Teamplayers hitting the baseball diamond

Technological advancements have allowed baseball equipment manufacturers to develop better gloves that buyers can use upon purchase. Improvements in tanning, sewing and stitching technologies have eliminated the need to break-in newly bought mitts, while new design configurations have improve their fielding capabilities. Research and development efforts have also improved the quality of wood softball bats. An example is Easton Sport’s Connexion Z-Core, which offer more batting flexibility and power.

Through technological advancements manufacturers are producing better baseball bats and mitts, allowing consumers to “play ball” as soon as they hit the diamond without wasting valuable time and energy breaking in the products.

For generations of Americans, breaking in a baseball glove was a rite of passage. However, the technological era and the impending 21st century have all but obliterated any task mandating more than a few moments. Nestling a hard ball in the rough leather pocket of an oiled glove overnight retains no appeal in an Internet -transfixed culture. Play ball means be ready to play now.

Baseball equipment makers are responding to the challenge of ready-to-wear gloves. By sourcing leather from new tanneries and devising novel custom sewing and stitching patterns, gloves today are as soft and pliable upon purchase as the coveted infielder’s mitt that conforms to a veteran’s hand.

“There is an increased demand from consumers to procure product from store shelves that can be played with immediately,” says Scott de Grasse, division manager of diamond sports for Franklin Sporting Goods.

In fact, vendors say, a recreational player leaving the office and heading for a league game can stop at the local sports retailer, pick up glove and head straight to the field with the new purchase.

“There’s nothing like a broken-in glove,” says Jim Hackett, Wilson’s business manager for baseball. “Now there is no breaking time.”

The supple, pre-oiled leather gloves are but one technical advancement stimulating sales in diamond sports equipment as baseball and softball continue to enjoy a resurgence of sales and register gains at retail and among vendors. New design configurations with bigger sweet spots and position-specific gloves touting unique pocket patterns are improving the fielding averages of both serious and recreational ballplayers.

And by offering consumers credible technical benefits without excessively elevating prices, diamond sports manufacturers are reporting strong sales increases for the second consecutive year.

Franklin, for example, will introduce a series of fielding gloves, called RTP (Ready To Play), utilizing a “special tanning process for the leather making it softer and more pliable,” according to de Grasse. Priced aggressively at $49 retail for a 100-percent cowhide glove, the RTP line also includes synthetic-based products. The company reports sell-through of as much as 85 percent for its current diamond sports products, which include fielding and batting gloves and accessories.

POWER SWINGS

Yet consumers are not ignoring highend equipment – top-of-the-line bats and gloves now carry retail prices as high as $250 – when the product technology contains viable advantages and, in some cases, is the same gear used by major league players. “For the past couple of years, we’ve been trying to address the need for more technology (in equipment),” says Matt Arndt, director of baseball and softball products for Easton Sports. Arndt expects the company’s new bat, the Connexion Z-Core, will fulfill that demand.

Due for delivery in fall ’99 and Spring 2000, the Connexion Z-Core is the result of a two-year R&D effort devising a patented process with a “two-piece bat” design, according to Arndt. By mechanically interlocking the handle and barrel and bonding the two pieces together with elastomer, the bat’s flexibility increases. And with the handle “isolated” from the barrel, Arndt says, a “huge sweet spot” is created.

In recent years Easton, which reported an increase of about 10 percent in diamond sports sales this year, has led the charge in highend bats, a strategy that will continue. The Connexion Z-Core, a black bat graphically emboldened with blue, gold and silver, carries a suggested retail of $250.

Arndt says recreational players are willing to invest in a high-end product such as Z-Core, which is designed with a graphite-reinforced inner wall inside the bat, enhancing not only the bat’s performance characteristics but also its durability. Adds Arndt, “Players don’t want to go out there and keep denting bats.”

GOLDEN GLOVES

Nor, apparently, do they want to commit embarrassing errors. To keep fielding percentages high, Wilson introduced its “Big Sweet Spot” glove last year. Based on a similar theory to its sweet spot technology in golf and tennis, Wilson’s Hackett says the glove “makes catching easier” with the prime catching spot as much as 15-percent bigger.

Hackett says Wilson’s year-to-date increase of over 30 percent in sales of baseball hard goods is largely attributable to the company’s alignment with new tanneries. “All leather glove offerings have dramatically improved with the quality, of leather and the patterns,” Hackett says.

