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Sporting goods manufacturer pivots to activewear masks

by Steven Mross | May 17, 2020 at 4:00 a.m.
Employees of Vulcan Sporting Goods Co. and its parent company, Tanners Team Sports, from left, Sheila Lamera, Akiel Byers, Justin McDaniel, Gina Andrews and Brandon Nugent, display new face masks the company is manufacturing that are designed for athletes and fans to control the spread of the coronavirus. - Photo by Richard Rasmussen of The Sentinel-Record

While the COVID-19 pandemic had some businesses lamenting "game over," one local sporting goods company famous for its baseball and pickleball products found a way to go into extra innings and come out on top.

Tanners Team Sports, which also manages the in-house brand Vulcan Sporting Goods Co., at 736 Mid-America Blvd., managed to "pivot" and develop a "high-quality face mask" after the coronavirus pandemic abruptly ended the spring baseball season, Vince Signorelli, the company's CEO, said Thursday.

"The first and second quarters of each year are our busiest time for shipping baseball gear," he said, noting Tanners has been "growing aggressively," especially in the last two years, and was "winding up a record first quarter" by mid-March when "suddenly the bottom dropped out" due to the pandemic.

"Right as we neared the peak of our shipping season, in a matter of days baseball at all levels was put on hold," he said. "Our major customers like Walmart, Academy Sports, Dick's Sporting Goods, Target and most of the others all canceled their open orders and stopped placing their weekly replenishment orders."

While the company's e-commerce customers remained strong, mainly for "stay at home, play at home" backyard gear like batting tees and practice nets, Signorelli noted the second quarter of baseball "is softer than I have ever seen in my 30-plus years working in sporting goods."

The company's Vulcan brand, which offers pickleball products, has been softer too, he said, but "not off as much as baseball." However, all of the venues to play are closed and all the tournaments through June canceled.

When the economic crisis started, he said, "The first thing I did was go through all the stages of grief, but because I am a business leader I had to do it quickly, which means I did it on a Friday and Saturday and then Sunday I went to work."

He said the company's management team spent several weeks designing a financial plan to ensure the survival of the business "regardless of how bad things get in 2020." He said he "took a long hard look" at the business and tried to imagine what could keep the company going and help with the coronavirus response "during this strange time."

Some of the Vulcan Sporting Goods Co. "performance wear sports masks" on display at the company's headquarters at 736 Mid-America Blvd. - Photo by Richard Rasmussen of The Sentinel-Record
Some of the Vulcan Sporting Goods Co. "performance wear sports masks" on display at the company's headquarters at 736 Mid-America Blvd. - Photo by Richard Rasmussen of The Sentinel-Record

Signorelli said they first looked at producing hand sanitizer, converting their baseball glove oil production line over to it, but securing raw materials proved "extremely difficult," so they looked at making masks which "as I predicted were going to be needed in sports."

He said not only could Vulcan make them, they had the customer relationships and distribution channels to sell them.

"To develop the masks, I turned to our company's fashion agency in Chicago, and together with their owner, she and I worked tirelessly to design not just any mask but a mask for our customer, a mask that athletes can wear and still perform," he said.

"After the design and testing phase, just three weeks later we were in production and distributing masks. Keeping our employees working -- and the apparel company's employees working -- was very intentional and a passion-project for me and the owner of the fashion agency," he said.

A lot of masks people are wearing are made from inferior materials, he said. "Even the well-intentioned homemade masks just do not provide proper protection." He said their masks have been tested and proven to exceed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for protection.

"You can hold it up to a light and over 90% of the light is blocked. You can place one under a faucet, and the water spills out rather than going through," he said. "These masks have very serious protective qualities, particularly if you sneeze while wearing one."

He said the quality of the high-performance activewear materials also make the masks lightweight and "super comfortable" with "zero chafing," and "best of all, they are breathable."

Signorelli said people have asked if a mask should be worn while exercising, and "the answer is yes and no." For example, while jogging alone, a runner can lower their mask to breathe better, but if they encounter other people, they should put it back on until they are alone again.

In baseball, coaches are going to require players to wear masks as part of their essential gear, he said, noting, "Our masks with around-the-head elastic allow a player to leave his mask around his neck while playing left field, but when the half-inning is over, he jogs back to the dugout with his mask in place."

He said their masks stay in place while active and are the only ones specifically designed for athletes.

Signorelli said he thinks face masks are going to be part of "our new normal" for the foreseeable future. "Definitely the rest of this year and for 2021 and perhaps even longer, depending on the design of a reliable vaccine."

While selling masks to all their major national customers, Signorelli noted they have also received bulk orders at wholesale prices locally from many groups including the Bank OZK Arena, Garvan Woodland Gardens, Mid-America Science Museum, health clubs, assisted living facilities, and a wide variety of other businesses.

"I really like the Visit Hot Springs mask we are making with their new 'Hot Springs, Arkansas' logo," he said, noting they also donated masks to The Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce and Metro Partnership, Project HOPE Food Bank and Ouachita Children's Center.

"I think with the coronavirus crisis, there are businesses that navigated things well, and those who struggled or sadly even folded, perhaps due to some underlying problems with their companies. I think Crystal Ridge Distillery did a fantastic job quickly converting their production over to package hand-sanitizer. They are busier than ever and now thriving through this tough period," Signorelli said.

"And I am proud of our company and how we too seized the day and developed solutions to not only survive but to try and thrive. I think as business leaders, we work together to try and find ways to keep our people employed so that we can return to the good times again," he said. "These are rare times and I can't help but marvel at how the American spirit is alive and well right here in Hot Springs, Ark."

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Local on 05/17/2020

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