Champions of Innovation

June 18, 1999
All-star sporting goods compete for the Sports Product of the Year trophy

The second annual tourney of sports products heeds 20 of the most imaginative sports products selected by NBC’s gadget guru Andy Pargh. Five NASDAQ-AMEX Sports Product of the Year finalists were selected by buyers attending the Super Show sporting goods exhibition this February in Atlanta. Members of the media have cast their votes to determine the winner. At press time, no single winner had been announced.

“The NASDAQ-AMEX Sports Product of the Year competition is a great vehicle for sporting goods manufacturers to showcase their innovative ideas and new products,” says Mike May, director of communications for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. “It’s a unique way for smaller companies to publicize their creative talents, and the Sports Product of the Year competition allows the buying public a sneak preview of what new items the industry has to offer.”

And so entrepreneurs made journey to the Super Show with visions of QVC, Sharper Image, and ballpark souvenir booths dancing in their heads. We’ve taken a look at the five finalists and several semifinalists.

Snowboard on wheels
The Mongoose All-Terrain UniCamb 117 board (ATB) is set to cure snowboarders’ summer-time blues. The board, from Mongoose All-Terrain Board, Anaheim, Calif., lets riders enjoy grassy slopes, dirt trails, or asphalt streets in lieu of snow.

“Our boards are the closest thing to riding a snowboard, without actually being on a snowboard, that is available in today’s sports marketplace,” says Evan Lipstein, president of Mongoose All-Terrain Boards.

A snowboard is controlled with heel and toe pressure. A channel truck system with two springs on opposite sides of a central pivot lets this board articulate further than a traditional skateboard-suspension system to mimic a snowboard, Lipstein says. The wheels of a traditional skateboard are beneath the deck. The Unicam has wheels at the tips of the board with the deck between and lower than the tops of the wheels. This lets the board articulate to almost 45°.

The board has a combination spring-suspension system similar to the shocks used in mountain bikes. A urethane elastomer, or spring dampener, is placed inside the springs to make the board stiffer and more stable at higher speeds.

The 14-mm-thick, Canadian maple deck is convex, but levels and stores energy when the rider mounts the board. Unleashing this stored energy lets riders “olly” the board, skater lingo for bouncing down and then using the rebound energy to go higher in the air.

The bottom of the deck is coated with ABS plastic for protection and also to make it slick for rail slides. In a rail slide, the skater jumps the board onto a curb or hand rail and slides with his feet on opposite sides of the rail. A t-nut mounting is used instead of a binding rod, which would stick out from the bottom of the board. So, short of a small washer, the mounting is flush with the bottom which makes for good rail slides, according to Lipstein.

Two-ply rubber tires with air-filled inner tubes grip the riding surface. More air in the tires equals less resistance, while tires with less air tend to grip the road better.

“Customizing tire pressure to the terrain that you’re riding and your ability level is really important in riding our product,” says Lipstein.

The board has ABEC 3 bearings with a rubber bearing shield, height-adjustable bindings with a Velcro closure, and a leg leash so it doesn’t get away.

Girl power
The Schutt ponytail batter’s helmet helps even the playing field for females at bat. The hard-shelled ABS softball helmet features a patented ponytail port in the back. The port is formed by a break in padding where the shell curves outward for hair to comfortably spill out. The Women’s pro fast-pitch league currently uses the helmet.

Pamela Ryan, of Mendota Heights, Minn., generated the idea after coaching her daughters’ softball teams.

“It became apparent that one of the biggest obstacles these girls realized was that most of them, probably 80 or 90%, had ponytails. There really wasn’t anything that would accommodate an extra bunch of hair in the back of the head because everything on the market was designed for boys,” Ryan says.

She filed for two patents, the ponytail channel design that Schutt Sports, Litchfield, Ill., picked up, and another for a notch cut out of the back of the helmet.

“The bottom line is the girls can put the helmet on and wear it how it is designed to protect their heads at the maximum level.” No adjustment is needed before slapping on the helmet, which comes in 13 molded colors and five styles.

Practice makes perfect
Batters can hit repeatedly without chasing after the ball when using the Stroke Coach from The Stroke Coach Co., Statesboro, Ga.