According to Hackett, Wilson’s A2000 line featuring “Quick Stop” leather is on schedule for a fall ’99 delivery. Tanned with acrylic resin, which acts as a shock absorber, “Quick Stop” leather imposes a “dampening effect” on the rotation of a bali’s rebound and reduces the spin, Hackett says. The pre-oiled leather allows for pliability and conformity, rapidly molding to any fielder’s hand. The glove’s suggested retail will be about $180.

Mizuno USA is addressing fielding proficiency via its own glove designs, dubbed 3-D technology. Developed with data offered by an estimated 200 professional ball players, who Mizuno began gathering during spring training in 1996, 3-D patterns create the ideal pocket design for each fielding position. Available only in Mizuno’s Pro Limited baseball glove line, the 3-D gloves are crafted by hand and embossed with the company’s “Limited Edition” logo.

After celebrating the production of its 25,000th hand-crafted baseball glove at its Norcross, GA, factory earlier this year, Mizuno reported an increase of nearly 20 percent in its market share of ball gloves. Citing market statistics compiled by NPD/SMART, Mizuno says its brand accounted for six of the top-eight selling gloves in January in the U.S.

The company claims its market share is now about 33 percent and has increased 243 percent since December 1997. It attributes those numbers, in part, to more visible promotional efforts with its roster of major league players, including the Atlanta Braves’ Chipper Jones and Tom Glavine.

Many diamond sports companies are now banking on the allure of their star endorsees to stimulate product sales. While athlete endorsements have long been a facet of product marketing, some brands are offering recreational players the precise equipment used by major league players for the first time. Sold at the highest end of the pricing spectrum, vendors say they are surprised at the demand for this gear.

Wilson, for instance, now makes Texas’ Golden Glove catcher Ivan Rodriguez’s mitt available in its A2000 series. Identifying Rodriguez by his nickname, Wilson stocks the glove as the A2403 Pudge.

“You can buy his exact glove, with the black back and tan palm,” says Hackett, noting that Wilson is also marketing Braves’ pitcher Greg Maddux’ glove. “For over 50 years we’ve had the A2000. The two gloves we’ve introduced in the past two years – Pudge’s catcher’s mitt and Maddux’ glove – are already the best-selling gloves we have.”

Golf Shoes Are Making The Scene Off The Greens

Sport-specific shoes are hard for consumers to justify. It’s just not practical for many consumers to buy a shoe that can be worn for only one activity. Convenience, cost effectiveness and versatility are important to today’s multisport enthusiast.

Golf shoes are no exception. Prada has designated the classic, kilties golf shoe as an acceptable fashion item. In turn, golf shoe manufacturers are developing outsoles and styling that allow players to make an easy transition from green to club house and beyond.

The changes in footwear come as the golf industry is trying to recapture the buzz it enjoyed two years ago. According to Golf World magazine, most golf companies reported sales decreases last year. “Nineteen ninety-seven was very exciting,” said Mirco Richardson, vice president, Walter Genuin, Chicago. “But the Tiger Woods hype has not materialized. It’s set everyone back.”

Sarah Killeen, marketing manager for Nike Golf , Beaverton, Ore., agreed that Tiger mania didn’t translate into year-round sales. “It’s been a process of watching Tiger mature,” said Killeen. “He was learning how to handle the [media] attention and keep his game up under immense scrutiny. . .Retailers didn’t want to miss out and stocked up in ’97. The challenge now is to get rid of the excess inventory and get fresh product out there.”

The weather did not cooperate, either. “El Nino was a big problem,” said Killeen. “In northern California courses were closed for six straight weeks.”

Feeling the pressure, golf footwear makers have broken into two camps. Traditional companies are continuing to focus on the more serious golfer in the 35- to 50-year-old age group and addressing comfort enhancement. At the same time, athletic and new, smaller companies are targeting 14- to 25-year-olds and tempting the young-at-heart with fresh designs.

Truly multifunctional and hip at the same time, Bite Golf has changed the way retailers, as well as consumers, view golf shoes. Bite has put soft spikes on hiker, skate-shoe and sport-sandal uppers, creating some of the most creative footwear for plantar fasciitis in the industry.

Dale Bathum, president of the San Rafael, Calif.,-based company, said that although Bite mainly appeals to 18- to 35-year-olds, the attitude of the golfer is the real mark. “We have 77-year-olds wearing our shoes. We go for the adventurous golfer.”

While most golf shoes are carried in green-grass and specialty stores, Bite has made a successful leap into department and family shoe stores. “Just For Feet is doing a 24-store test, and Nordstrom’s Seattle store carries two styles,” reported Bathum.

