Elkins notes increased competition from online and big-box retailers. As such, “we feel we have to be nationally competitive, price-wise, to service our local market. The first place that clients go to find awards is the Internet.” However, he notes that when products are priced competitively on a national level, customers will often choose to shop locally rather than online.

Sources who spoke to Recognition Review say that to stay competitive, retailers should:

Price right and service well.

Rather than try to compete on price with online suppliers, Emery focuses on providing great service and convenience. “Customers can stop by the shop and pick them up. I have all the plates attached. My spelling is correct. Everything’s packed up nice for the kids, so it’s a lot easier for coaches, as opposed to getting a shipment at their house. Also, if you forgot a trophy for a kid or someone dropped an award at a banquet, I can offer a spare one because I ordered a case and have two or three extras. Invariably, when you have 125 kids at a basketball banquet, somebody is going to drop something. I’ll typically say, ‘Send him over and I’ll give it to him. You just spent $1,000 on trophies with me. I’m not going to nickel and dime you on a single one.’ Then, they come back because they like that.”

Wilkinson notes that coaches and sports teams are looking for bargains. “With trophies, people are always cost-conscious, so we set our prices to compete against larger online retailers. Usually when you get up to (higher quality) acrylic and glass, customers don’t shop around quite as much; they want a quality piece.”

His sales advice? Think long term, Wilkinson said, and service your customers over their lifetime rather than based on a single purchase. “If a large wrestling league orders $20,000 worth of acrylic awards a year, they expect a good price based on that larger volume—and we provide that.”

Look beyond traditional sports teams.

As owner of a one-person shop, Emery says that he’s moving away from labor-intensive trophies to supply resins and plaques—and he’s selling them not only to sports teams, but to classic-car enthusiasts in his community.

“The car-cruise work, which (involves both) engraving and sublimation, has definitely taken off,” he says, noting that the added business helps during slow periods and summers. “Car cruises are a good social event. I do awards for a lot of them. These guys typically want 30 or 40 trophies for categories such as best ’40s, best hotrod, best paint, and best-of-show.”

Go corporate.

Wilkinson is seeing a lot of growth in the corporate market in his area, known as Silicon Slopes for its many technology companies. He notes that young corporate employees, so-called Trophy Kids, love awards not only because they grew up with them, but because they closely equate the workplace environment with team sports. Companies are ordering personalized acrylic and crystal awards for their sales teams, or “fun” plastic trophies for informal ping-pong or foosball tournaments.

Elkins agrees that sports awards, such as championship belts and cups, are well suited for corporate sales and sports teams. “We definitely see them as an entryway into corporate markets,” he said. “Often, parents who shop for youth sports trophies will also want to buy something similar for their company or an employee-engagement program.”

Corporate departments, such as sales, marketing, and customer service, identify as teams, Elkins explained. “They create a sports-type culture for benchmarking and meeting key performance indicators. We find they also want recognition and awards to reflect this culture.”

Corporate wellness programs also have provided a new venue for sports-style awards, Elkins said. “These programs will encourage activity for their employees by creating various team events for kickball, softball, golf, tennis, etc. We create award programs around these types of programs.”

Local recreation departments provide yet another market niche. Wilkinson says his area rec departments order “a ton of customizable, fairly inexpensive” insert metals—2-inch discs with applied vinyl stickers and epoxy domes for a 3D effect. These are especially popular among soccer and volleyball teams, he said.

Network in your community.

Emery recommends that retailers network in their community through business and social groups, stressing that people simply like doing business with others they know and trust. He networks through his fraternal group and by showing up at youth league sign-ups to say hello and leave a flyer and his business cards. He also makes sure to include his name on everything he sells, including name tags for community events.

PROS AND CONS OF RELATED PRODUCTS

These retailers also shared sales advice on other sports products:

Personalized sports items

Elkins is concentrating his efforts on personalized awards. “We’re finding out what an athlete is good at and then making a specific award for that,” he said. “They’re being rewarded for a specific part, whether that’s team spirit, leadership, or a certain type of performance they’ve shown throughout the season.”

These personalized awards are used instead of participation awards. “As we see the fall in ‘participant’ awards, we encourage awarding on traits that they recognize in these young players,” Elkins said. “They use terms like Sportsmanship, Clutch Performer, Overcoming Adversity, and Encouragement Award, to name a few. Finding promising traits in these young athletes rewards and encourages them beyond a participation award.”

Sports apparel

Sports apparel segues perfectly into awards, Wilkinson said. “The more I sell T-shirts and other printed apparel (such as hoodies, sweatpants, and uniforms), the more awards I sell,” he said. “We find that people who order team apparel order awards.”

Sports equipment

Despite selling sports equipment in the past, Elkins said it didn’t fit into his core business of personalizing items with embroidery, engraving, and printing. “Piercing that veil (of the equipment market) is a difficult task. Major sporting suppliers require large stocking orders, it’s very competitively priced, and you have a lot of competition from big-box stores. It’s just a harder market to compete in,” he said.

Likewise, Wilkinson has decided after 20 years to no longer sell sports equipment, including high-end baseball equipment. He agrees it’s a tough market. “The problem is, every website on the Internet sells the same product for cheaper. (Equipment) also takes up a lot of space and has very little margin, unlike trophies. Any store can sell baseball bats or baseballs, but not every store can open up and make custom trophies.”

He added, “With sporting goods, you have to make preseason orders, which can be difficult. So, we’ve moved away from that and haven’t regretted it at all.”

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