When hit, the ball and arm swing around a vertical axis pole and return to the original position, ready to be hit again. The height is adjustable, as is the rotating swing arm so left or right-handed batters can use the device.

Company owner George Wilcox invented the Stroke Coach and heralds it as a “Why didn’t I think of that before” idea. The product was originally designed to let tennis players tune their stroke, but also works for baseball batters. Wilcox is currently developing assorted arm attachments for perfecting swings, kicks, and punches for tennis, karate, football, softball, hockey, golf, and soccer.

Several models are available, but the Coach model is hot right now, Wilcox says. It can be used indoors on suction cups, or staked down outdoors with augers.

The Stroke Coach eliminates the cost of practice balls. Only one ball is needed, and the Stroke Coach offers two options. One is a polyurethane ball with a molded bolt that remains stationary when hit. Another version has a molded bolt with a frame that lets the ball rotate so the batter can put top spin or slice on the ball.

With the bushing used, the device is able to withstand the force of a baseball bat, which Wilcox says is the toughest force it must endure.

Wilcox says the company presently is working on electronics to read the bushing travel.

Gem of a grip
Darren Maynard claims he was “tinkering, plain and simple,” when he stumbled onto the Diamond Grip, a finalist for sports product of the year. When a couple of his friends in the Major League saw the sandpaper surface that bonds to various sports grips, they were impressed, Maynard says.

The resulting Diamond Grip Pro-grip from Maynard Sports, Ringwood, N.J., was designed to give baseball players good tack and increased ball control. The Major League-approved grip is applied in a “Power-V” pattern to distribute it where needed most. The draw hand holds the bat the tightest and needs the most grip. The forehand is more for control, so there is 50% grip coverage under it. The grip is applied directly to ash bats and is available in half, three-quarter, and full length for both gloved and barehanded hitters. An aluminum bat version has micro dots of diamond grip on either polyurethane or leather, and similar versions for golf and tennis have varied degrees of abrasiveness.

“When you get into the smaller grit sizes, it provides firmer traction without causing damage to your hands,” says Maynard. The exact grit size is a secret, but Maynard reveals that the grit is in the aluminum-oxide family. Aluminum oxide has a more rounded edge than silicone carbide, giving firm traction without causing abrasion.

Sky’s the limit
Athletes who enjoy racquetball and squash, but can’t stand waiting for court time may want to check out Skyball from Skyball International Ltd., Vaduz, Liechtenstein. The finalist is a racquet-and-ball game with a portable court. The concave, UV-plastic rebounding board breaks down into three pieces which can be stowed with other Skyball equipment in an over-the-shoulder bag. A catch net is provided so players don’t have to chase after the “out” shots.

The equipment was designed with versatility in mind. The ball has just enough bounce to play in the 4 3 4-m court. It is large enough for beginners to hit, but not so large and dense to challenge serious players. The short-handled racket is lightweight, letting players easily switch from backhand to forehand and make quick drop shots and smashes. The short handle allows better head control for cuts and top spin. With such a small playing area, the head of the racket was adapted so as not to hinder or hit the opposing player.

Good sports
Listed below are the five finalists and 15 semifinalists in the NASDAQ-AMEX Sports Product of the Year Competition.

Skyball, Skyball International Ltd.
Diamond batting grip, Maynard Sports
Stroke Coach, The Stroke Coach Co.
Mongoose UniCamb 117 all-terrain board, Mongoose All-terrain Boards
Ponytail Batter’s helmet, Schutt Sports

E-Z Reader golf ball,
C.N. is Believing
Dri-Froghopper, Etonic Athletic
Tennis Ball Charger, Gamma Racket Sports, SET USA
Hydrator NTS moisture-managing fabric, Hind
Hi-Tec Manta watersport shoe, Hi-Tec Sports USA Inc.
Cooper’s catcher’s helmet/faceguard, Irwin Sports
Baby’s First Club, LaJolla Club Golf Co.
Snoopy Golf Club for Kids, LaJolla Club Golf Co.
Lucky Catch cap,
Lucky Catch Sports
HydraMist Pak,
Misty Mate Inc.
Vortex Power Bat,
Oddz On Inc.
Sigma Sport PC6 heart rate monitor, Sigma Sport USA
Sportogo inflatable safety goals, Sportogo Inc.
Glove Radar, Sports Sensors Inc.
Teva Wraptor trail-running sport sandal, Teva Sport Sandals

