New innovations constantly find their way into even the most traditional sports.
Editor’s note: This story appeared in our June 2009 issue.
By Mike Drummond
Breaking into any established market with a new invention isn’t all fun and games, even in the best of economic times.
And cracking the sporting goods and professional sports markets, with their Byzantine array of exclusive licensing deals and good ol’ boy networks, can make introducing new products in these segments even more daunting for independent inventor-entrepreneurs.
On top of that, it turns out the industry isn’t recession-proof.
The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association reported that total manufacturers shipments of sports gear, fitness equipment, sports apparel and athletic footwear in the United States were $66.3 billion (wholesale) in 2008, compared to $68.5 billion in 2007, shrinking 3.2 percent.
It was the first contraction of the industry since 2003, when total wholesale shipments fell by less than 1 percent.
The size of the sporting goods market is big, “but not as big as many think it is,” says Mike May, the SGMA’s director of communications. Moreover, “there are far fewer retailers than there were before,” he adds, so those developing new sports products “have fewer opportunities.”
Dr. Kim Blair, who runs the Sports Innovation program at MIT, says beyond fiscal and market realities, innovators of sports technology and products sometimes must ponder larger philosophical questions as well.
He recalls serving on a panel at a sports business conference at MIT, which focused on new technology and what it’s doing to sports. One of the people attending asked if technology could replace baseball umpires.
“The question really is, as we look at the way technology is used relative to sports, is not so much can we,” says Blair, “but rather should we.”
Advances in performance-enhancing drugs have bulked up ball players and helped shatter records. Is that a good thing? Instant replay in professional football offers another example. Is getting the call right 100 percent of the time worth the delays in the game?
Yet May of the SGMA notes, “there’s always room for another new product.”
In fact, new products help drive the sporting goods market.
“You never see ‘new and improved’ on sporting goods,” May says. “It implies the product you currently have isn’t state of the art.
“The industry is always reinventing,” he adds. “Sneakers, for instance, are light years ahead of where they were 20 years ago.”
Indeed, new innovations constantly find their way into even the most traditional sports – who doesn’t like the virtual strike zone box or the radar gun in baseball?
Inventors Digest took a look at three sports-related products from independent inventor-entrepreneurs. While none has turned a profit – yet – the ongoing experiences of these three illustrate some of the tenants of innovation and business. Namely, developing innovative technology, partnering with smart people and expanding your initially defined market can create opportunities.
The promising takeaway we got from these three inventor-entrepreneurs: each is pressing on, armed with what they believe are sound plans and clear vision.
ID Coach – Ping & Play
Isaac Daniel was born in Britain, but the dude knows American football.
His passion for the game has inspired him to take GPS tracking technology his company developed for the military and incorporate it into his favorite sport.
This year Isaac launched a wireless play-calling device called ID Coach. Players wear wrist receivers with protected thin digital screens. Coaches send in plays via a Blackberry-like device. The plays appear on the screens – diagramed in Xs, Os and routes.
Traditionally, only quarterbacks wear the sets of plays – typed and color-coded – on wristbands. Isaac and his team at Miami-based Isaac Daniel Group envision all players on both sides of the ball wearing ID Coach devices.
The National Football League has an uneven history of technology adoption. Today’s helmets certainly are far better than the leather brain buckets of yesteryear. Coaches now communicate with team captains on offense and defense via wireless headsets. But they still largely communicate from the sidelines with hand signals and use human chain markers to track first downs, just as they’ve done since 1906.
“Conventional football,” Isaac says, “needs a makeover.”
The company is targeting youth, high school and college football leagues. That’s where the volume business is. But the priority is winning over the NFL. Win over the NFL, and you can woo other markets by fiat.
“We would like to get into the NFL for obvious reasons,” says Mike Stibila, the company’s chief operating officer. “Exposure and credibility.”
The Isaac Daniel Group unveiled its technology at a pre-Super Bowl event in Tampa, Fla. Broadcaster and former Cincinnati Bengal QB Boomer Esiason was the host. Other NFL players, including Antonio Gates, Brady Quinn and Donovan McNabb, demonstrated the ID Coach and posed for photos with Daniel.
The company was in discussions with the NFL as of this spring.
“We pray that we get a lot of investors,” Daniel says. “Our goal to be a U.S. manufacture of this technology.”
ID Coaches allow all players to receive the same instructions, improving on-field communication and potentially diminishing penalties and obviating crowd noise.
“You get a diagram of the play,” says Stibila. “Every position knows what to do.”
Daniel says NFL owners and coaches would be more inclined to play high-priced rookies strapped with an ID Coach, rather than park them on the bench until they master the playbooks.
Daniel estimates total revenues from sales to various football markets will top $80 million by 2011.
One version of its wristband technology shows Madden-like video clips of plays. The company hopes this can spur consumer sales by motivating kids to “get off the couch and back into the game.”
“This technology,” says Daniel, “is ready for this moment.”
X10 – Batter Up
Joel Crowson was always inventing stuff as a kid. His dad used to tell him to stop pipe dreaming.
Crowson’s friends started calling him Piper and Dreamer.
But he still kept inventing.
Today, Crowson is marketing the X10, a batting swing trainer some two decades in the making.
