More Boing for the Buck
Jay Bevenour

More Boing for the Buck

Want to make your high-powered colleagues down at the club think you've lost your competitive edge and corporate marbles? Try out this pitch the next time you run into a couple of venture capitalists while sweating over your "friendly" game of lunchtime squash:

"Boys, I've been an athlete all my life, so I think I know the market as well as anyone. Combine those years of keen observation with my can't-miss business acumen, and this is what I come up with: We can become rich beyond our wildest dreams making...balls and sneakers."

Um, well, yes. But who in this wide world full of sports gizmos (you can now buy a tennis racquet with an embedded electronic chip that will dampen shock) could possibly think that what today's athlete needs more than anything is a new sort of football, or a fresh model of sneaker? Haven't we learned anything from John DeLorean's misplaced chutzpah?

Maybe. But at its core, sport is a simple thing, and so Del Turner is on a quixotic quest to claim the Boing as his own. "We're talking David and Goliath, the mouse that roared, the little engine that could," Turner screams over the phone. "They're alluding to springs all over the place and yet they say springs won't work! They're saying 'Boing,' and they've got people jumping over basketball hoops in their ads! But they're lying about having springs!"

"They" would be the evil wizards at Nike, the non-mouse-like Goliath of the athletic-shoe-making business. The company's latest product blitz (it sold about $9 billion worth of athletic gear last year) is a new sneaker that implies a certain extraordinary springiness. It has pared its multimillion-dollar Shox campaign down to a simple, monosyllabic tagline: "Boing."

Turner, on the other hand, represents a company called Z-Tech, the upstart inventor and manufacturer of an odd-looking but -- supporters insist -- revolutionary new sneaker. His beef is that, unlike Nike's new shoe, his company's Z-Coil uses a real spring to cushion impact.

"Nike," he repeats, "uses non-spring technology."

Impact resistance and springiness -- if not actual springs -- have probably been the most defining developments in modern athletic footwear. The simple notion of inserting a squishy airbag into the soles of sneakers (and then advertising them with Beatles songs and a promising young basketball player out of North Carolina) essentially created the Nike corporation of today. Since then, competitors have raced to pump their own unbeatable concoctions of flexible gel, air and complicated plastic composites into their shoes.

Nike claims that its Shox shoe was sixteen years in the making; its origins trace back to 1984, when a Harvard professor recommended placing springs in shoes. The springs, he suggested, could even be fine-tuned for peak individual performance. But after years of evaluation in its state-of-the-art Materials and Mechanical Test Lab, Nike's brightest shoeologists concluded that actual springs were not feasible. So last year, the company delivered its best facsimile: shoes with urethane-based foam pillars sandwiched between plastic plates.

However, Nike's scientists weren't the only researchers trying to jam springs into their shoes. The idea also grabbed an Albuquerque retiree and fanatical runner named Alvaro Gallegos. One day, as his brothers were comparing their Nikes and Reeboks, Gallegos scoffed that he could almost certainly make a better running shoe.

The initial prototype was constructed by taking an existing shoe to the local butcher, slicing open the sole and inserting a spring. Since then, Gallegos (and Turner, of Meeker, who joined him two years ago as marketing director) have become a bit more sophisticated, at least purchasing their own band saw. The shoe they have come up with looks, frankly, silly -- a sort of high-heeled sneaker with a spring in place of the stiletto. (Turner naturally disagrees: "They're just damn comfortable and cool to look at.") But testimonials from U.S. Army soldiers, podiatrists and other bipeds insist that the shoe is the greatest thing to pound the pavement since waffle treads flopped out of track coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman's toaster oven.

Regrettably, bad timing has taken some of the spring out of the nascent company's step. Shox flooded the shelves a few months ago, just as Z-Tech was planning an initial public offering of its stock. Last week, calls and faxes flew between the company's New Mexico offices and its lawyers, contemplating whether or not to sue Nike over false advertising that could reflect poorly on the Z-Coil. On Monday, Z-Coil's suits requested a cease-and-desist order preventing Nike from claiming that springs won't work while at the same time implying them in their ads.

"They allude to a spring; 'boing' implies a spring, and it sure looks like a spring. But they're lying; it's not a spring at all," Turner fumes, adding unnecessarily, "It's a polymer plate with a disc in between."

Taking on a company like Nike -- one that prides itself on its edgy, slick and screw-the-cost advertising -- won't be easy. Yet as he takes his legal fight to the Beaverton, Oregon, Nike campus, Turner might take heart from a couple of local boys who looked at the sporting goods market and discovered a simple consumer need. In 1992, Randy Jones and Mike Oister, two thirty-something guys from Colorado, were playing a game of backyard catch when they had a Galileo moment.

While contemplating their pigskin, "It just occurred to us that the quality wasn't there," recalls Jones. "The ball's laces were terrible; the surface of the ball was terrible." The older, heavy bike-tire-like rubber air bladders of the 1960s had been replaced by thinner, cheaper urethane bags. In other words, with all the accoutrements out there designed to enhance one's football performance, the thing that was missing was the ball itself.

Plus, adds Oister, "The existing prices were over-inflated. So was the emphasis on endorsements and licensing."

The two set out to learn everything they could about balls. They bought all the models made by the titans of the various games -- Wilson, Spaulding, Rawlings -- and dissected them. They took trips to Asia, where most of the globes were manufactured. They examined the old, sturdier models that they remembered from their youths. Finally, in 1993, in a warehouse in north Denver, they formed R.A.M. Sports and started making their own.

Since then, sales have more than doubled annually. (Figures from 2000 aren't available yet, but the now-renamed Classic Sports Companies sold $13 million worth of sporting balls in 1999.) The company just signed a deal with Major League Soccer to provide all of the professional league's game balls next year. Combined with in-store sales, the deal could move close to a million balls.

Last year, the new ball company surpassed Nike in sports ball sales. Oister says the company has become so recognizable in its seven short years of doing business that retail warehousers Wal-Mart, Costco and Sam's Club recently came calling. It is a fine measure of Oister's and Jones's success that Classic Sports has turned them all down. "We want to sell to people coming into a store looking for balls," says Oister, "not just someone buying a ball on impulse."

Recently, Las Vegas hosted the world's largest sporting-goods trade show -- modestly known as The Super Show. There you could stare in wonder at the Arctic Blast personal air conditioning system, or the Kicksports device, which lets a player know electronically when he has struck a soccer ball with optimum efficiency.

You could also take a gander at the Sports PC -- "an interactive multisport modular backboard system" -- and the Original Magnetic Golf Glove, which contains "rare-earth neodymium magnets inside a Velcro back strap to help fight fatigue and discomfort".

Any or all of these products may create a sports sensation someday. A fortunate few could (if you believe the promos) revolutionize athletic training as we know it and grant their inventors a quick retirement. The next Hula-Hoop or personal-heart-monitor-with-computer-readout or interactive rowing machine is always just a few feet around the corner.

In the meantime, there is a certain comfort in knowing that underneath all the innovation and gadgetry lies the plain truth that the greatest joys in sports and sweat remain the simplest. When it comes time to step onto one's own personal field of dreams, the best seducement is still a ball and a pair of sneakers.


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