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This Sporting Life

Engineers score a career goal in the sports business

By John Edwards

When Don Beasley was an engineering undergraduate, he never thought his planned career would eventually lead him toward studying something as simple and seemingly inconsequential as a golf ball. Yet Beasley, now a mechanical engineering professor at Clemson University, has come to appreciate the physics of the humble golf ball—particularly because he’s also a technology advisor for Golf Digest. “I do wind tunnel testing for the aerodynamics of golf balls to make them fly longer and straighter and with the correct trajectory,” he says.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been around for the past couple of decades that sports—professional and amateur, team and individual—have become big business. As the market grows, sporting goods companies are increasingly turning to engineers to ensure that their products are innovative, durable and safe.

Beasley’s studies of golf balls—as well as clubs and other types of equipment—have led him into a dream career. He gets to travel to major PGA events, hobnob with star players, and have his research published in a major consumer magazine. “It’s exciting and fun,” he says. “Personal satisfaction is definitely the best part.”

Laws of Work and at Play

Sports engineering research may not have the lofty aims of some other engineering disciplines, but it’s definitely interesting and useful work, says Sarah Barber, a first- year doctoral student who works in the sports engineering research group at Sheffield University in Sheffield, England. For Barber, a lifelong dedication to both sports and engineering initially attracted her to the field. “I have always loved being outdoors and playing sports, especially football [soccer],” she says. Barber discovered sports engineering as a profession while studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “I designed and manufactured devices to help disabled kids play sports,” she explains. “Since then, sports engineering is all I have wanted to do.”

While some people may view sports engineering as a less serious side of engineering, those who work in the field feel they are making a significant contribution to the well being of both players and spectators. “It is very exciting to think that our work is helping the national teams to improve their work in, say, the football World Cup or in the Olympics,” says Barber. “It is also exciting to apply basic laws of science and see them at work as David Beckham uses the Magnus Effect [the lift force produced by a rotating cylinder] to swerve the ball into the top corner and out of the goalkeeper’s reach.”

Barber’s current work focuses on using computational fluid dynamics to design and develop footballs. “It is known that the size and pattern of seams on a football greatly affects its flight,” she states. “I am trying to quantify this effect.” Yet Barber’s entire life isn’t spent poring over calculations and testing prototypes in wind tunnels. She also visits schools to introduce children to science and engineering and travels widely to consult with other engineers and to observe ongoing research. “I’ve been to a conference in California, and I’m presenting a paper in Tokyo,” she says. “There is a long way to go in this field, and there will be an increasing number of opportunities in the future.”

Down to Earth

While most sports engineers focus on developing new or improved types of equipment, Iain James spends his time examining the industry’s very foundation—the surfaces under players’ feet. A research leader at the Cranfield Centre for Sports Surfaces at England’s Cranfield University, James believes that a firm footing can help prevent injuries while giving sports participants, quite literally, an even playing field.

In his research, James is studying the effect various combinations of soil and moisture have on players’ health and performance. “Natural soil surfaces are subject to large variations in mechanical properties due to differences in moisture content,” he observes. “In the biomechanics lab, we are using 3D motion capture equipment to determine body movement, and force platform and pressure monitoring equipment to look at the stresses applied to the human body and the sports surface.”

James hopes his research will eventually be used for creating safer and more durable sports surfaces. “The injury risk will be assessed by considering what are optimum values for traction, stiffness and friction parameters for a number of different sports surfaces and movements,” he says. “I feel that it is research that will make a difference for players, spectators and venue operators.”

Clink of the Bat

Daniel Russell is a sports engineer who helps baseball players hit balls faster and farther by analyzing the sounds made by metal baseball bats. “When the ball hits a hollow metal bat, the barrel compresses somewhat—like a spring—and it ends up throwing the ball back [to the field],” he says. “You can get a huge advantage over wood by using an elastic hollow metal bat.”

Russell, an associate professor of applied physics at Kettering University, in Flint, Mich., uses audio test data to help baseball equipment manufacturers create longer-lasting, better-performing bats. “The frequency analysis tells us something about the spring of the barrel,” he says. “If I take two bats that are otherwise identical, but their frequencies are different, the one with the lower frequency will be the higher performing bat.”

To create a bat offering the maximum potential performance, engineers adjust various alloys, metal thicknesses and shapes. It’s then up to Russell to listen to the bat and predict how it will perform under game conditions. “It’s really simple,” he claims. “You take a very small accelerometer, which measures vibrations. You then stick that on the bat with some kind of wax, and then you take a special hammer that has a transducer on it to measure force.” Tapping the bat with the hammer and reading the response on a frequency analyzer tells Russell whether a particular bat is a design hit or a strikeout.

Russell says he was just an engineer before also becoming a sports engineer, a side job that developed out of his acoustics research. Russell has always had multiple research interests. Along with a Ph.D. in acoustics, an M.S. in applied physics and a B.S. in physics, he also holds a bachelor’s degree in music performance. Russell gets a charge out of his bat studies and enjoys telling students about his work. “When I mention the fact that students can do engineering and sports, their eyes kind of bug out,” he says. “It’s not a topic they usually think about.”

