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Basketball and Volleyball Equipment Setting New Standards

Paul Steinbach
[Photo courtesy of SNA Sports]
[Photo courtesy of SNA Sports]

Basketball goals strong enough to withstand the weight of digital message boards and multiple shot clocks, but with rim assemblies flexible enough to forgive the slam dunks of 250-pound power forwards. Volleyball net support systems light and simple enough to be installed quickly and safely by high school student-athletes. Training equipment in both sports that can take the place of practice partners. It may seem like gymnasium and arena equipment hasn't changed much over the decades, but look closer and you'll find evidence of a purposeful evolution — one that has made the staging of basketball and volleyball more efficient and effective for venue operators as it ensures more enjoyable participation for players.

Here's a look at what constitutes state of the art in 2020.
 

Basketball
There have been tweaks to basketball goals for the past half-century, largely driven by the evolving size and skill level of basketball players and rules changes to the game itself. This has dictated modifications to backboard detailing in terms of shape and padding, as well as run-out space beneath the basket. Fan-shaped backboards lost favor to rectangles, and the rectangles in turn were trimmed by the six inches that once extended — needlessly — below the rim. Moreover, many of today's 42-inch-high rectangles include LED lights surrounding their perimeter to indicate the expiration of shot and game clocks.

Rims are now mounted directly to the goal boom through an opening in the backboard glass, making shattered backboards and resulting game delays a thing of the past. Breakaway rims, which used to only bend directly forward like a hinge and required resetting, are currently engineered to give way when enough force is exerted anywhere along a 180-degree arc from baseline to baseline and snap back precisely into their original position. At the same time, rims are finely tuned so as not to breakaway by the impact of long-range shots in the interest of rebound consistency compared to closer shot attempts.

Portable goals have gotten easier to move and operate, with internal coil springs replacing hydraulics (which require electricity and risk leaking fluid onto hardwood courts) as the preferred set-up mechanism. The springs themselves have become heavier, capable of raising a goal loaded with electronics such as LED displays, TV cameras and shot clocks pointed in various directions. Goals are also designed to accept additional springs to accommodate heavier loads in the event the boom is retrofitted with additional accessories, and cabling for those accessories can now be concealed inside the boom. Spring configuration may also be affected by whether the goal in question features an 8-foot or 10-foot runout.

Internal engineering improvements ensure the springs aren't overstretched and prematurely fatigued while the goal is collapsed and in storage, thus eliminating the need to replace springs over time. Once wheeled into position behind the baseline, goals rest on either feet at the front corners of the base or a rubber-coated bar that spans the base's width. (Floor pins or docking stations may also be employed to position the goal and provide stability.) A foot-pedal release on some models allows one person to raise a goal from its collapsed and locked position in minutes. So accurate is this mechanism that it should spring the goal assembly into position and place the rim exactly 10 feet above the floor every time.

The padded bases of goals have been designed to be narrower, allowing spectators seated along the baseline a less-obstructed view of action underneath the basket.

And while portable goals may seem like a pro and college luxury, they are gaining favor in some high schools and sports complexes, particularly those constructing field houses so massive as to make ceiling-suspended goals cost-prohibitive by comparison.

That said, facilities that use ceiling-suspended equipment for basketball and/or volleyball — in addition to divider curtains, batting cages and the like — have much more sophisticated control options today than 20 years ago, including wireless tablet-based systems that allow end-users to intuitively manage dozens of functions within the same gym.
 

[Photo courtesy of Bison][Photo courtesy of Bison]

 

Volleyball
Lighter and more streamlined are two adjectives that describe volleyball net assemblies in 2020.

Net-supporting poles made out of carbon fiber, which is as strong and stiff as steel while weighing significantly less, represent the state of the art. That said, aluminum replaced steel long ago as the preferred pole material among high schools and clubs, and remains the industry's top seller for its combination of lightweight ease of installation (while carbon fiber is roughly a third the weight of steel, aluminum is about half) and reliable performance at a more budget-friendly cost compared to carbon fiber (roughly half the retail price). NCAA Division I institutions often employ carbon fiber on their main competition courts, but even those schools may stick to aluminum in their practice settings. Olympic-level volleyball competition, where court conversion from one sport to another isn't the concern it is at the high school and college level, still may use steel uprights.

Aluminum pole designs have also evolved to thinner 3-inch outside diameters from 4-inch models, though the latter still remain popular. Of course, they must be compatible size-wise with the type of subgrade floor sleeves that made guide wires obsolete — and court play safer — decades ago.

For schools that host volleyball in arenas featuring portable wood floors — perhaps with an ice sheet underneath — or gyms located on a building's second floor or higher, sleeves that penetrate a floor by as much as 10 inches are impractical if not impossible. That's why manufacturers have been perfecting portable anchoring systems that employ the kind of heavy ballast used in portable basketball goals — including single units that can handle stanchions serving side-by-side courts in a tournament facilities that might temporarily house 70-plus courts total.

