High school sports wasn't exactly the place to be last year.
As many students attended school virtually, and group gatherings were discouraged thanks to the pandemic, sports took a hit. According to a joint report by McKinsey & Company and the World Federation Sporting Goods Industry, the total number of hours kids spent playing sports decreased by almost 50% during COVID-19.
That impacted some retailers in the sports sector more than others. For example, Foot Locker saw growth in its running categories, but its Champs Sports and Eastbay banners, which focus more on high school athletes (and for Eastbay, team sports), struggled in areas where sports weren't being played.
Toward the end of last year and the beginning of 2021, sports started to return, according to Guy Harkless, senior vice president and general manager of Champs Sports and Eastbay. Staying relevant before then required some maneuvering, though, including realigning the Eastbay assortment around training gear and other off-season must-haves, and building out branded content for customers to engage with.
"High school athletes don't ever stop thinking about sports," Harkless said. As a result, his team worked to create content series to connect with customers during the pandemic, including Eastbay's "Ready for Whatever," which was specifically deployed last year to talk about the athlete's journey during COVID.
The strategy is in part taken from Champs, which has been developing its own content franchises for several years, but it was helped along by the pandemic, which created even more of an opportunity for branded content. Now, both brands have dedicated content series and also have their own YouTube channels through Eastbay TV and Champs TV.
Champs video strategy, and followers, is still considerably larger. Eastbay's YouTube channel has nearly 71,000 subscribers, while Champs has almost double that, at 134,000. Champs also has eight different content series displayed on its Champs TV homepage, ranging from product- and fashion-focused series like "Refresh Your Game" and "Illustrated," to "Fouled Out," which is dedicated to "the wildest sports vids on the internet."
Eastbay's has far fewer, and its series are more directly focused on high school athletes and performance. In addition to "Ready for Whatever," Eastbay also has a series called "Conqher" (launched March 2020) that covers the stories of female athletes, "Clocking In" (launched February 2021), which highlights what professional athletes do to excel, and "Dual Threat" (launched February 2021), which is focused on high school athletes that play two sports.
"It helps that you've got an audience that's ready and willing and waiting for good, strong content," Harkless said. "So the engagement that we've seen around video views and impressions that we've been able to drive and that sort of thing have been very, very strong."
Targeting certain population segments, including kids and women's, has also been successful, and there's room for more of that "intentional" content, according to Harkless. In fact, an unexpected benefit from the pandemic's surge in online shopping is that Champs and Eastbay both learned a lot more about who their customers are thanks to a larger number of purchases made through direct channels and, therefore, an influx of data.
Harkless has also tied in Foot Locker's social action plan, Leading in Education and Economic Development, to the video-driven strategy. Geared toward the Black community, the LEED initiative has led Eastbay and Champs to be more purposeful in partnering with Black-owned businesses and brands, including marketing agencies. That recently culminated in a content series covering the HBCU Combine, which included storytelling around specific athletes and also a giveback that included Eastbay donating funds to their respective high schools.
But video content doesn't always equate to sales. The company does provide links to easily shop merchandise on the webpages for each of its content series, but ultimately the videos serve more as brand awareness and engagement vehicles than immediate purchase drivers. Harkless is confident that they help in keeping Eastbay and Champs top of mind when it comes time for customers to buy their new gear, but he's also looking into other ways to drive purchases, including pairing the two brands together in physical retail spots.
Eastbay has just one physical presence, which is inside a Champs and opened earlier this year. Champs has a more robust omnichannel business, with 539 stores as of January. The idea is to expand the number of Champs stores that also feature Eastbay shops, including plans to spread the concept to California and Texas. Since Eastbay is more performance focused and Champs plays more in the lifestyle space, the two brands compliment each other when it comes to winning high school athletes' dollars, according to Harkless.
Having a physical presence also allows Eastbay to have in-person engagement with the high schools it works with, and opens up opportunities for more experiential elements in the future.
"So the answer is: yes," Harkless said in response to questions about expanding Eastbay into more doors. "How many we'll have over time — we're still working on that number. But certainly we see upside opportunity to do more of that sort of thing."
Clarification: This story was updated to clarify Champs Sports' market positioning.