By Steve Bittenbender and Jussi Rosehdahl
LOUISVILLE, Ky./HELSINKI (Reuters) - One of the biggest deals in U.S. baseball this spring may be the $70 million purchase on Monday by a Finnish company of the Louisville Slugger brand, a name synonymous with the sport itself.
The rights to the Louisville Slugger, the market-leading wooden baseball bat in the United States after over 130 years in business, are being acquired by sporting goods company Amer Sports.
Amer Sports, the parent of Wilson Sporting Goods, is paying U.S. equipment maker Hillerich & Bradsby Co in cash for the brand and intellectual property, executives for both companies said.
Amer Sports, whose brands include Wilson tennis rackets and Salomon skis, said the acquisition would improve its underlying operating profit margin. The Louisville Slugger brand reported sales of $75 million last year.
Under the agreement, H&B will continue to manufacture the wood bats at the company's manufacturing facility in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. H&B also will keep the Louisville Slugger Museum, which is housed with the plant and corporate offices.
Over the years, the name Louisville Slugger has appeared in songs, movies and television shows becoming a synonym for a baseball bat like the brand Kleenex is for facial tissue.
Rumors of a possible sale were reported earlier in March.
"We were surprised to a certain degree, especially when you consider the iconic nature of the Louisville Slugger brand and how entrenched it has been in the sporting goods industry for almost 140 years now," said Marty Maciaszek, communications director for the National Sporting Goods Association.
Maciaszek said an increase in the number of bat makers in recent years has made it harder for sporting goods companies that focus heavily on one sport, like H&B, to compete.
Louisville Slugger also has been a target for numerous lawsuits tied to injuries sustained by youth baseball players in recent years.
In 2012, H&B was part of a $14.5 million settlement with a New Jersey family whose son suffered brain-damage after being struck with a baseball hit off a Louisville Slugger bat.
"Every time you're involved in distractions like that, it takes resources away," John A. Hillerich IV, H&B's chief executive officer, told a news conference on Monday.
Last year, Amer reported sales of 2.2 billion euros ($2.40 billion) and a core operating profit of 114 million euros.
(Reporting by Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky, and Jussi Rosendahl in Helsinki; Editing by Susan Thomas, Mary Wisniewski and Andrew Hay)