Hit makers

Marucci Sports takes a swing at new products

Since 2010, Marucci Sports has diversified from making wooden bats for Major League Baseball players to making aluminum bats, batting gloves, equipment bags and backpacks for everyone.

This year the company will add around 20,000 square feet of space to the 40,000 its 50 employees now occupy, Chief Executive Officer Brett Stohlton said. And the Baton Rouge company is only in the beginning phases of expanding its presence in the baseball market.

“You’re going to see a lot of growth over the next two years from Marucci,” Stohlton said. “We now have a lot of traction at Dick’s Sporting Goods and Academy Sports.”

Good relationships with retailers lead to new opportunities, and the scale of servicing those clients is considerable, he said. Dick’s has 500 stores, and Marucci bats are in every one of them.

The company’s growth has been fueled in part by sales of aluminum bats, now “a multiple” of the revenue from wood bats, Stohlton said. Growth is also fueled by the company’s majority owners: two dozen current or former Major Leaguers.

Stohlton declined to name those investors as well as most details about sales and revenue.

However, Stohlton said there are some obvious categories a baseball manufacturer wants to be in. One of them is ball gloves and mitts. Another is helmets.

Stohlton described ball gloves as “a big beachhead for brand recognition and profitability.”

They are also an area that Marucci’s player-partners want to pursue.

So Marucci decided to take on the new challenge, assembling a design team and searching for the right firms to provide the material and make the ball gloves, Stohlton said. The right partners are vital because ball gloves are made by hand. Factories must prove they can meet Marucci’s tight quality standards over and over and over again, he said.

Stohlton said the company has been making ball gloves for six to 10 months but is at least a year away from selling them at the retail level.

Already a few big leaguers have been spotted using the Marucci ball gloves. Members of the public have been calling to ask where to buy the gear, Stohlton said. For now, Marucci’s customer service reps can only tell callers to stay tuned for more information.

“I think we like the anticipation, but at the same time we don’t want to be too far out in front of when we think we’re ready to enter that market,” Stohlton said. “Baseball’s a hundred-plus years old. We don’t need to capture market share or cover all product categories tomorrow.”

That’s the same approach the company has followed for its batting gloves, equipment bags and backpacks.

“The way we think of it is this is a hitting company. We know hitting really well,” Stolhton said.

All of the company’s products evolve from that knowledge.

Around 350 Major Leaguers use Marucci bats because of the company’s high-quality wooden bats, attention to detail and the relationships built with those players, Stohlton said.

The company looked at what it could to do build out its product line, and the next logical step was batting gloves, Stohlton said. The gloves also help with Marucci’s brand positioning.

Marucci may be as good at product placement as it is at making wooden bats.

That’s because Marucci has investors like Luis Pujols, a future Hall of Famer who uses a Marucci bat.

LSU marketing instructor Thomas Karam said at some point Pujols will probably start wearing the company’s batting gloves.

And each time Pujols adjusts those gloves during a televised game, every little kid with a No. 5 Pujols jersey will want the gloves that go with it, Karam said.

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, consumers spent $476.0 million on baseball and softball equipment in 2011. Consumers spent $221.6 million on ball gloves/mitts and $179.3 million on metal/composite bats.

The association does not track the value of batting gloves or equipment bags sold each year, according to spokesman Bruce Hammond.

Stohlton said young players go through a pair or two of the batting gloves each season.

Less than a year after the retail launch, kids are already asking for the Marucci batting gloves by name, he said.

However, Karam said while a new retail product can be lucrative, the risk for Marucci is that it might dilute the quality of its primary brand: the wooden bats made for Major Leaguers.

Ball gloves and helmets seem so simple, but professional players are very particular about their equipment, he said, and that equipment is very important to them.

The challenge for Marucci, Karam said, is to create a product that (a) separates itself from those of legendary baseball brands, and (b) provides the athletes with a competitive advantage over their current equipment.

Stohlton said the company isn’t going to take its eye off the ball, so to speak, when it comes to new product lines.

“Every wood bat we’re going to send is going to be a gamer, and we want every subsequent product category to have that same attention to detail,” Stohlton said.

The company moved into backpacks and equipment bags because the people who buy bats have to carry them around, he said. The bags have become more of a fashion play, and they make for an interesting billboard.

Marucci’s backpacks allow kids to carry a couple of bats on either side of the pack, with space for cleats and other items, Stohlton said. When practice or a game ends, the kids can take out their baseball gear and slide in a laptop and other school things.

In designing its bags, Marucci made its goal to build a really functional, good-looking bag so kids will see it and say it’s a best-in-class product, Stohlton said. And the same holds true for its other products.

Marucci is aided in that process by a secret sauce, the ability to draw on big league players for advice.

“When we bring pro players into Baton Rouge or when they come to visit us, we’re always asking them, ‘What do you think about this? We tried that, what was your experience with it? How would you improve it?’” Stohlton said.

Karam said those players provide Marucci-branded goods something both electric and powerful: “product placement on a grand, Major League scale … for free.”

For example, Bryce Harper, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s spring training issue last month. Harper’s pose, no accident, ensured that the big white M of the Marucci logo was visible above his left shoulder, Karam said. The magazine has more than 3 million paid subscribers, and a shelf life of who knows how many years, so that M is going to be seen by everyone.

How much would a company have to pay for that kind of product placement?

“Oh, gosh,” Karam said, “I would be making up a number, but the number I would make up would be very high.”

Each celebrity’s use of a Marucci bat is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, Karam said.

Stohlton said Marucci has a few things planned with hats, and its protective helmets will be in retail stores next holiday season.

More and more kids buy their own helmets. That market is another opportunity for Marucci, he said.

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, consumers spent $213 million on helmets and protective gear across all sports in 2011.

Marucci is also considering increasing its presence in apparel, Stohlton said.

For now, the company only sells its branded apparel directly to consumers, Stohlton said. But he foresees greater demand in the not-so-distant future.

“I think eventually the story of Marucci will be one where we have products that cover kids from head to toe,” Stohlton said.