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Making the Most of the Spring Sports Awards Market

Copyright © 2016 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in February 2016, Volume 41, No. 8 of The Engravers Journal
Pins make great participant awards for sports events. Photo courtesy of Catania Medallic Specialty, Inc.

   Spring is in the air–or at least it soon will be—and for retailers in the recognition and personalization industry, that means big business. Many retailers report that the spring awards season is a major profit-making time of year, often accounting for more than 30 percent of their annual award sales.
   Just as you gear up for the holidays, you can get the most out of the spring awards season by gearing up for that as well. If you’re like most dealers out there, you’re probably ambushed every spring with requests for sports awards and sports-related products, but perhaps you’re wondering what you can do to make this year different—and even more profitable.
   If you weren’t already aware of it, the world of sports is nearly endless and it continues to expand. Chances are good that an entirely new world of award possibilities is at your fingertips, perhaps even right at your back door.
   Take lacrosse, for example. Although it is one of the oldest sports in North America, it wasn’t until recent years that the popularity of the sport exploded. Although it was once primarily an Olympic game, today nearly 750,000 players participate in lacrosse on organized teams in the United States alone, including 400,000 at the youth level. Lacrosse is considered the fastest-growing team sport among the National Federation of State High School Association member schools. Other sports such as golf, tennis and rugby are becoming increasingly popular as well. Here’s a look at some of those great opportunities plus some tips for getting your spring awards business in gear.
A Sports Bonanza
   To really grab hold of the spring sports market, the first thing you need to do is identify the spring sports that are popular in your area. You are probably familiar with the traditional sports like basketball, softball and track but, as mentioned, the sports market continues to grow and there are new opportunities cropping up all the time. You might be surprised at some of the sports taking place in your area.
   Depending on the weather in your part of the country, of course, people may play only a few of the sports mentioned in this article, they may play entirely different sports altogether or they may play the same sports at different times of the year. Sailing, for example, is probably going to be much bigger in areas such as New England or the Great Lakes states than in land-locked states such as Colorado or Nebraska. Some sports, like basketball, might actually be considered “winter” sports but cross over into the spring. Other sports, such as hockey, might be considered winter sports at the high school and college levels, but is offered as a spring intramural sport when played at a younger level.
   Don’t forget that many sports once played by one gender or the other (cheerleading for women, basketball for men) are now coed. Don’t limit yourself by thinking only of male-oriented items to offer for basketball or female-oriented items to offer for the cheerleaders. It’s an equal-opportunity world out there, and you stand to rack up more sales if your merchandise includes items that can be bought by/worn by/awarded to both men and women.
Track & Field
   Everyone’s heard of track and field, but have you ever really given it any thought? The sport encompasses so many different disciplines that it’s a world unto itself as far as awards are concerned.
A track and field team consists of people who compete in one or more of the following sports: high, long and triple jump; hurdles; multi-events (such as the decathlon); pole vaulting; race walking; running; sprinting; and throwing the javelin, hammer, discus and shot put. Usually each person on the team participates in more than one sport, and the combination of events is an award retailer’s dream. There’s a little something (or a lot) here for everyone.

Resins are one of the newer popular trends in sports awards. Photo courtesy of Marco Awards Group. A.T. Designs INSIGNIA manufactures custom bag tags in many different shapes, sizes, finishes and materials for golf and many other sports.

