Behind The Scenes With Adidas At East Coast Pro
HOOVER, Ala. — When a player steps on the field during East Coast Pro, the pressure intensifies.
For four days, the top players from various regions of the Eastern half of the country—handpicked by major league scouts—are critiqued, scrutinized and graded out by hundreds of the same scouts who invited them, all under the heat of the Alabama sun.
However, just 400 feet up a hill beside the Hoover Met Complex, where games and workouts take place from 8 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m., the dynamic flips entirely. Inside the Finley Center, East Coast Pro prospects have access to the Adidas player lounge, complete with ping pong tables, a remote control car racing track, a giant flat screen streaming games, bean bag chairs to relax on and several different gaming stations for all the Fortnite needs a 17-year-old has.
Perhaps most important though, the player lounge offers air conditioning, food and a space where no one is critiquing their every move. In fact, the Adidas player lounge is where the player becomes the scout.
The subject? Adidas itself.
“They really get to see us at a vulnerable point in the season,” said Alex Hart, a footwear designer for the company. “But it’s very rewarding. If they can give us direct feedback we can apply and then the shoe comes out next year and they are like, 'Oh we told them to do this and they did that.' All the feedback that they give us is valid. Regardless of how valuable they think their input is, it’s super, super helpful for us—positive and negative. Especially negative, because how can you make it better if you don’t know (what’s wrong)?"
Hart has been coming to East Coast Pro for four years now, soliciting feedback from the elite talent to improve the cleats he designs for the company and develop a better understanding of what high school players want and need. His first event was back in 2016, when Jo Adell was just another exciting prospect with massive potential—before he was a first-round pick and burgeoning young star on the cusp of a major league career.
“It is a thrill to be able to year in and year out interact with these kids,” Hart said. “It’s so fun to me to get to know them. And the MLB Draft comes up next year and I see a bunch of these kids getting drafted. It’s like, ‘I know that guy.’ Jo Adell was a guy who I interviewed the first year I came. Being able to see these kids and how they mature. . . . It feels like you’re getting in the ground floor with them.
“I look forward to this event every year because this is the closest that we get to our target consumer. We talk about this a lot. We’re trying to be consumer obsessed. How am I going to know how to design a cleat if I don’t ask the guys who buy my cleat? So you are getting it straight from the horse’s mouth. . . . I can talk directly to all these juniors and seniors in high school who are in a really unique spot because their parents are no longer purchasing for them a lot of the times, but they haven’t started wearing cleats for their college yet. So they have this small window of time of getting to choose what they want to wear. We want to make sure Adidas is what they choose.”
So, players hang out in the lounge and participate in focus groups, where they talk about what they want in an ideal cleat. What is the ideal weight? Where does the support of the shoe need to be improved, what sort of material works best for different environments—be it the Pacific Northwest where waterproof cleats are necessary, or a non-metal cleat or turf shoe that still performs at a high level on turf fields like LakePoint in Georgia.
“It creates a very low key and relaxed environment for them,” Hart said. “They are under so much pressure out on the field. It’s hot, it’s humid, they have 500 scouts watching them, they have all their parents there. There’s so much going on out there and sometimes it feels like their life depends on it. It’s their future, right? But we want this to be a place that they can come where you can let it all go for a minute and just play Fortnite or something. It’s been a revelation in how we do these events.”
After pushing the adizero franchise—a lightweight, flashy speed cleat—in previous years at East Coast Pro, the Adidas team was specifically looking to figure out how to improve and freshen the Icon franchise of their cleats in 2019.
It’s a model that’s built more for comfort, support and power and has targeted players like pitchers, catchers and corner infielders who typically have a more power-oriented game.
“We ask about the cleats they are wearing now,” Hart said. “What do you like about them? What don’t you like? What kind of cleats do you wear with your high school, because a lot of times it’s not Adidas. So we are interested to see what New Balance is doing, what Nike is doing. All the other players in the game. If they aren’t wearing us, why are they not wearing us? And what we can do to make ours better so that they will wear our stuff?"
East Coast Pro is routinely in the middle of the production cycle for Adidas’ new cleats, which means player feedback can be implemented in more limited ways for the current model, but a few years down the line high school players could see a shoe in a store that has features he specifically pointed out and requested.
“The newest model of adizero, the way the laces are was a function of something we got two or three years ago at East Coast Pro,” said Adidas Baseball Senior Director Aaron Seabron. “We taped up shoes and had kids mark with markers where they wanted lockdown and where they wanted support and based upon that we were like, 'Oh, if we widen the laces, drop them down, that is something they want.'
"So the insights are invaluable, and they are more valuable probably than a focus group because you are getting insights from those pinnacle players who are probably more vocal than a focus group of kids in Oregon.”
How Austin Hendrick Re-tooled His Swing Around 'Utterly Elite' Bat Speed
One of the top 2020 MLB Draft bats, Austin Hendrick has always had bat speed, but only recently has he gained full control of his swing.
Georgia outfielder Josh Shuler attended East Coast Pro in 2018 as an underclassmen and returned again in 2019. According to him, the scout-based nature of the event makes it a highlight on the calendar and working with Adidas is the cherry on top.
“I personally think it’s the best event,” Shuler said, after showcasing his athleticism and speed during a Friday afternoon game. “Four hundred-plus scouts here, the best players across the East Coast. It’s a great event. I love it. The development and working personally with the scouts. It’s nice to have scouts in the stands, but with them being in the dugout and telling you what you should work on and having them see you up and close is really good.
“Adidas makes it that much better. Everyone loves Adidas. The shoes and the new gear—it’s exciting.”
Creating that excitement is exactly what Hart and other designers at Adidas are looking to do, and being able to survey players like Shuler and all the other prospects invited to East Coast Pro is what makes that possible.
“We want to be the brand that creates the new wave in baseball,” Seabron said. “Obviously these 160-ish young men, they are the new wave in baseball. Whether they go on to college, whether they go on to pros, they are the new wave in baseball. I think for us it’s an opportunity to elevate and advance the game of baseball. It helps us understand, how is the kid changing? How is the kid evolving? How is our product resonating with the kid?
“That helps us get ideas and insights and then we work on the stuff for 2020, 2021. So it’s incredibly important. Grassroots baseball is incredibly important for us because everything starts with the kid. Whether it’s insights, products, trends—the opportunity to be a part of something that (East Coast Pro organizer and scout) John Castleberry and his team have put on for 25 years is very important to us and will continue to be important to us.”