The sports and their products are under attack, but baseball and softball innovation hums right along

Despite strong price points, good margins and steady participation numbers–especially for women’s fastpitch–many in the baseball and softball industries are glad 2002 is almost over. During the tumultuous year, Olympic organizers announced they may drop both sports from competition, and major league players and owners were embroiled in very public labor strife. Moreover, certain parties are seeking to bar aluminum bats from amateur competition, with the final vote on the first statewide ban likely to come in MA this month. But the discord did not slow innovation; 2003 products show that the two sports’ vitality remains strong.

Aluminum bats, which have seen price points triple in recent years, remain the category leader in innovation–and controversy. In the late ’90s, as research and development teams advanced performance, the price points of aluminum bats steadily rose. Consumer demand was in step with technology and pricing, but in ’02 the market leveled off and many experts predict it will remain stable for the foreseeable future.

The talk surrounding aluminum bats, however, is anything but stable. In October, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s baseball committee recommended that metal bats be banned from all games. The committee voted to switch to wood bats for the state tournament, and a vote this month will completely phase out metal bats as the ban will be extended to regular season games. Although the state’s baseball coaches voted 17-1 to retain aluminum bats, their vote has no impact.

In New York, powerful city councilman James Oddo has been behind an initiative to ban “non-wood” mens softball bat from play in the city’s five boroughs and beyond. Oddo has said that if New York were to pass this legislation, a domino effect would ensue, and communities around the country would follow the city’s lead.

All this controversy, however, has not slowed R&D, and several companies plan new products for ’03. For example, DeMarini will introduce two fastpitch bats, the Doublewall Fastpitch and the Ultimate Fastpitch, as well as the F2 for slowpitch. The Doublewall uses two independent layers of metal separated by a layer of power fluid which creates a springboard effect. The Ultimate uses a profile that allows placement hitters to put the ball in play more often. The F2 is the first bat to combine an aluminum barrel with a light composite handle, allowing players to swing faster with less effort.

Innovative gloves have also caught their share of attention. Akadema’s Reptilian has a near-fingerless design with an air pocket that acts as a shock absorber during initial ball contact to speed up glove-to-hand transfer. The design allows for better scooping of ground balls and the snakeskin-like material reduces ball spin in the glove.