Ages 6-12 CaseStudy Kid-hatched Basketball Scores Three-Pointer

Hands-on Basketball, dreamed up by Christopher Haas for his elementary school’s invention fair, didn’t win a prize. But it did win the support of a distributor and sold 23,000 units in the first two months of this year. That’s almost two-thirds of the 40,000 units sold in all of 1998, says Al Gutierrez, retail brand manager at Sportime, the company that bought the idea and created a family of products around the idea.

Three factors have contributed to the product’s success: retail distribution, marketing play at the right industry events and free publicity created through personal appearances and public relations.

Haas, the son of two former basketball coaches, says he’s been playing the game since he could walk. Coaching his friends, he saw shooting flaws in the way they held the ball. So he dipped his hands in poster paint and imprinted them in the correct position on the ball. When his friends improved, Haas (then 9) knew he was on to something.

Fast Break Distribution

But it proved easier to invent the ball than to sell it to a distributor. It took two years and a dozen rejections, until Haas got the thumbs-up from Atlanta-based Sportime. Together they refined the design, adding the feature that makes the junior-size ball different from Wilson and Baden models – a third hand print in the middle lets the ball adapt to right- or left- handers.

Sportime primarily buys physical-education products and resells them through catalogs to schools and camps.

Launched in January 1997, the basketball “immediately became one of our best sellers,” says Duane Puckett, VP of sales for Sportime, which introduces 50 to 75 products each year. “Our casual goal in ’97 was to sell 50,000 balls.we surpassed it,” he says.

Breaking into retail was the next challenge. The company had only one product that sold at retail – a softball line that it recently bought.

Puckett’s team tested the product at the February 1998 Super Show (Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association) and at Toy Fair. “Of the 25 major [sporting-goods retail chain] accounts we targeted, we cracked about 10 of them,” he says. Sportime also took the basketball to the shows of the National School Supply and Equipment Association and National Sporting Goods Association.

Netting Retail Support

Prior to the Super Show and Toy Fair, Sportime sent 2,000 brochures to sporting goods and toy stores. It also bought three ad insertions in magazines that target buyers and dealers in those industries, including the pre-Super Show issue of Sport Trends.

Magazine ads promoted more than the basketball, showing a line of sporting equipment designed for kids. “We put three products in the same package. That’s the key to gaining shelf space,” says Gutierrez, adding that one product may not be enough to gain retailer support.

The product was picked up by 150 retail chains, says Gutierrez, including mass merchants and specialty toy chains like Toys “R” Us, K-mart, FAO Schwartz, Imaginarium, Zany Brainy, Fred Mayer, Meijer Inc. and Noodle Kidoodle.

Kids and parents buy the ball. “Parents seem to be buying the basketball for their kids the most,” says Roger Lee, Washington, D.C.-area manager of Imaginarium, who bought one for his 5th-grader. “But we have sold some to kids. At $12.95, the price is excellent when you compare it to a Wilson or other basketball that costs $35 or $40.”

Full-court Press

Prior to the trade shows, Sportime also sent out 200 press kits to editors who’d attended the sports and toy shows previously. The mailings and public relations efforts turned into ink in USA Today, People, Sports Illustrated for Kids, National Geographic World, People and Young Entrepreneurs, among others.

Additional publicity comes from the inventor-turned-celebrity. Haas, 14, has appeared on “The Today Show,” ESPN, American Journal, on two California TV stations, and on two radio stations. Haas, from Murrieta, Calif., travels to promotions during months off from school.

One such personal appearance was sponsored by Planet Hollywood, which invited a class of underprivileged Altanta kids to receive coaching, lunch and a basketball.

“Chris was receiving so much publicity, it’s hard to tell what came from where,” says Dennis Morgan, Haas’ business agent. “It was the compilation of all of our efforts. Publicity feeds on itself and comes in surges.”

Haas also wrote a book about his invention and step-by-step marketing experience for other young aspiring inventors. Called “Shooting for Your Dreams,” the $10 book contains his product survey, inquiry letter and information about getting a trademark.

Turnovers for 1999

Sportime is using last year’s experience to fine tune its retail strategy. It fell short of revenue expectations in 1998. This year the marketing plan for the basketball and football include less effort on mass merchants and more on specialty stores. With mass merchants (except for Toys”R” Us), the company faces prohibitive price and delivery pressures, inventory demands, and a knockout punch by competitor Baden, which introduced a kids’ line at price points that were 25 percent to 35 percent lower Sportime’s, he adds.

(Duane Puckett , Al Gutierrez, Sportime, 770/449-5700, Christopher Haas, 909/677-7338, Dennis Morgan, Morgan Marketing Group 310/891-0951, Roger Lee, Imaginarium 301/260-9130)

COPYRIGHT 1999 Phillips Publishing International, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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