Balancing innovation, human elements
Patent applications are pending for equipment in almost every sport
Dick Rugge remembers being rendered almost speechless when his childhood hero Arnold Palmer turned to him, shook his finger in his face and said, "The biggest mistake the USGA ever made was to allow grooved clubs in the game."
That was in January 2001, just nine months after Rugge came to the U.S. Golf Association. Nine years later, as its senior technical director, Rugge would oversee a rule change banning certain large-grooved clubs that officials felt were making it too easy for pro players to hit balls out of the rough and de-emphasized the skill of driving accuracy.
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The change caused uproar in golf circles, and it provided yet another example of how an innovation in sports equipment can get fouled out, harking back to last year's decision by international swimming officials to ban certain high-tech suits that helped swimmers break records at the 2008 Olympics.
Innovations are constantly nipping at the heels of almost all major sports, forcing a debate over where to draw the line between advancing the competition and diminishing the importance of an athlete's own ability.
"Evolution is just one way to making it easier to play. There are times where we have to draw the line," said Rugge, who used to work for TaylorMade Golf inventing new products. In fact, some of the clubs he worked on in the 1990s ended up on the banned list. "In this case, it was appropriate to go back," he said.
All of this debate creates a quagmire for those hatching the new ideas, from the engineers in major research and development departments at companies such as Nike and adidas to the rabid sports fan and part-time inventor hammering out a new device in his basement or garage.
There are about 6,600 pending applications with the word "golf" in the name filed with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, of which 1,900 are related to golf balls. Baseball-titled applications number 290, basketball 221, hockey 217 and football 135.
For what seems like a relatively simple device -- a hockey puck -- there are 22 applications alone.
"It's not just about pounding out a piece of rubber," said Kris King, the NHL's senior vice president for hockey operations, who adds that the league already has an official puck manufacturer. "It just goes to show you that there are a lot of hockey fans out there who would like to be part of the game. And that's kind of neat."
Examples range from Nike's pending patent of a football with raised edges to help improve grip, to an already patented field goal training device devised by two brothers and stonemasons from Massachusetts.
Inventors of sports equipment face unique challenges that include the backlash of purists and the myriad of rules and regulations imposed by pro leagues and governing bodies, whose acceptance is crucial to the product's appeal and the inventor's, or company's, bottom line.
Pro leagues will be more receptive to innovation if they feel it can help attract or retain fans, maybe through higher-scoring games, or if there's an outcry over a particular safety concern, such as the recent focus on concussions in football that have led to testing high-tech impact-sensing helmets in the NFL, said Scott Minto, director of the sports business MBA program at San Diego State University.
Generally, though, "Leagues would like to keep consistency of performance. Ultimately, that's what attracts viewers and what attracts dollars," Minto said. "I think a status quo is ideal for a lot of sports organizations."
The human element
In NASCAR, for example, some of the most game-changing innovations have been in safety, such as head and neck restraints for the drivers and crash safety barriers at the tracks. The cars themselves are kept fairly standard, with some drivers even labeling design changes implemented in 2007 as "too boring."
"In our sport, the drivers are the stars," said Brett Bodine, director of racing research and development. "The cars aren't designed to be the stars. Our focus is on the drivers and their ability to showcase their talents to our race fans."
NASCAR's 100-page design specification rulebook is also geared to ensure that cars on the track -- models by Ford, Dodge, Chevy and Toyota -- mirror what the average racing fan might have parked in his or her driveway. (That, along with fuel efficiency, is why the sport is considering moving from carburetors to fuel-injection engines -- a switch the industry made for consumers in the 1980s.)
"You or I can go buy a Camry or an Impala," Bodine said. "The more that [race cars] have a tie to the car you and I drive every day, the better it is for our partners and our race fans."
But that's not to say that teams don't try to push the envelope, he said.
"You talk about a fine line between being as competitive as you can and going over that line and breaking the rules," he said. "That's been a part of the sport forever."
Sport regulators are constantly being pushed to try new things. Some players will try to sneak new equipment onto the field, the court or the greens despite all the protocols.
