SAN DIEGO — For the 50-plus Perfect Game All-American Classic athletes, sitting in a room with Nike baseball gear that the public hasn't even seen yet provides an element of intrigue. For Nike product managers, it represents opportunity.
"It is invaluable for us to hear the kids' direct feedback on product that you are hoping they will buy," says Kevin Franks, Nike's product line manager for baseball accessories. "To hear them tell you this is going to work and this is not going to work, it helps us build a better product."
Split into smaller groups of about half a dozen, the athletes rotated through a mix of Nike focus groups on their first evening of the Perfect Game event in San Diego, taking turns discussing equipment, apparel and footwear.
As the athletes walked into the equipment room, Franks encouraged them to pick up one of about six brand-new batting gloves. The athletes tried them on, switched between the pairs, provided feedback on gloves that haven't yet been released and, in some cases, not yet even finalized.
Franks used his time to get initial reactions on fit, materials, durability and what the athletes felt was most important in equipment. Discussions strayed into mitts, protective gear and even stirrups—the athletes were jazzed for the freebie stirrup they received—with a free-form back and forth discussing the pros and cons of the brands the players wear.
Kris Leeper, apparel product manager, says that working with high school athletes often allows him to get perspective from kids who use a variety of brands and products, a far different reality than most of the professional players. "It is fun to talk to these guys because they do have different experiences," he says. "I used to have to really make a point for them to be honest with me, but they seem to be really honest and that helps a lot."
In the apparel room, Leeper explained the different fabrics in use for Nike's performance baseball gear and showed off some of what was still to come in 2018. "As a product manager, meeting with athletes is the most important thing we do," Leeper says.
He says that Nike aims to design product based on the needs of athletes and having athlete opinion to fall back on steers product in the right direction.
Along with equipment and apparel, the Perfect Game athletes also made a stop in the footwear room. They received a full immersion in the October 2017 release of the new Huarache cleat and discussed everything from wearing turf shoes to practice to the most important aspect of a cleat—whether comfort, aesthetics, weight or durability—and from colors to collar heights.
All along the way Nike took in the feedback as the athletes got a first look at entirely new lines for 2018, highlighted by new Vapor and Mike Trout cleats.
While the players fawned over future gear, they provided feedback Nike needs to create the next wave of baseball gear.
Tim Newcomb covers gear and business for Baseball America. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.