   Tennis is no longer viewed as a distant, proper game played on English soil. Popular young tennis role models Venus and Serena Williams have taken the world by storm, creating a world of avid tennis fans who see being the best as an attainable goal. Don’t be surprised to find that someone in every town has dreams of becoming the next Venus or Serena. And to get there, they’re devoting themselves to tennis teams, tennis lessons and tennis gear. Be ready to provide these avid players and their coaches and parents with what they need to encourage the players.
   When people think of spring sports, they often think along the lines of golf and tennis. But lacrosse is also a spring sport, and it has turned into a major one. As mentioned, lacrosse is quickly becoming the spring sport of choice for young men and women in high schools, colleges and universities, and it is now offered at younger age levels as well.
   Created by the North American Indians, lacrosse is considered by some to be the Americas’ first sport. It’s much like a combination of basketball, soccer and hockey, and the goal of the game is to use a stick (the crosse) to throw, catch and scoop the ball to score goals.
Water Polo
   Water polo is one of those sports that is popular in small pockets around the country (California, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Michigan are some examples). In a nutshell, the game is played in a pool with teams lined up on opposite goal lines. On the signal, the teams sprint toward the center to gain control of the ball. From there, the teams vie to score goals by swimming, dribbling or passing the ball. Since it’s played in the water, this sport opens up an entirely new category of award ideas and personalized add-ons, such as embroidered towels and bathing suits, and screen printed swim caps and goggle straps.
   Golf is, of course, a universally popular sport; just about any high school, college or recreational center in any town sponsors a golf team. According to the National Golf Foundation, there are 25.7 million golfers in the U.S. alone. Statistics also reveal that there are approximately 15,500 golf facilities, including private and public clubs, across the country as well. That’s amazing when you think about it. And there are plenty of awards and personalized items that you can offer those who love the sport. From accessories and novelties to medals and trophies, the array of golf-related awards and supplies is extensive.

Ribbons, certificates and pins are all good award choices for sports events. Photo courtesy of F&H Ribbon Company, Inc. Sports such as lacrosse and tennis are gaining in popularity at all levels. Photo courtesy of R.S. Owens & Co.

   Soccer is possibly the most popular sport in the world. Have you seen the fans at the World Cup matches? These are people who take their sport very seriously. Losing in the World Cup is akin to a national day of mourning in some countries. Although soccer is probably not as popular as some sports in the United States, American soccer players are quite numerous and they too need awards for their triumphs. Men and women of all ages and sizes play soccer and, like golf, it’s offered by just about any school or recreation center in any town in the country. Offering soccer awards is second nature to many award dealers, and if you’re not currently tapping into this market, it might be time to do so.
Baseball & Softball
   Baseball is as American as apple pie, and though it’s not as popular as it once was, don’t be fooled. Baseball and softball fans are everywhere. Consider these fun facts: As of 2015, Little League Baseball has a reported 2.4 million participants on 165,628 teams in 83 countries. And, according to the International Baseball Federation, between 300,000 and 500,000 women and girls play baseball around the world, including Little League and the introductory game of Tee Ball. In addition, varsity baseball and softball teams remain an established part of athletic departments at most high schools and colleges in the U.S.
   Like football, the object of rugby is to carry, pass and kick the ball to score as many points as possible. Unlike football, in rugby the play is continuous, and if a play is ever stopped for any reason (except injury), the game must be immediately restarted. Also, the game is played without protective gear, and the sport allows any player to tackle, hold or shove any opponent holding the ball. Rugby players generally put themselves at great risk of bodily harm, and to some, this makes the game that much more interesting.
Field Hockey/Inline Hockey
   Field hockey dates back to ancient times, and although the exact origin of the sport is not known, 4000-year-old drawings have been found in the Nile valley depicting men playing the sport. Modern field hockey originated in England in the 1800s, and its cousin, inline hockey, was first used for off-season training for ice hockey players. Using sticks, teams hit and dribble a ball down the field and try to shoot the ball past the goalkeeper to score. Today, millions of fans play field hockey or inline hockey when spring has sprung.

Tower Ribbons offers a variety of spring sports resins.