Grand-slam designs
Little-league baseball players can put themselves in home-run record-breaker Mark McGwire’s big league shoes when they step up to the plate with the Vortex Power Bat at hand. The toy bat and ball set from Oddz On Inc., Napa, Calif., has a pressurized high-impact, oversized barrel. The set was designed to build confidence with a large sweet spot on the 4-in.-diameter barrel promising power hits. In tests, nine out of 10 swings resulted in a hit.

The barrel of the bat is stretch blow-molded PET, as is a 2-liter soft drink bottle. PET is strong, but internal pressure is what gives the bat strength. A PVC combination plug and gasket fits into the neck of the bottle. It is covered with a PET cap that screws down and smashes the seal. The cap must be PET to expand and contract with the bottle during temperature changes.

A hypodermic needle is inserted into the cap and used to fill the barrel with air. Even though it self seals, a redundant plug and PVC plug are placed on top. To make sure the bat is not leaking, a trace amount of helium is mixed with the air and tracked in leakage tests. Terry Sanchez, development engineer, reports zero leakage during manufacturing.

PET is used for its durability, but it tends to want to extrude out of its nest. To prevent extrusion, a bead of hot-melt glue holds it in place.

The outside of the ball is polyurethane foam over a compression-molded “superball” type of core. Compression-molded rubber gives the ball some mass for big hits.

“Young kids can swing the bat because it’s light. They can get good bat speed,” says Sanchez. “It has a large barrel so they have a good chance of making contact with the ball. Because it’s pressurized, it has a trampoline effect and bounces the ball off the bat giving it an extra pop.”

The Sports Product of the Year judges didn’t overlook defense. Any ball glove can be turned into a radar speed gun with the Glove Radar, according to its Cincinnati-based maker Sports Sensors Inc. The Glove Radar is a small, low-cost velocity sensor which attaches to a baseball or softball glove and measures the speed of the ball just before it is caught. The company claims accuracy within 1 mph of more-expensive radar guns. The device’s radar is microprocessor controlled and indicates calculated mph on an LCD. It has been successfully tested at more than 100 mph.

The radar measures speed a few feet in front of the glove. And it takes some hard hits, which has prompted some modifications.

“The attachment system was giving out on us, not the electronics,” says Al Dilz, president of Sports Sensors. The company recently changed the attachment system from an elastic cord and hooks to a seven-strand nylon braided cord 1⁄8 in. in diameter that threads through the glove laces and ties on. Handling a broad range of glove spans and velocities has proven to be a real design challenge, Dilz says. With the new attachment system, he says, “Little guys aren’t going to tie as good a knot, but they get slower balls.”

The radar runs on a 3-V lithium battery that can handle 5,000 throws. The transmitter shuts off after 20 sec to conserve energy. A microprocessor-controlled on-off circuit times the transmission interval. Dilz says he is considering producing an international version with kilometers per hour.

Another spin on the traditional ball glove comes from semifinalist Lucky Catch Sports in Custer, Mont.

As Mike Austin ducked from a baseball shot into the stands at an Angels game in Anaheim, Calif. in 1980, he started brainstorming for a way to grant an ordinary baseball cap a double life as a mitt. After six prototypes, the Lucky Catch Cap was born. The front of the cap peels open revealing pockets for the fingers and thumb. Padding behind the front panel of the cap protects the hand when going for a home-run baseball.

The top panel pulls down flush with the brim when worn as a cap. The idea is to have it look like a regular cap. When the cap is removed from the head, elastic headband material cups out. Austin designed the slots to fit either a left or right-hander.

Austin discovered the cap would need a stronger-than-normal crown button during testing at the World Series. So, the Lucky Catch cap uses a hard snap button. And to accommodate embroiders who want to sew logos on the front panel, the elastic strips are attached to the under panel with Velcro, rather than being sewn on, for hats manufactured without a logo. These hats can fit on an embroider’s hoop. Austin says his marketing goal is to get into Major League ballparks.

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.

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