Rugge said the 17 workers in the USGA's equipment lab test more than 2,500 clubs and 800 balls per year to determine whether they conform to the rules on distance and other performance factors.
Less equipment-intensive sports get fewer requests. The NFL's competition committee considers only about six or seven new ideas each year, said Ray Anderson, NFL executive vice president of football operations. If an idea merits further study, the company will be asked to demonstrate its product and the league will want to test it in a lab and on the field, likely in a scrimmage or preseason game, before it gets approved for prime time, he said.
Out of ongoing concern about concussions, the league is debating the use of sensor-rigged helmets that measure impact and transmit the information to trainers via wireless hand-held computers.
Sensors and wireless technology also power a similar concept in which a computer chip in the football can determine precise field position, possibly ending the drama of waiting for the chain gang and referees to make the call on close first downs.
"There's a proposal that at some point every player on the field will have a communication system in their helmet so you don't always have to huddle," Anderson added.
Although the technology is intriguing, Anderson said he doesn't like how it takes so much of the "human element" out of the game, even if it could make rulings more precise.
"Something for me that's appealing to the game [is] the various folks running around making some judgment, from the chain crew to the umpires, and the spotting of the ball," he said. "The old farts like me will say, 'Oh you've taken away some of the ceremony,' but the new progressive-thinking folks will say, 'This is exciting because it's all pure.'"
Although they get a lot of attention, the James Bond-like high-tech devices are actually rare among the new products and ideas cropping up in locker rooms and practice fields. Those are more likely to involve a new material, a new accessory, or a tweak to an existing piece of equipment or apparel.
In the NBA, a breakthrough innovation can be merely a matter of weave. Adidas, the league's official apparel provider, recently developed a new compression undergarment made of overlapping polyurethane "power bands" designed to increase muscle power, improve endurance and reduce fatigue.
The company claims the material can better a player's vertical leap by 4 percent, which can make a tangible difference in performance, said Christopher Arena, vice president of apparel and sporting goods with the NBA Global Merchandising Group.
Arena said, though, that the real on-court benefit might come from the athlete simply feeling more confident in the new shorts, especially the padded version.
"If I'm a guard going in, I'm not as fearful that I might get a thigh contusion," he said, "so I'm more willing to step in front and take a charge."
Although minor improvements can mean big changes in performance, they also can lead to big controversy, such as the popular Speedo LZR Racer swimsuits worn at the Olympics and later banned.
In the USGA ban of certain grooved golf clubs that went into effect Jan. 1, the furor was over mere millimeters. The detailed math and measurements boil down to a reduction in backspin that makes it more difficult to hit out of tall grass.
"An easier solution would be to grow the rough a little higher," said Luke Epp, a former standout golfer at Purdue. After college, he worked for four years at Callaway Golf, and he's now getting a graduate degree in sports business. He said that it's tough for manufacturing companies to adjust to new rules and that rule changes to rein in performance could put a chill on development.
"Innovation is big, but what I've seen recently is that I feel, with the USGA rules and limitations, that we're getting very close to hitting that ceiling," he said.
But Sean Toulon, executive vice president of innovations at TaylorMade Golf, disagreed and said golf is actually in a "golden age of innovation."
Toulon doesn't necessarily believe that changes such as the new groove regulations will make the pro game any more interesting -- "to say we launched balloons and had cake around the office would be incorrect" -- but he doesn't see the new rules as stifling club design innovation.
"When we get an obstacle that gets presented to us, our job is to try and solve issues and challenges in different ways. It just makes us work harder," he said. "The USGA has not taken innovation out of play. They've really encouraged us to innovate more."
Examples of devices
Cutter's Gloves: A sports glove -- primarily for football -- made with a proprietary material called C-Tak that improves and retains grip.
Inventor: Jeff Beraznik, 40, Phoenix
Inspiration: Beraznik seriously injured his finger playing college football in Ontario, Canada, and had to wear gloves his senior season. He found a pair of brownish-orange industrial bulky gloves, the kind that glass cutters wear. They were thick and sturdy enough to protect his injured digit. His teammates laughed, until they tried them out for themselves.