   Basketball is one of those sports that may or may not be considered a “spring sport,” depending on where you live. After all, March in Texas is a whole lot more “springy” than March in Montana, so the definition of what constitutes a spring sport in one region may differ from another. Regardless, basketball is widely known and universally played all over the country, whether it’s snowy or hot come spring in your state. Supplying the awards and personalized merchandise necessary to make tens of thousands of basketball fans happy is just good business sense, wherever you live.
Cheerleading & Other Sports
   Don’t forget the sports that are played year-round. There was a time when cheerleading was considered a girl’s activity that took place in the fall, and not a very sporting one at that. But with the leaps, gymnastics, tosses and dance routines that cheerleaders incorporate into their routines these days, cheerleading definitely qualifies as a sport. And cheerleaders have year-round jobs. They cheer for all the sports, no matter what season, and they have their own competitions, complete with awards.
   In addition, consider the thousands of clubs that exist, whether it’s table tennis, rowing, bass fishing, robotics or mountain biking, and the opportunity to sell awards and other merchandise becomes virtually endless.
Precision Marketing
   Remember that the best way to get started in this market is to do a good bit of research to find out what’s popular and what’s being played in your area, and direct your efforts locally. There are a variety of customers you can sell spring sports awards to. Here are some suggestions.
   When most people think of sports, they think of schools. But take a moment to expand on that thought. If you normally sell to the local high school(s), have you ever thought of targeting elementary schools? Many future sports players get started very young. Or what about colleges? You might not have a Big 10 university located in your backyard, but community colleges often have their own sports teams and compete in leagues.
Recreation Leagues
   Every community has a recreation authority or similar organization which sponsors recreation, sports and leisure programs to surrounding areas, typically for citizens of all ages. These organizations are also often involved in developing facilities for recreation and sports.
   Parents could be the award retailer’s jackpot. When springtime rolls around, many parents are as eager as the kids to find an outlet for the kids’ pent-up energy. In most youth sports, parents volunteer to take on tasks such as purchasing awards, uniforms, thank-you gifts for the coach, etc., and they often don’t know where to start. If you can establish a connection with the parents, this could be an ideal way to generate business, not to mention good word-of-mouth advertising. In addition, once their youngsters find a sport, they enthusiastically support the newfound endeavors and often want to buy sports-related items for the kids.

Using sublimation to personalize plaques is a great way to spice up your product line. Photo courtesy of Marco Awards Group. The My Lil’ Star Resin Awards from Marco Awards Group are offered in baseball, basketball and soccer, and feature a bronze finish with bright gold highlights. Simba Cal, Inc. offers heavy weight metal champion rings with rich antique gold or silver plating in 15 different stock events.

The Awards
   Sports awards have come a long way. Way back when, trophies used to be made one at a time, by hand, out of precious metals. They were rare and only awarded in very special cases. Trophies, ribbons, plaques and other prizes are now offered in every sport for many different occasions, and all of these are readily available from suppliers in the industry. Whether you offer more traditional awards or want to branch out into some of the more unusual items available these days, there’s something out there that’s just right for you and your market.
   Plaques have been a mainstay of an award dealer’s business for ages. But perhaps you’ve been offering the same types of plaques for years, and sales haven’t increased much, if at all, in recent history. Maybe it’s time to spruce up your plaque sales with something a little different.
   If your customer wants to stick with traditional plaques, the cherry, oak and walnut plaque boards available from various suppliers can be laser engraved or adorned with contrasting engraved or sublimated plates. You can spruce up these traditional awards by adding photos and custom graphics, such as a logo or school mascot.
   Another way to spice up your product line is to offer more variety in terms of personalization options, techniques you use to add text and graphics to award plaques. Take a step beyond plaques that say “1st Place” and think about engraving school logos, mascots or even photographs onto your traditional plaques.
   Sublimated plaques are not new to the market, but they are increasingly popular among those who want to add color to their sports awards. The nice thing about sublimation is that any image can be placed on a sublimation-receptive surface, so the options are only limited by the creator’s mind. A team photo sublimated on a plaque turns a nice award into an everlasting memento. Need to inspire a rookie athlete with some words of wisdom? Those words, along with a picture of the athlete, can be sublimated right onto the plaque. Another way to add sublimated color to a plaque is with Mates material available from Rowmark in Findlay, OH, and Rowmark distributors. Mates is a colored, flexible plastic sublimatable stock with a self-adhesive back that can be used to add pizzazz to a traditional plaque.
   Don’t forget about perpetual plaques, which are great for organized or recurring sporting events. Perpetual plaques usually have a general message space for the event name, logo, mascot, photo, etc., and a larger spaced allotted for smaller plates with the individual recipient’s name, the year and other updatable information. Perpetual plaques can be displayed in a school display case, sports arena, etc., and serve as an ongoing award.



The Murano style art glass golf trophy from Badash Crystal is 10" high and features blue glass mounted on an optical crystal block. Trophies remain a popular award for sports and there is a wide variety to choose from. Photo courtesy of Gravograph. Catania Medallic Specialty, Inc. specializes in custom medallic items. Shown here is a die cast lacrosse medal with a custom full-color ribbon.