The device houses a high-tension tether that’s hooked on the end of a bat. The X10
builds strength, muscle memory and swing consistency. It’s lightweight and portable and can be mounted to a chain link fence or a door.
“I’ve learned that I’m pretty good at staying after something if I believe in it,” says Crowson, a former building contractor who now works for nonprofit Employment Development Services in Louisiana. “I’ve run into many roadblocks along the way.
“Developing a product is not cheap,” he adds. “I never had a lot of money. I’m married and have three daughters, so there’s not a lot of spare change lying around. And I learned I can’t do everything myself.”
He turned to Tim Leaptrott for help. The two met more than 25 years ago, when Leaptrott was stationed as a B-52 pilot at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La. The death of a mutual friend a few years ago reunited Crowson and Leaptrott.
Crowson, 51, was still tinkering on his batting swing trainer. A deal with a potential manufacturer had cratered. Money was tight.
Leaptrott, who had seen a crude prototype of the device decades ago, saw promise in the product. The former pilot had worked in the banking industry. He called on those in his financial circle in Williamsburg, Va., and previous investors, and helped Crowson form Titan Athletic Group in 2008.
The nascent company saw an announcement in the Virginia Gazette for a business-planning contest.
“We entered to get some experience,” says Leaptrott, who serves as Titan Athletic’s senior vice president. “Lo and behold we won.”
Top prize included free office space for a year. It also opened angel investor networks and caught the eye of product-development firm BuildMyProduct.com, which has engineered a multi-resistance version of the X10.
Titan Athletic is positioning the X10 as a strength conditioner and targeting youth ages 12-18.
Little League Baseball alone had some 2.2 million players worldwide in 2007; Little League Softball counted about 336,000.
The unit is expected to cost $250. The company will sell the product directly from its Web site as well as through major catalogs, clinics, camps, tournaments and infomercials.
Hopes were to have the X10 for sale this spring, in time for baseball season. “Everything,” says Leaptrott, “takes a little longer and costs a little more” than expected.
At the time of our interview, the company was still debating where to have the X10 manufactured.
“If you do it overseas, there’s a significant time delay and language barriers,” Leaptrott says. Although more expensive to make domestically, “We thought if we could do it in the States, it’s more advantageous time wise. Anything we can do here to help in these times would be great.”
Meanwhile, Crowson is finally seeing the vision of his batting swing trainer take shape. In reaching out to Leaptrott and others, Crowson acquired the expertise (and money) he didn’t possess to commercialize a product on his own.
However, he also violated a long-standing axiom – never go into business with friends or family.
“I think every issue is resolvable,” Crowson says. “You gotta be willing to want to listen. You have to try to get the other person’s perspective and they have to be willing to do the same and then you all weigh which is the wisest way to go.”
Crowson is still dreaming of the day his product hits the market.
So, what about his dad, the one who got after him for chasing pipe dreams? He seems to be OK with his son’s commercial venture. So much so, in fact, he became an investor.
Titan Water Bottle
Jared Joyce showed me a prototype of his sports water bottle in February 2008.
More than a year later, I heard from him again.
“We’re supposed to be on the market in April,” he wrote me last March. “But we’ve had some delays that make me think it will be more like July.”
Delays and setbacks are nothing new for Joyce’s Titan water bottle, which allows you to open and chug with one hand and clip the whole thing to a carabiner or belt loop.
Joyce, 28, has been working on the Titan since his days studying architecture at Montana State University in Bozeman.
He made nearly 100 prototypes before he was about to go into production on one version. Then he learned Walmart and other potential corporate customers wouldn’t buy bottles with mouth openings that contained metal springs.
So he made adjustments.
Vowing to steer clear of safety issues, he sought to have his bottles made of non-toxic copolyester plastic, rather than polycarbonate containing Bispheonol-A or BPA, the chemical suspected of causing breast and prostrate cancer, diabetes, hyperactivity and other serious disorders in laboratory animals.
When news about BPA dangers rattled consumers last year, Jared figured he was ahead of the curve.
What he didn’t figure on was that Eastman Chemical Company, the only supplier of Tritan copolyester, would keep his order on hold while it fulfilled requests for market leaders Nalgene and CamelBak.
Both those companies target athletes, the health conscious and eco-friendly types. The BPA uproar compelled the companies to abandon BPA for the same material that Joyce wanted.
As of April he was still waiting.
But time has given him an opportunity to reevaluate his target market.
He had been fixated on the feature of the clip, which would enable mountain and rock climbers to access the bottle dangling from carabiners.
Climbers, however, told him they didn’t like bottles dangling from them while they’re clinging to vertical rock faces.
The BPA scare and subsequent production delay has forced Joyce to look at the benefits of his bottle for a wider audience.
He inked an infomercial deal with Incredible Discoveries, which will begin selling the bottles once Joyce can get them made.
“This will be targeting those who watch TV,” Joyce says. “Moms who care about families … that’s a much larger market than the initial recreation market.
“Ultimately,” he adds, “the Titan water bottle will be used indoors. We spend most of our time indoors.”
He’s gone from developing a sports bottle to (hopefully) marketing a family bottle, even as established industry giants are selling essentially the same thing.
Yet he remains undaunted. Joyce has two full-time employees and four other projects brewing. Would he do this all over again?