At the end of October of 2016, Bauer Performance Sports Group, who acquired Combat Sports Group in 2013 and who also owns the Easton brand, stated they would be filing to restructure their debt under bankruptcy laws. PSG will continue to operate under a new debt structure as investors work out the details through bankruptcy proceedings. It is expected that Easton, likely the strongest brand within the Bauer Group, as well as many other brands under the PSG umbrella, will continue business as usual.
The Death of Combat
However, Combat Sports Group, the maker of some of the best bats we’ve seen in the market for the past several years, is getting scrapped. Currently, many of their bats are being unloaded on major vendor sites. It’s a sad day at JustBatReviews.com as we think of the death of this Canadian bat manufacturing group who has produced some of our favorite bats ever.
Although conjecture at the moment, Easton could acquire the rights to the names and manufacturing of the Combat line since they are under the PSG umbrella. If they will continue the tradition of a single piece composite bat with an oversized barrel is yet to be seen. Other bat manufacturers, we’d hope, will fill the void in the single-piece composite baseball bat market.
This untimely death of a great bat company highlights a few trends we notice about the industry as a whole. Our inside look at many bat manufacturers and vendors give us some unique perspective. We break these into 5 problems below. We don’t offer much by way of solutions to the problems. Instead, some observations.
Problem 1: Warranties are Only As Good as the Company Offering Them
Small companies in the bat industry need to compete on the small things that major companies offer out of hand. In particular, the warranty. Year-long warranties have become Industry standard. Combat, in an attempt to separate themselves from the pack, was the first company to offer a 500-day warranty on their bats. They did this starting in 2015.
But what good is a 500-day warranty when the company offering it no longer exists? The answer, as far as we have been able to gather, is no good at all. There is nowhere to make a claim against your bat warranty. Combat has no inventory because they don’t exist. So, just about anyone who bought a 2016 or 2017 Combat MAXUM under the 500-day warranty are still within that window, but without a company, their warranty is void.
(We have been told that justbats.com may be your best bet in terms of a warranty claim on a Combat baseball or fastpitch bat.)
If you bought from a major vendor, you may be able to speak with them directly, and if not a solution, they should have sympathy for the situation. Combat’s assets were rolled up in another company, after all, so you could hope PSG had some process for honoring the warranty. But if you are looking for compensation from PSG for a broken contract, you’ll have to get in line with their creditors who are waiting for their own 450 million dollars.
The disappearance of Combat from the baseball map does nothing for consumer confidence in “off-brand” bat companies trying to offer a competitive advantage through an extra-long warranty.
Problem 2: Consolidation & Voluntary Withdrawal
A less quiet change in the market for the 2017 bat season is RIP-IT Sports’ entire withdrawal from the industry as a whole. They do still exist, at least their website still exists. The emails we sent to our contact there didn’t get kicked back, but they did go unanswered. The site now offers bat bags and fielders’ protective equipment for softball, but no longer available are the RIP-IT Air and Elite bats we had plenty of fun hitting with a few months back. The Helium filled bat can still be found on Amazon, but that is simply overstock.
As you no doubt would have heard, last year Louisville Slugger sold its brand and operations to the same Company that owns DeMarini. As such, the Wilson brand (which operates both Slugger and DeMarini now) is in full operation of both lines. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing by any measurable means today. Although we would guess, the disappearance of Slugger’s 717 Select is a direct result of DeMarini’s Voodoo two piece market overlap. We may have lost one of the industry’s favorite bats due to consolidation. (We get the 617 SOLO is new, so the industry taketh and the industry giveth).
Any massive industry will see consistent consolidation and product offering changes throughout its history. But, as we see it, the changes in the last 12 months have come at an accelerated pace. It is encouraging that groups like Mizuno and Adidas have entered the metal and composite bat realm with serious bat offerings. But the loss of RIP-IT and the consolidation of Slugger represent bat knowledge and innovation we won’t soon recover.
But, the economy has spoken. And we carry on.
Problem 3: MAP Pricing Problems
Most consumers couldn’t care less about Minimum Advertised Pricing (aka MAP), which is a contractually agreed upon minimum amount for which vendors can sell a certain item. They are alive and well in the bat industry. These are the agreements that keep bat prices painfully high, but that may not be a bad thing.
MAP contracts keep the industry afloat by allowing major vendors to make multi-million dollar purchases from manufacturers at wholesale pricing discounts. MAP helps guarantee enough margin in the deal for the vendor to keep the lights on, websites running and even offer “free shipping”. These multi-million dollar purchases help the manufacturer fund research and development, bat testing facilities and the host of other things involved in producing a high-grade bat.
The important role MAP plays in bolstering the industry can be undercut by small vendors with only short-term profits in mind or by eBay sellers filling the market with sub-MAP pricing. Although we need small vendors to keep bloated selling systems honest, if we want great bats from trusted companies, good service, and legitimate warranties, consumers need a system like MAP that requires certain pricing structures.
When structures such as MAP are compromised by options like small online vendors and e-Bay, it doesn’t help protect all the bats and bat brands we once loved, and the knowledge and technology collected that disappears with them.
Problem 4: Bat Standards Change
We reserve much of our commentary for the bat standard change in our USAbats standard article here. But, if you have yet to hear, significant bat changes are coming to Little League starting January 2018. These standards require bats in the BPF 1.15 2 1/4 size be changed to one that resembles BBCOR performance in a 2 5/8 diameter. In other words, much less pop. Within those leagues, the game will fundamentally change. BBCOR performance and BPF 1.15 are really night and day–especially on small fields with slow swing speeds.
The organizing body suggests the “integrity of the game” is the reason they are implementing the change. Because, you know, little kids hitting home runs isn’t a good thing for the sport.
We will quite never know the reason they are actually changing the Little League game. Some would argue they are in cahoots with bat manufacturers to simply unload more bats on the unsuspecting public. Cleaning out the thousands of BPF 1.15 youth bats floating in the secondary market would make good business sense. But, we aren’t so sure that is it. People buy bats every year anyway. Others argue the length of the game is the problem—but most little league games (outside of the LLWS) are stopped by a time limit or run rule.
We can be sure, however, it has nothing to do with the “integrity of the game.” Find us a kid in the world whose life wasn’t changed for the better by hitting a home run in little league. Put him up as your poster child with the caption: See? Home Run’s Aren’t Fun!
Problem 5: Youth Participation is….UP!
You will not find a publication that suggests youth sports participation is up. Baseball has been hit, but not nearly as bad as soccer, football, and basketball. However, after falling drastically in the last decade, it appears sport participation is up.
Yet the real issue, as we see it, is more in terms of specialization. Fewer kids play baseball and fastpitch than they did 10 years ago, but we think fall and winter leagues are much more attended than in previous years. Any given 11-year-old is more likely to play only one sport, but they are more likely to play it year round.
These issues affect the number of bats that are purchased. It is, in our estimation, a significant factor in the rise of baseball and fastpitch bat prices, as parents commit all their sports resources to one sport and are therefore willing to afford a more expensive bat. And, if you are willing to pay for it, then you can bet the market will produce it.
With all the ups and downs in the bat industry thanks to consolidation, voluntary exit, competition in the market at the pricing level and the new USAbat standards coming out, the folks who produce our favorite weapons at the plate have their work cut out for them. The good news is the market for their high end, well produced and warrantied products is warming up as kids who play ball do so more intensely, and will inevitably be seeking a bat as serious as they are.