Evolution: Today's Cutter's gloves are more tailored gloves and are made with C-Tak, a material that gives the gloves their durability, their unique grip properties and makes them easy to clean. Cutter's line of football gloves has expanded to include baseball, golf and rugby. Cutter's gloves were even worn by the 2010 U.S. Olympic bobsled team. The company also makes custom gloves, including a four-fingered glove for a college football player in Colorado who had his injured pinkie amputated so he could finish his senior season.
Into the pros: Cutter's faced several hurdles in getting the NFL to allow players to wear its gloves. Because of the NFL's exclusive licensing agreements with other apparel companies, only certain companies are allowed to have their logos on the field. Cutter's has had to continually modify its gloves to comply with what seems like ever-changing NFL rules to hide the logo or any identifying features, Beraznik said. He said once when the league told equipment managers that Cutter's gloves were banned because the mandatory NFL emblem on them was in black and white -- and not red, white and blue -- the company sent red and blue markers to its players so they could color the logo into compliance themselves.
Player testimonial: Anquan Boldin, wide receiver for the Baltimore Ravens, started wearing Cutter's gloves three years ago after a teammate suggested he try them before a game in Minnesota. "My hands are huge, and the bigger the glove you wear, the more scrunched up the glove get in the palm of your hand. With Cutter's you don't have that problem," he said. "It's more like an extension of my hand and it's perfect for my grip. As a receiver, you want to feel like you're touching the ball with your hand without actually touching it with your hand." Boldin also said he has to wear gloves because he blocks a lot and he doesn't want his fingers to get jammed.
Numbers: Cutter's won't say how many gloves it sells, but it does employ 200 operators in Sri Lanka who are making gloves six days a week as well as 26 independent sales representatives and 20 employees at its Phoenix offices and warehouse.
Marucci Bat Co.: wood bat.
Inventor: Jack Marucci, 46, Baton Rouge, La.
Inspiration: In 2002, Marucci used a basic wood lathe and whatever woodworking skills he remembered from the ninth grade to make his 7-year-old son a better-fitting bat for his Little League team. The personalized ash wood bat became a novelty on the boys' team, and was soon in demand among his son's friends.
Evolution: Marucci, who works full-time as director of sports medicine at Louisiana State University, had been an assistant trainer at Florida State, where he befriended player Eduardo Perez, who played with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2002-03. Perez wanted to try out some of Marucci's bats, and the next thing he knew, Perez was swinging one at a game in Busch Stadium. "I was very nervous," Marucci said. "You didn't know if its integrity was going to hold up."
Into the pros: The calls started coming in and soon Marucci's customer list was looking like an All-Star lineup. When Manny Ramirez called in 2004, Marucci made him three bats and put the initials "CB" for "curse buster" in front of the model number to break the so-called Curse of the Bambino, which the Red Sox did that year by winning the World Series. Last season, 278 of the 800 players on Major League rosters were swinging a Marucci bat.
Player testimonial: Chase Utley, second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, picked up his first Marucci bat at the end of the 2006 season upon the urging of teammate Ryan Howard. Utley said Marucci's bats are superior because of the quality of the wood.
"At this level, you're always looking for some type of edge. The harder the bat, the more you feel like you're going to be successful at the plate," he said. "The wood he sent me is extremely hard. It makes me a little more confident, a little more comfortable at the plate."
Utley, who estimates he's gone through 15 dozen bats in three years, said he also values Marucci's willingness to make subtle, custom changes to his bats and deliver them right away. "With other companies, if you ordered a dozen bats on Monday, you might get them three weeks down the line," he said. "With Jack, if you order a dozen bats on Monday, they'll be in my locker that weekend."
Numbers: The company, which started in a shed behind Marucci's house, now operates out of a 10,000-square-foot warehouse and owns a wood mill in Pennsylvania from which it gets its premium maple. It churns out about 20,000 bats a year, still hand stamping and hand painting every one.