Going to Bat With a Dream and a Patent
By Laura Pedersen-Pietersen
“I THOUGHT I was a boy until I turned 12,” recalls Pamela Ryan, 42, an inventor and a mother of three girls. “I’d wanted to be a quarterback.” These days, as Rosie the Riveter’s granddaughters take to the playing fields, such dreams no longer sound so farfetched. And in part to support her daughters in the sport of their choice, Ms. Ryan has developed and marketed a batter’s helmet for women. The helmet, made with a special “channel” to accommodate a ponytail, is one of five finalists in the 1999 Nasdaq/Amex Sports Product of the Year contest. The marketing of the helmets demonstrates how serving the evolving needs of girls and women can create new business opportunities. It also reflects — and benefits from — the nation’s growing concern with preventing head injuries. Since Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 barred sexual discrimination at schools receiving Federal funds, playing fields have been made fully accessible to girls and young women. There also has been a major shift at the professional level. The Women’s National Basketball Association and the American Basketball League have started up, and women’s team sports were spotlighted at the last two Olympics. Ms. Ryan herself is now a member of the Women’s Sports Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group based in East Meadow, N.Y. Growing up in Mankato, Minn., Pam Ryan, nee Sheehan, wasn’t just dreaming about winning a Super Bowl ring; she wanted to “put something on the shelf that didn’t exist before.” Her epiphany came in 1983 when she and her husband, Michael, were coaching the softball team of the oldest of their three daughters, who was then 6. “It was ridiculous,” Ms. Ryan said. “There were so many equipment problems — the bats were too heavy; the helmets were too big and didn’t fit right. The girls couldn’t just stand up and concentrate on hitting the ball.”
But she temporarily benched her musings on athletic equipment while she raised her girls and completed her political science degree at the University of St. Thomas. As her girls grew and became more active in sports, Ms. Ryan decided that a good place to start was with helmets. “I don’t think there is a man out there who understands what it’s like to wear a ponytail under a helmet unless he’s had long hair himself,” Ms. Ryan said. She was driven to action when, in 1992, during her work as a legislative lobbyist for the Washington-based American Plastics Council, she happened across a study showing that girls who are athletes use less alcohol and drugs than nonathletes, become sexually active two to four years later and are more likely to graduate from college.
It took Ms. Ryan four years to refine her ideas and have helmet prototypes made by a local company. “I was constantly having my daughters and their friends run around the backyard testing helmets,” she said. “They got very tired.” NEXT she applied for a patent, an expensive and time-consuming process with no guarantees. “The smartest thing I ever did was to hire an excellent patent attorney,” she said. “I got what I paid for.” She received her patent in 1996, which she promptly framed and hung up at home. While the patent was pending, she formed a company, Designer Sports, to develop her business. “I researched manufacturing the helmet myself and found that with the phenomenal amount of insurance needed for head-injury liability it was impossible,” she said. So she instead approached sports equipment dealers to secure a licensing agreement. Ms. Ryan arrived at meetings armed with statistics and Ross Perot-style pie charts to demonstrate the size of the market. One showed that seven million girls ages 7 to 17 play organized softball. By law, they must all wear head protection. Another display showed a sharp decline of injuries among players with helmets.
The response, she said, depended on the audience. “When I pitched the helmet to men, they’d just look at the ponytail channel and go, ‘huh?”‘ she said. But when she showed it to women athletes, she added, “they’d say, ‘I can’t believe we don’t have these.”‘ After a dozen rejections, Ms. Ryan finally clicked with Schutt Sports of Litchfield, Ill., one of the nation’s top equipment makers and a big supplier of women’s softball gear, with which she now has a licensing deal. Last September, Ms. Ryan received her first royalty check. And by the time her next one arrives — it’s due this week — she expects to recoup her start-up costs. Since June, more than 15,000 of the $15 helmets have been sold through sporting goods outlets across the country and an “800” number, exceeding Schutt Sports’ forecast. Her patent, which runs for 17 more years, is broad enough to let her extend the basic model into other sports. Coming soon is a helmet for girls ice hockey, to be followed, perhaps, by a similar helmet for the ski slopes and one for soccer. To further encourage the sale and wearing of her helmets, Ms. Ryan has them made in 5 styles and 14 colors, including teal and purple. “My goal,” she said, “is to get more girls involved in sports by making comfortable equipment that not only fits properly but looks cool.”