Bryce Harper and other MLB stars swing just one bat – and it’s made in the backyard of Philadelphia

Phillies slugger Bryce Harper swings a bat from his hometown — one made especially for him by two Pennsylvania baseball fanatics.

Based in King of Prussia, Victus Sports was co-founded in 2012 by Jared Smith and Ryan Engroff in a friend’s garage, where they sanded, molded and finished the bats themselves.

In the decade since their humble beginnings, Victus have grown tremendously. It now has 44 employees and manufactures 70,000 bats per year, at the end of 2021. And its workshop, batting cages and bat artists are now housed together in a 25,000 square foot facility, which hums loudly with the sound of machinery revs. Dust flies from maple and birch “bills,” the round, raw wood hewn specifically for baseball bats.

The company inspires such devotion that the Phillies’ Harper prefers to use only Victus bats – and until he broke his thumb last month, he would have swung at the All-Star Game on Tuesday.

Harper isn’t the only Victus follower. Victus now supplies approximately 29% of MLB players, including Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres, Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Julio “J-Rod” Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners, as well as Alec Bohm, Rhys Hoskins, Bryson Stott and Odubel Herrera here in Philadelphia.

“Some people say ‘don’t meet your heroes,’ but that didn’t happen to me,” Smith said during a tour of the operation. “I didn’t expect Bryce Harper to text me for bats. He’s an awesome guy personally.

A native of Lebanon County in central Pennsylvania, Smith quit playing college baseball after an injury.

“It became an obsession to make bats and [then we] developed a business plan,” he said.

Although they began by selling individual bats to players, today Victus sells through several retailers, such as Dick’s Sporting Goods, as well as to minor league players, Little League teams and universities, and to gamers in Japan, Korea and Taiwan. The company’s reach could also extend to China, which is embracing the American hobby, Smith said.

“We focus on prospects for years. We are fans of the game, so we select the right players to represent us,” Smith said.

Victus is the second most used bat in major league baseball. The company was acquired in February 2017 by Marucci Sports, the only company with more bats in use at the majors. The larger business helped build Victus’ good faith in retail, and Victus expanded into the sale of batting gloves and aluminum bats.

Sports business pundits say that Marucci and Victus Sports together under one portfolio is a powerhouse. And in 2020, the brands were acquired by publicly traded Compass Diversified Holdings when it bought Marucci in a $200 million deal.

Sales of Victus have soared by $15 million to $20 million a year, with double-digit growth expected to continue, according to Ryan Faulkingham, chief financial officer of Compass Diversified. Its portfolio of sports equipment brands also includes Lizard Skins, a maker of bat grip products, and glove maker Carpenter Trade.

Compass Diversified’s portfolio has attracted institutional Wall Street shareholders such as Vanguard, now the second largest shareholder. Compass Diversified was also recently added to the Russell 2000 Index, a benchmark for small and medium-sized public companies; inclusion in the index means many more shareholders have to buy the stock in order to keep pace with the index.

“Marucci is classic in that players really respect the brand,” Faulkingham said. “Victus has an advantage, it’s the Victus brand.”

The first major league player to promote the Victus bats was Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles in 2012, the year Victus was created.

Jones “was an All-Star player that year,” Smith said. “He talked to other players about us and gave us orders” from players like the Boston Red Sox Johnny Gomes.

Then in 2018, Harper placed his first order while still with the Washington Nationals.

“It really put us on the map,” Smith said.

Harper then joined the Phils and “he still uses our sticks,” Smith said. ” Him and [Fernando] Tatis orders the most custom bat models.

Harper’s favorite bat measurements are 34 inches long and 32 ounces in weight.

So why do some players prefer one over the other?

The batting world “is a really fascinating industry within baseball, in that when a specific player finds success using a certain brand, they share it with their teammates in the clubhouse. Then everything the world wants to use that same bat,” said Wayne Kimmel, co-founder of SeventySix Capital, a Philadelphia-based venture capital fund that invests in sports start-ups.

In addition to custom length and weight Victus bats, Harper is one of many Victus customers who order “trophy” bats with custom paints.

Bruce Tatem is Victus’ main artist, known in the factory as “Bat King”.

On a recent visit to the showroom, he showed off what looked like a hard plastic guitar case, but inside were Harper’s custom beaters, four of which were painted with South Parkthe main characters, the Phillie Phanatic and the Statue of Liberty.

Custom bat designs are not allowed for use in major league games, where Harper swings a normal Victus bat, but he has been known to use his Phanatic and other custom bats for practice.

Victus bats are now made almost exclusively from maple and birch, after an infestation nearly wiped out the American ash tree population. Prices for wooden bats range from $140 to $200 and metal bats range from $250 to $400. But custom or limited-edition bats can fetch even more. A commemorative Jackie Robinson bat, or an autographed edition of Fernando Tatis Jr., can sell for $1,000 apiece, Smith said.

Now the company is expanding its customer base with bats specifically designed for YouTube influencers like Eric Sim, a former minor leaguer who posts on social media as KING of Juco.

Additionally, one of SeventySix Capital’s portfolio companies, Diamond Kinetics, is currently working with Victus, Marucci and approximately 20 other bat manufacturers to install electronic sensors on and inside wood and metal. This creates a data trail of each swing.

“We put sensors inside the bats or attached to the bats,” Kimmel explained. “All of this technology will be on display throughout the All-Star Game.”

One element of Victus’ marketing campaign is an on-site batting cage connected to the warehouse. It is part of the retail store operation in an office park behind the King of Prussia Mall.

Young and old alike book bat-fitting appointments and try out different weights and lengths for the best “feel,” Smith said.

“When Bryce was using the Phanatic Bat, it went viral,” Kimmel recalled. “It’s great to see how these companies market themselves, trying to share with young people how amazing baseball is.”

Neal T. Doss