The bases are rolled into position on non-marking, weight-distributing casters and, in some cases, can accept the same poles used in a floor-sleeve system to create net tension without attaching to the floor or walls. Because a pole held by a temporary base will stand taller than one sunk into the floor, net height must be adjusted. Certain pole models feature a track system that allows the net to be moved up and down while in full tension. This also allows for quick adjustments when preparing a court based on the gender and age group about to use it.

Net tension is now achieved through two preferred means — two-point and four-point net attachment. Two-point attachment works with a net that doesn't slide along the cable supporting it. The net's top band is tightened using a winch, while simple Velcro straps secure the bottom band through D-rings on each pole. The resulting top-to-bottom tension allows better play of balls off the net. Kevlar (or similar) support cable is seen as an improvement over steel in that it facilitates folding for compact net storage and won't fray into a safety hazard for players over time.

The four-point attachment system benefits from wooden dowels at both ends of the net, allowing four points of attachment to create tension while keeping the net from sliding along the cable once it's properly positioned over the court for play.

Tightening the headband to the point that net height varies only a fraction of an inch over a 30-foot span from center court to sidelines is handled by the winch attached to one of the two poles. Spool winches not unlike those found on boat trailers have largely been replaced by lower-profile linear, worm-drive winches that not only eliminate the back pressure common to the cranked spool winch, but mitigate the unsightly large bulb that appears in the padding assembly that surrounds the pole.

Full-color padding graphics and lettering are becoming standard, and another branding innovation involves affixing the net's headband with Velcro, allowing for interchangeable team or sponsor logos to occupy space most likely to be captured on camera during matches.

Finally, as beach volleyball gains more traction at all levels of competition (the NCAA staged its first championships in 2016), manufacturers have turned their attention outdoors, too. While an indoor net system may employ a floor sleeve, perhaps with telescoping poles that get smaller in circumference near the top, such technology would be inapplicable on a sand court for obvious reasons. Instead, something resembling just the opposite has emerged, including a permanent anchor pole rising from a substrate through the sand that then receives the net support pole on top of it. In this case, a telescoping pole appears upside down, with its narrowest segments at the bottom to keep as much sand out of the collapsing structure as possible.
 

[Photo courtesy of SNA Sports][Photo courtesy of SNA Sports]

 

Training
The ability to practice basketball and volleyball in reduced numbers and over shortened periods of time has never been more important. Thankfully, there are a number of tools to help players in both sports do just that.

Basketball rebounding machines allow a single player to accomplish workout goals and share shooting analytics with coaches. The concept is simple — surround the rim with a three-sided net structure that funnels balls to a machine, which then feeds passes back to the shooter — but a unit can be quite sophisticated. It can be programmed to launch passes at various distances — to the free-throw line, to beyond the NBA three-point arc, and multiple points in between. Pace at which passes are delivered can be adjusted — from so rapid that a shooter can hardly track their last shot before needing to focus on catching the next ball, to staggered enough to allow a jab step and a dribble move between shots. Whereas one person might have time to launch 200 shots during an hourlong shootaround, a rebound machine can facilitate up to 1,500 shots in that amount of time.

The machine also rotates in place, sending passes to different points on the court, and can be programmed to rotate only after a predetermined number of shots are taken from a certain court location, a certain number of makes are recorded, or even a certain number of makes in a row. The machine keeps track of makes with a trigger mechanism underneath the rim, and counts each outbound pass as a shot attempt, so it tracks misses, too. All of that data — including shooting percentage from each court location — can be compiled, sent to the shooter's mobile device and shared with coaches via an app. Moreover, video tutorials can be imported to the machine to conduct the specific drill the player just viewed.

In addition, the machine can be used away from the basket to simulate, for example, entry passes into the low post. Players can catch and finish their inside moves, then toss the ball back into the machine for more repetitions.

Likewise, ball-loaded volleyball machines exist to recreate serves, spikes and sets in perfectly repeated fashion, allowing players to efficiently log reps while sparing coaches or teammates the physical strain of facilitating drills manually.

Handheld tools that extend an obstacle above the net simulate on opposing blocker and force the hitter to hit around it, while a stationary stand that holds the ball motionless above the net provides spiking practice for the hitter if a live or mechanical setter can't be present.

Even a new game that incorporates elements of four square and volleyball — with an intersecting net and room in each quadrant for one or two players — is seeing application in the team volleyball setting as a way to give players who have rotated off the traditional practice court a fun way to hone skills before rotating back in.
 

Just as elite athletes constantly look to up their game, basketball and volleyball equipment manufacturers haven't rested on their laurels, either, and in fact are looking to how athletes use current equipment to inform the next steps in the equipment evolution process. Improvement in the systems employed by these long-beloved sports is a never-ending exercise, and serves as further evidence that competition breeds innovation.


This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Basketball & volleyball Systems combine simpler operation, superior performance." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.

 

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