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Seeking a level field, bat maker outsources

Easton-Bell belatedly joins its rivals in China. 250 jobs in Van Nuys will be eliminated.

January 27, 2007|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

An icon of Little League fields across America is taking its bat manufacturing business to China, cutting 250 jobs in Van Nuys in the process.

Van Nuys-based Easton-Bell Sports Inc., which produced 2 million aluminum bats a year at its 130,000-square-foot plant, is outsourcing its manufacturing operations to "stay one step ahead," Ken Waltrip, Easton's vice president of manufacturing, said in a statement Friday. "We are sad to see this day come."

In all, the company employs 1,200 people worldwide. Easton said it would keep its corporate offices in Van Nuys.

Easton is the latest in a long line of major sports equipment makers to move overseas as labor and other costs rise.

Baseball bats are increasingly being made of composite materials, said Ian Corydon, an analyst with B. Riley & Co. in L.A., and as the prices of these materials go up, companies look to cut costs in other areas.

"At this point, pretty much everything is in China," he said. "Companies are trying to manufacture as cheaply as they can."

Two of Easton's main U.S. competitors, Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. and Worth Inc., began moving their bat-making operations to China when they were purchased by Carlsbad, Calif.-based K2 Inc. in 2003.

Art Chou, Rawlings' vice president of research development and engineering, said his company had been relocating other sporting goods manufacturing overseas as well.

"If you don't do it, you're at a competitive disadvantage," he said.

Baseball has gone overseas for more than just equipment in recent years, recruiting players such as Hideki Matsui from Japan. The Dodgers last week signed a one-year contract with Chin-Hui Tsao, a relief pitcher from Taiwan.

Interest in the sport is now global, and companies such as Easton are increasingly focusing on areas outside the U.S., said Mike May, spokesman for the Washington-based Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn.

"Sporting goods are not just sold from Maine to California," he said. "They're sold globally and they're distributed globally."

It makes sense to manufacture globally as well, he said.

Major League Baseball spokesman Mike Teevan said the league doesn't keep track of how much of the equipment used in professional games is manufactured overseas, but he said the official balls used in games are made in Costa Rica.

Easton was slower than its competitors to move overseas probably because it was until recently a family-owned company not beholden to shareholders, said Scott Krasik, senior analyst with CL King & Associates Inc. in New York.

Easton, which built its business on bats and hockey sticks, merged in February with Riddell Bell Holdings Inc., best known for its football and bicycle helmets, in a deal orchestrated by Fenway Partners Inc., a New York-based private investment company.

At the time, the companies estimated they would have combined annual revenue of $600 million.

Some analysts think that Easton-Bell Sports is getting ready for a public stock offering, Krasik said, and might be looking for ways to improve its numbers before then.

"Moving your manufacturing to a low-cost geographical location is one way to do that," he said.

Easton executives declined to comment beyond Friday's statement. News of the layoffs first surfaced on the Los Angeles Daily News website late Thursday.


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