Sports Innovations Created by Participants Not by Product Manufacturers

by innovatobase

I recently read a book by MIT professor Eric Von Hippel “Democratizing Innovation.”  The book talks about the difference between user-centric and manufacturer-centric innovation. According to several studies discussed in the book, most new products developed by manufacturers are commercial failures. Only 1 out of 4 new products developed by product manufacturers succeeds. That’s a 75% failure rate! The main reason for such a striking failure of manufacturer-developed products, according to the book, is a poor understanding of users’ needs. What was particularly interesting to me was the data related to the sports industry which showed that most innovations in the sports industry are created by users and not by product manufacturers.

In this post I wanted to talk about a couple of popular swimming products and the people who invented them. Since most products are sold through large companies, you might get the idea that it’s companies doing the innovating, but in reality it’s usually the users. In the case of swimming, it’s usually swimmers and coaches, and not equipment manufacturers.

Swimming paddles

The first swimming paddles were invented by Benjamin Franklin around 1717.  Since then, manufacturers have made numerous incremental improvements to design and material.  Most of the paddles that are currently on the market look very similar with two exceptions: anti-paddles and bolster paddles.


The anti-paddles were invented by a Hungarian swim coach in 1990s.  Anti-paddles take away the resistance during the pull phase which forces the swimmer to concentrate on the proper technique in order to move forward.  These types of paddles are currently produced by several swimming equipment manufactures.

Bolster paddle:

Bolster paddle were invented by a swim coach Brian Bolster.  These paddles insure proper high-elbow catch.  They are currently produced by Finis Inc.

Swimming fins

Swimming fins were also invented by Benjamin Franklin around 1717 and ever since there have been a lot of incremental improvements.  One of the notable changes in design and functionality was the Zoomers fins.


Zoomers were invented Dr. Marty Hull who was a Stanford NCAA Champion in the 200 Breaststroke.  Zoomers have a smaller fin that promotes a faster and more propulsive kick. Later Dr. Marty Hull licensed Zoomers to Finis Inc for distribution.

Center-mount snorkel

The earliest center-mount snorkel that I was able to find was invented in 1863.  However, the most popular center-mount snorkel was designed by Dean Garraffa in 1996.  Dean Garraffa is a co-founder of Atomic Aquatics, a well known scuba company that produces high quality scuba products.  The patent for this snorkel was later assigned to Finis Inc.

As you can see, none of these well known swimming products were invented by the product manufacturer.  These examples show exactly what Eric Von Hippel talks about in his “Democratizing Innovation:” in the sports industry, most innovation comes from sports participants, not from product manufacturers.  Product manufacturers do develop new products, but most of them either fail to succeed because manufacturers don’t understand user needs or these new products are mere incremental improvements on existing products.

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