   Trophies are, of course, another mainstay of an award dealer’s business. If you’re looking for a departure from the standard base-riser-figure trophy configuration, you’re in luck. Many trophy manufacturers now offer a plethora of options to make your trophies unique, from large gold-finished sports balls to new styles of resins.
   Another option is engravable stone or marble trophies. The beauty of etching onto stone or marble is that any design, no matter how intricate, can be etched onto the piece. In fact, the more intricate the design, the more beautiful it usually looks. Although most schools probably wouldn’t want to give away etched marble or stone trophies for everyday awards, wouldn’t it be nice to offer them something really special to recognize the once-in-a-lifetime hole-in-one or state championship?
   Acrylic trophies are also nice options for those looking for something off the beaten path. Acrylic trophies are currently offered in just about any size or shape that you can think of. Available in diamonds, octagons, pyramids, triangles, rectangles, squares and more, acrylic can stand alone or sit on a base, and it can be personalized with or without color to create the look your customers want.
   If your customer is looking for something more upscale, you might consider glass or crystal trophies. There are many variations of these available in the industry as well, including clear glass, colored glass and optic crystal. Much like stone trophies, glass is an option that lends itself easily to high-end occasions.
Ribbons, Buttons, Medals & Pins
   If any type of award ever lent itself well to sports activities, it’s ribbons, buttons and pins. They are inexpensive ways of recognizing victors, and the variety one can achieve with these awards is nearly infinite.
   Likewise, medals are an extremely popular award for sports events that can be engraved with whatever text the customer wants. Medallions are another popular option, and these work well for the cost-conscious customer who is looking for something smaller as an award. Traditional medallions are available in gold, silver or brass colors, or you may want to consider blank medallions with a colorful Mylar or sublimatable insert to customize the awards for any school, sport or athlete. Medals and medallions can be further personalized with lapel and neck ribbons in a school’s or team’s colors or the traditional red, white and blue.
   Pins are a great way to recognize members of a team, and they give team members a way to show their pride without having to carry a trophy around. Lapel pins can be obtained pre-manufactured in the shape of sports equipment (such as golf clubs, field hockey sticks or tennis rackets) or they can be customized to spell out a school’s initials or fabricated in the shape of a school mascot. And because they are relatively inexpensive, pins are a popular add-on as participant awards.

   When people think of sports, they often think of sweat. And sweat pants or sweatshirts are a perennial favorite among athletes. They can be screen printed with a school’s logo, initials or mascot. They can be embroidered with names, sports or even given as awards. A trend in some areas is to put the name of a school or athlete vertically along the legs of sweatpants. Some even prefer their identification across the behind of a pair of sweats.
   T-shirts are another perennial favorite, and the possibilities here are endless. Just about anything can be put on a T-shirt, and with the recent explosion of sublimation, anything can be added to a shirt in eye-catching color.
   Smaller sports-related items can make up a large part of your sales as well. Embroidered headbands keep cold ears warm when spring is still roaring like a lion outside. And socks embroidered with a piece of sports equipment (like a tennis racket) can be sold to different schools and rec centers for people of all ages.
Staying Sane
   Maintaining your sanity during the spring sports season is probably easier said than done. If you’re like many award dealers, you look forward to spring with a mixture of dread and anticipation. It’s not always fun trying to stay on top of an avalanche of work, but the payoff in the end is usually worth it.
   If it’s in your budget, you might want to hire additional help to get you through the season. High schools often have job boards that can connect you with young people who are eager to earn minimum wage doing something besides flipping burgers. And retirees are often looking for extra income and something to keep them busy. Use these extra hands to help ship orders, answer the phones or, if they’re trustworthy, teach them the basics of operating your engraving equipment. You never know when you might hit the jackpot with temporary help. These people can often turn into trusted employees who remain with you for years to come.
   Remember, this is the season that can really bring in money for an award dealer. This year, try offering something different for the spring season and spend a little more time on your marketing efforts. Then, when it’s over, enjoy the added profits—and a much-needed rest!