Thin Ice

Kim Blair’s research is, quite literally, all about skating on thin ice. That’s because the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Sports Innovation works with Dutch manufacturer Okolo Sports to develop an improved
“clapskate”—a kind of ice skate that’s hinged at the front. “As you stride, the blade stays on the ice a little longer—flat to the ice—allowing more speed,” says Blair.

Blair explains that designing an Olympic-caliber ice skate requires knowledge and skills equal to a major engineering project. For his clapskate tests, he conducted a series of studies using high-speed video (30,000 frames per second) to observe exactly how a skate interacts with ice and the skater’s movements. “If you look at speed skating motion, it is actually all side to side, not forward at all,” he says. The research, along with tests conducted with skaters on “fake ice” (made from the same material as a dry-erase office whiteboard), allowed Blair to provide Okolo with data that would enable to company to design better, faster skates. “We’ll find out in 2006 at the Winter Olympics in Torino (Italy),” he says.

Although Blair’s research may appear esoteric, the data it generates can be crucial. Global sports equipment makers depend on gear designed with the help of cutting-edge engineering to attract top athletes to their brands. “A five percent change in aerodynamics, for example, can make the difference in most events,” says Blair. A record-breaking performance by an athlete using a particular brand of equipment will raise the manufacturer’s profile, attract new customers, and can easily generate millions of dollars in sales. “That’s why we’re hired,” Blair asserts.

On Deck

Acquiring sports engineering skills is a lot like training to become a top athlete. Most budding sports engineers spend years, even decades, studying for their specialty. Yet sports engineers are also like baseball utility infielders, prepared to jump into a particular job or task at a moment’s notice. Russell notes that students aiming for a sports engineering career often make the mistake of striving toward a narrowly focused degree. Yet employers would rather hire one engineer who can handle a variety of tasks adequately rather than a team of engineers who each excel at specific tasks. “The broader the education, the better you can adapt to whatever a sports engineering company asks you to do,” says Russell.

Unsurprisingly, a sports background can be a key advantage for anyone planning a sports engineering career. Russell notes that a major baseball equipment manufacturer he works with recently hired several sporty engineers. “They were primarily looking for people who had engineering backgrounds, but also people who can play the game,” he says. “They wanted somebody who played baseball all the way through high school and college.”

Knowledge and experience in business and marketing also enhance a sports engineer’s resume. “Marketing in sports is huge,” says Clemson’s Beasley. “In golf, for example, every year a company comes out with a new driver or a new golf ball.” Engineers, therefore, are expected to constantly dream up novel, exciting technologies that can be incorporated into new or existing products. “Engineers in the sports industry are constantly interfacing with marketing,” notes Beasley.

Winning Jobs

As in almost any field, finding a job is the crucial first step in launching a sports engineering career. But getting that first job can be almost as difficult as kicking a 60-yard field goal. “The sporting goods industry is huge, it’s in the billions of dollars,” notes MIT’s Blair. “But if you look at the actual number of engineers employed in the industry, compared to its revenue, it’s certainly not that many.” Beasley agrees. “Most of the sports companies have smaller engineering staffs than you might imagine.”

While finding a good sports engineering job isn’t impossible, hopefuls must work diligently to land that elusive entry-level position. Sporting goods companies, universities and other organizations that hire sports engineers almost never send recruiters onto campuses, and jobs rarely appear in newspapers and magazines or on Web employment sites. That’s why most of the people who have succeeded in the field utilized personal connections. “It’s all about networking, getting to meet people and trying to get an internship,” says Blair.

Yet, as hard as it was to find, that first job may not last very long. That’s because sports companies and research organizations add and eliminate workers in accordance with ongoing needs. “Job stability is not very good,” admits Beasley. “People tend to move around a lot.” Then there’s the pay problem. Thanks to the industry’s allure, sports engineering jobs usually pay considerably less than equivalent positions in other fields. Blair notes that MIT grads, with their sterling reputation, can almost always make much larger incomes in other industries. “There are lots of undergrads that work at investment banks in New York, and they make a lot of money,” he observes.

Still, while most sports engineers don’t pull in big bucks, there are other benefits. “No sporting goods company would survive if they didn’t expect their employees to be active in sports and understand that they’re going to want to spend time outside the office playing games,” says Blair. “For that reason, it’s very much a lifestyle industry.”

Barber appreciates the fact that she works with minimal oversight. “The working day is very flexible, and you don’t generally have people telling you when you should and shouldn’t be working,” she says. Still, despite their freedom, sports engineers are expected to contribute meaningful work on a regular basis. “The amount you achieve really depends on how much you put into it and how much you want to get out of it,” observes Barber. But only the engineers who do solid work on a regular basis get to keep their jobs and earn high salaries.

As manufacturers continue to develop and refine all types of athletic equipment, sports engineering’s prospects appear bright. “As long as there are sports, people who want to play sports and records to be broken, there will be companies selling sports equipment,” says Russell. “And that means there will be jobs for sports engineers.”

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer and numerous other publications.

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