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Easton Unveils High-Tech Bat Lab

Baseball is a sport steeped in tradition, but one brand has staked its future on bringing technology and innovation to America’s pastime – and without endorsements from professional athletes. Equipment and apparel manufacturer Easton Baseball/Softball Inc. recently opened its 90,000-square-foot global headquarters in Thousand Oaks, which is 40 percent larger than its former Van Nuys location. The new space houses the company’s administrative, sales and marketing offices as well as its entire research and development process, making its operation completely centralized. It does all sports equipment design, testing and prototyping on site and has a dedicated showroom for each product category to meet with retail partners, teams and sports organizations. “What really sets Easton apart is just consistently leading in innovation,” said Todd Harman, executive vice president of Easton Baseball/Softball. “Every major high performance bat design that’s been brought to market in the last 40 years has been brought by the Easton brand first.” The company pioneered the aluminum bat in the late 1960s by developing the technology that made metal a viable option. Ever since, Easton’s baseball division has focused on improving technology to enhance player performance, which is epitomized in Easton’s test facility. Homerun marketing The Hit Lab is Easton’s 15,000-square-foot indoor testing and training center that hosts athletes at all stages of the game who test products prior to market. The facility is fully equipped to conduct rigorous performance evaluations for products using a system called HitTrax, a program that captures the dynamics of the interaction between the ball and bat. The HitTrax computer screen, which sits next to the batting cages, displays a virtual baseball stadium that illustrates where the ball hypothetically would land on the field. The system also records swing speed, batted ball speed as well as ball speed coming off the barrel of the bat. “As we are working with athletes both here in the Hit Lab and then out on the fields across Southern California, we are incorporating feedback from those athletes,” said Harman. “Things that will make their game better and performance features that they might like to see in new products – we are taking that information and combining it with all the measurements and data we’re capturing from them hitting and incorporating that data information into our product innovation process, which ultimately brings new Easton products to market.” Athlete testing can take a year or more before Easton finalizes a design. Even though the company spends a lot of money and time on this process, bringing in athletes from across the country, Easton never reveals the names of the celebrity testers. It focuses its marketing efforts on the quality of the product as opposed to who tests it. “It changes the paradigm in that it’s not the athlete who makes the product great, it’s the product that makes the athlete great,” said Andy Abramson, chief executive of marketing firm Communicano Inc. of Del Mar and longtime sports marketer. “For example, I’m hitting better because I’m using an Easton bat. Therefore, Easton bats make people better hitters.” He said Easton is a product-centric brand that chooses to invest in bettering equipment – which includes bats, gloves and helmets – as opposed to a professional-athlete sponsorship. ‘Weekend warriors’ In the past, the brand has inked a few celebrity endorsement deals, including homerun hitter Sammy Sosa prior to a 2003 game, when it was discovered he was using a corked bat. Abramson warned of this issue in regard to endorsements. He said a brand is at risk if the athlete does something wrong or has a bad performance year, limiting the company’s control of its message. “We have all seen what happened when O.J. Simpson and Tiger Woods fell from grace and how fast brands sought to distance themselves from them,” he said. Conversely, Henry Eshelman, managing director of marketing agency Platform Media Group of Los Angeles, who has worked on product campaigns for Kim Kardashian and other celebrities, said star power is great for marketing because America is obsessed with celebrities. However, he also warned that there must be a direct connection between the celebrity and product for the endorsement to work. “It comes off poorly if it doesn’t feel right,” he said. “If they want talent to participate in something, they need to be relevant to the brand.” This may be part of the reason why Easton does not use celebrities to advertise its products as professional baseball still only uses wooden bats, which the company prototypes and manufactures at its Thousand Oaks headquarters. (See “Easton’s Wooden Bat Factory.”) Easton is best known for its aluminum and composite bats, which retail from $24.99 to $479 and are used in adolescent through college levels. For its marketing strategy, the company partners with national organizations like Little League Baseball and Softball and the United States Specialty Sports Association to help grow participation in the diamond sports, which also leads to an increase of customers. In addition, by working with these groups, Easton can ensure its equipment complies with association league standards, resulting in higher recommendation and adaptation of its products. “The amateur leagues regulate the bats,” said Matt Kovacs, president of Blaze PR in Santa Monica and former Easton publicist. “Working closely with them and having access to them helps Easton survive and thrive. The marketing strategy is to get elite athletes and hardcore athletes to use their products and weekend warriors will follow.” The design, prototyping and testing for all Easton products takes place at its new Thousand Oaks headquarters. However, the company also manufactures its wooden bats there, making it the only Easton product that is completed from start to finish on site. Three types of wood – soft maple, hard maple and northern white ash – are used to make the bats. The manufacturing process begins at a computer, where the bat is designed. Then, that computer file is sent straight to an automated wood lathe, which will cut the wood into a bat in about a minute. From there, the bat is sanded, dipped in paint and etched with an Easton logo. The facility can produce about 800 bats a day. They are primarily used by elite players in wood bat only summer leagues and tournaments. Play ball! Despite the closures of specialty sports retailers such as Sports Authority Holdings Inc. and Sport Chalet Inc. along with the rise of discount vendors like Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc., Easton remains the number one baseball and softball brand in North America with an estimated 27 percent continental market share, according to its parent-company Performance Sports Group Ltd.’s 2015 annual report. The Exeter, N.H.-based company, which also owns other sports brands like Bauer, Maverik and Combat, purchased Easton in 2014, a year before its move to 3500 Willow Lane in Thousand Oaks. Currently, the company is consolidating its baseball operations under the Easton brand by reducing its Combat-brand product offerings. Founded in 1922, Easton also has significant businesses in other sports such as hockey, lacrosse and archery. Its Thousand Oaks operation is solely focused on baseball and softball and improving technology in those areas. Just last year, the company launched its Power Sensor, a swing motion sensor that attaches to the bat and records swing metrics and provides performance analysis. It’s the brand’s first of its kind to help hitters increase power and efficiency. The device was selected as the official swing sensor of the Houston Astros earlier this year. Meanwhile, Easton continues to look for future innovations. “We are testing some advanced concepts that will come to market in the time period from 2018 to 2020,” said Easton’s Harman. “There are some very futuristic and very innovative ideas coming out of here.”

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