Sporting goods outfit sees fit to conform to new rules of game

June 12, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

A baseball player is more likely to remember his first glove than his first kiss.

The almost spiritual trip to the sporting goods store with his father to buy it. The awkward first game of catch with the new, stiff leather. The soaking, the oiling, the rubbing -- the ritual of molding the glove to his hand, forming the pocket that will trap the ball with a solid "pop." The intimacy of his relationship with that glove -- it is part of him. On his worst day, it will catch the ball for him.

Imagine, then, what it is like for the little girl whose first glove is the one her brother has outgrown. Her hand cannot find where it belongs inside it. Her wrist snaps down with the weight of it. Her coach shouts at her to "squeeze the ball," but her hand -- easily a third less strong than a boy's her age -- can't make the leather respond.

Is it any wonder she tosses the glove in the dirt and goes off to play with something that will not defeat her the minute she picks it up?

Anne Flannery's job is to help Spalding Sports Worldwide develop a glove for that little girl -- and lots of other sporting goods for girls and women. And they won't be hand-me-downs from some guy.

"We are not going to knock off a men's product and paint it pink," says Ms. Flannery, manager of women's athletics for Spalding. "We are not going to sit around over coffee and dream up what women athletes need. We're going to ask them and then we are going to make it for them."

The participation of girls and women in sports has exploded in the last 20 years. But the manufacturing and marketing of the equipment they use has not kept pace. Softball uniforms that look like her dad's pajamas. Cleats a woman practically has to stuff with tissue. Tank tops with arm holes so large your bra shows. Bats that are too heavy and with grips too large. Volleyballs and soccer balls too stiff and hard. For girls and women, there is no right stuff.

"Spalding is not in this because it is the right thing to do," says Ms. Flannery. "They are in this because it is a business decision. You have to make this be successful as a business. That's the language that men understand."

Basketball was Ms. Flannery's green card into the world of sporting goods and marketing. She was the leading scorer at Syracuse in 1982-83 and she played professional ball for two years in Europe.

Her life has been inspired by her mother, Jane, Anne's coach and P.E. teacher all through school, and the woman who went to state officials in Albany, N.Y., in the mid-1970s to demand a girls basketball league for her school, succeeded, but received a letter of reprimand from her school board for going over its head.

After earning a master's degree in sports management, Anne Flannery spent five years in the leadership of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, promoting her sport. It was from there that Spalding recruited her to speak to women.

"Women make 70 percent of the sporting goods decisions in this country. There are a lot of moms out there buying and yet they walk into a sporting goods store and feel like they don't belong there," Ms. Flannery says.

To begin, no more models, Ms. Flannery says. Spalding sporting goods will be promoted by women athletes. "We have Natalie Williams from UCLA. An All-America in volleyball and basketball. She's the Bo Jackson of women's sports right now."

And, she says, Spalding will educate the athlete.

"Women athletes have been conditioned to make it fit, to make it conform to our needs. And we've been ingenious. Two batting gloves inside the mitt, that kind of thing. We have to develop credible products for women."

This has been a conversion process for Ms. Flannery as well. "When they went to the smaller ball for women's basketball, I was initially reluctant. 'Here we go,' I thought. 'Women are lesser. Women have to have an inferior ball.'

"But I realized we needed a product designed to fit who we are. And the growth of women's basketball has mirrored that change."

Three weeks ago, Anne Flannery addressed a national sales force meeting for Spalding and confided to the men her recurring nightmare.

"I dream that I've developed this softball glove with fringe, lipstick that pops out of the thumb, a compact off the back.

When you catch the ball, perfume sprays out. And the glove is pink."

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