For glove and money

• Nike bets baseball mitts, other pro gear will help sell more shoes

As the baseball season began this year, more than three dozen major league players raced onto the field wearing brand-new Nike gloves Ñ one of the shoe giant's latest lines of sporting equipment.

But this is a new-product story with a twist.

Nike Inc. doesn't expect to make more than a pittance in baseball equipment sales. Instead, the gloves are part of the next big move by the company that keeps redefining corporate marketing.

Why does a company with more than $9 billion in annual sales bother to develop a new line that, at most, might bring in a mere $20 million? Because everywhere there's a popular athlete, that's where Nike wants to be.

Think of it this way: Companies like Missouri-based Rawlings Sporting Goods, the longtime leading maker of baseball gloves, sign on big-league baseball players in order to sell more gloves, but Nike created gloves so the company could sign on baseball players.

Nike slaps its logo on its fledgling sporting goods lines and enlists professional athletes Ñ particularly those who will get the most television 'face time' Ñ to use them. Each time the swoosh shows up on TV, Nike is that much closer to selling more shoes, and clothes, and on and on.

'It creates a subtle brand awareness, and in the long run it hooks people more to other Nike products,' said Teri Meyer, who follows Nike for financial firm D.A. Davidson's Lake Oswego office.

'It's going one step further to grab a bigger piece of the pie,' added Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.

This weekend, the company will get even more TV time in another sport. Tiger Woods, for the first time in competition, teed off during Thursday's Masters tournament using a Nike driver.

Woods' buy-in proves that Nike's sporting goods aren't strictly cosmetic. Professionals will use only top-of-the-line equipment, and Charley Stobbs, who manages Nike's team sports category, said the company works hard to meet the pros' specs and demands.

Stobbs comes from a baseball family. He's the son of Chuck Stobbs, a longtime Washington Senators pitcher.

'He's the answer to a trivia question,' Charley Stobbs said. 'He gave up a famous home run.' Pause. Then, sheepishly: 'To Mickey Mantle.'

The 565-foot blast in 1953 is still the longest Major League homer ever measured.

Big-league branding

Charley Stobbs' office features a number of accouterments celebrating the national pastime, including a Harmon Killebrew bat and several jerseys. Like a Little Leaguer waiting on the bench for his turn at bat, Stobbs fidgeted during a recent interview, trying on gloves and gripping Nike's new baseballs, which the company will introduce later this year.

While it's clear that Stobbs is smitten with baseball, it's also clear that his department represents a speck in the company's product petri dish.

'We're a very small group at Nike,' Stobbs said, asked whether Nike wants to run its smaller equipment competitors into the ground.

'Our focus is on the athlete and on quality products. It's not on Rawlings and not on Wilson.'

It is, instead, on developing another hallmark marketing strategy. In its early days, Nike sales reps bird-dogged amateur track meets, passing out shoe samples and T-shirts to top runners.

In the 1980s, Nike took a different sales tack, creating shoes and designing promotional campaigns around individual athletes and their personalities. Ads featuring Michael Jordan, produced in part by Portland's Wieden & Kennedy, and the Air Jordan basketball shoe linked the player and the company indelibly in America's collective psyche.

Soft sell

Swangard said the newest, equipment-based selling strategy could provide branding recognition beyond even Nike's expectations.

When it comes to baseball equipment, part of that strategy involves Nike's quirky take on the gloves themselves.

The basic look of baseball gloves hasn't changed much since the early part of the 20th century: They're brown, they have straps, it's hard to tell one brand from another.

Nike believes its gloves, in contrast, will explode off the television screen, the result of colors not seen in gloves since some makers briefly added hues in the 1970s.

The idea is that the consciously sartorial gloves can be matched to a team's uniform. St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies players, for instance, could use vivid red gloves, while Chicago Cubs players could accessorize with deep blue.

Those who have tried them say Nike's soft gloves also are easier to break in than other mitts.

In terms of big leaguers, Nike wants to get the gloves in the hands of middle infielders and pitchers.

A hurler like Cleveland Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia, a bear of a talented young man at 6-foot-7 and nearly 300 pounds, provides a valuable easel for displaying the swoosh. When Sabathia pitches on national television, he's shown at least 100 times.

'When you have a pitcher with the Nike swoosh on the back of his glove staring in from the mound, it's terrific branding,' said Noah Lieberman, a Chicago-based reporter for the SportsBusiness Journal and author of an upcoming book on baseball gloves.

Nike generally signs on players like Sabathia during its spring training visits. The company, though, may have missed a big opportunity in its own back yard. Portland Beavers manager Rick Sweet said the company sent no reps to the minor league camp of the San Diego Padres, the Portland Beavers' parent team.

'I know they signed up (Padres star) Phil Nevin, but they have not done anything with our players here at all,' Sweet said. 'I've got two guys in the infield, (second baseman) Cesar Crespo and (third baseman) Kevin Eberwein, who are going to play in the major leagues shortly.

'With us being in Portland and their headquarters being here, I thought they'd be looking for players like that,' Sweet said.

Batter up

Nike could seek input on its gloves from Beaver players later this summer, Stobbs said, wrapping up the interview. Despite his engaging demeanor, it was clear he'd rather be playing baseball on a sunny April day.

'It's time to go take some batting practice,' he said.

And he left, harboring hopes that Nike's newest strategy will be a hit.

Contact Andy Giegerich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.