BOSTON — For youngsters in the early elementary grades, basketball has sometimes been a sport out of reach. Baskets were too high, basketballs too large. Sensing unrealized marketing potential, however, equipment manufacturers have responded.
Americans have begun to see one readily visible sign of this response sprouting up in driveways across the country: adjustable height baskets, many portable, that have made the old garage-mounted boards an endangered species.
"Drive the neighborhoods of America and you'll find baskets at various heights, all the way up to the regulation 10 feet," says David Allen, president of Huffy Sports in Waukesha, Wis. The company has introduced a new low-end model, called Street Heat, which retails between $99 and $129.
Allen says that the popularity of variable-height baskets really kicked in about 1986 or 1987 when new quick-adjust designs eliminated the need for wrenches and time-consuming manipulations.
The industry concurrently began offering a "junior" ball, which is an authentic but smaller version of the regular ball. The circumference is 27.5 inches, a two-inch reduction that can make a world of difference in little hands.
"Without these changes, basketball would be a difficult and frustrating game for a group of players who are turning out to be one of the sport's key growth groups," says Gregg Hartley, the executive director of the Florida-based American Basketball Council, an association of some 85 manufacturers of basketball equipment.
According to council-sponsored research, saturation has nearly occurred in basketball's core market of 12- to 17-year-old boys. "Its future growth depends on other segments of the population," Hartley says.
The three groups identified as offering the greatest growth potential are boys 6 to 11, girls 6 to 17, and men 35 to 44.
The number of children playing in the 6-to-11 category is really skyrocketing. A national survey found a 35 percent increase in players (7.4 million to 10 million) between 1987 and 1995.
The advent of child-friendly equipment has supported this boom. Youth Basketball of America, a nonprofit organization that assists park and recreation, YMCA, and other local leagues, advocates the use of lower baskets and smaller balls for 8-and-unders. Larry Landolt, YBOA's national marketing manager, says these products "encourage skill instead of strength."
Sidney Goldstein the author of "The Basketball Player's Bible," a comprehensive new instructional book, believes youth-size equipment helps in learning the fundamentals.
Conversely, he says baskets that are too high can cause "the whole shot technique to go out of wack and leave youngsters with bad habits."
A cross-age group advantage of the adjustable-height baskets is that they allow players to dunk who only dreamed of doing so.
This has made the stability of portable baskets a hot issue in the industry. Pull-over weight is the big topic of discussion, with tip over-resistance ranging from less than 100 pounds to more than 300. Among the factors influencing stability are the weight of water- and sand-filled bases and size of the pole.
Allen believes low-price basket options encourage young parents who may be on the fence about buying costlier models while renting homes or apartments. He anticipates that many families may buy three-basket systems at various stages of a child's athletic development. He also sees an emerging market for replacement backboards as products with improved graphics make boards blend in better or, if desired, actually stand out more.
Beyond home use, the institutional use of adjustable height baskets are on the upswing.
"They are going into elementary schools, youth clubs, recreational centers, and churches," says Ralph Miller, national sales manager for Gared Sports, Inc., a backboard maker. "Many of the installations have smaller courts or half-court setups."