Brett Freidman of Freidman’s shoes in Atlanta said he is offering Bite for the second year. “We started carrying them because of the casual appeal and the fact that they offer sizes up to sixteen. We put them in our current catalog. They do very well for us.”

Golf shoes in a family shoe store? Bathum explained that a lot of family retailers like the cross functionality of Bite shoes. They also perform as add-on sales. This unique approach has also attracted outdoor specialty buyers. “We are working with REI on design ideas,” he said. “We also exhibited at Outdoor Retailer for the first time. A week before the show, we were booked solid with appointments.” Bathum added, “A golf hiker makes sense. Golf is like hiking, you walk six miles through mud, tall grass and over hills.”

To build credibility as a performance product, Bite sponsors past PGA winner Paul Stankowski. “He’s 29, sports a goatee and has a young, marketable image,” Bunham described. “He’s not the same old stodgy athlete.”

Adidas Golf, Carlsbad, Calif., has also set its sites on the younger customer. Last year, Adidas offered some of the most innovative golf footwear available, including a sandal and the Mud Skipper, a spiked snow boarding-inspired boot.

Mike Terreri, vice president of sales, explained Adidas’s approach to the nonmetal spike movement. “We developed the Tour Tech, which combines the leather upper of our best selling shoe with a high-abrasion, spikeless outsole. The molded sole has a wear of about two years, depending on the wearer’s individual use.”

Spokesperson Sally Murdoch explained that Adidas would focus on green grass shops, with bold POP displays, taking advantage of Adidas’s strong brand image.

Nike is taking its athletic-performance heritage to a slightly older customer who is an avid golfer. “Sixty percent of the sales are made to 25 percent of the customers,” said Killeen. “The 35- to 50-year-old player who is competitive and at the peak of his or her earning power is our focus.”

Nike will take advantage of resources at Cole-Haan to produce styles that are contemporary classics, according to Killeen, who added that Nike will also share some basic research with the athletic side of the company. Scott Reames, communication manager, Nike Golf, offered, “Now that spikeless shoes for ladies with bunions are virtually a given, we believe the major point of differentiation between various golf footwear brands will be the basics of comfort on the course.”

Killeen said she is spending a lot of time with Tiger Woods on the development of his next shoe. “He’s a golfer first, and more of a clean, traditionalist.”

Reames added, “Although Tiger’s accomplishments on the 1998 PGA Tour were not as eye-popping as the year prior, 1999 is a new year for Tiger, and a new opportunity for Nike Golf to bring to market a line of products that reflect Tiger’s attitude and style.” With the first Tiger Woods model, it was a concept car, according to Killeen. “It was a little too much for golfing America.”

What high arch tennis shoes do Bill Gates, Bruce Willis, Janet Jackson and Celine Dion wear on the links? The answer is high-end, fashionable shoes by Walter Genuin. A successful brand in Europe, the distinctive shoes caught on in the States through pro shops at exclusive country clubs. The German-based company now has a distribution agreement with Tear Drop Sports, owners of the Tommy Armour and Ram hard goods brands. “It’s a brand driven market,” said Richardson. “We have to create awareness. With Tear Drop, we will have an advertising budget and a full sales force.”

Genuin offers soft spikes and a variety of styles, including dressy chukkas and lush wovens. The women’s collection includes hair-on calf in animal prints and apres golf mocs. Wholesale prices range from $185 to $990. Other vendors are attempting to enhance wearability. “Golfers want to put their golf shoes on at their house and not take them off until they return home,” said Jimmy Jones, founder and president, Lady Fairway, Tampa, Fla.. “However, they still want `renewable traction’ — a buzzword in the industry.”

Beyond waterproofing, spikes and cleats are also adding excitement and versatility to golf footwear. Foot-Joy added ComforTemp temperature regulation to a few styles last season and has since extended the cooling technology to many new styles this year. This phase-change agent, from Frisby Technologies, Bay Shore, N.Y., is being widely used in pack and hiking boots, and tests have resulted in a 7 degree to 8 degree temperature difference in the micro-climate of shoes.

New outdoor technology has also influenced Lady Fairway. This season, the company will also introduce its first golf shoes to feature temperature-regulating Outlast, reported Jones.

Regarding the mature market, Golf magazine reported that 90 percent of seniors wear magnets in their golf shoes. Magnets are now standard tools in alternative medicine and physical therapy. Last August, Florsheim, Chicago, launched its MagneForce shoes, which boast biomagnetic technology in the form of small magnets built into the insoles.