Now that the Summer Olympics are over, we can all go back to our more
serious pastimes--like billiards, bowling, and mountain biking.
Yes, those are some of the most popular extracurricular activities we Americans indulge in, and we truly are serious about them. In fact, our no-nonsense approach to leisure has spawned a multi-billion-dollar sporting-goods industry. Wholesale sales alone, in 1995, were nearly $40 billion, and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) projects a six-percent growth in industry sales this year.
According to SGMA, bowling is the most popular participant sport in the U.S., based on participation once or more per year. In 1994, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 53.1 million Americans went bowling. Some of them also no doubt make up the 46.9 million who played billiards that year. Mountain biking attracted almost nine-and-a-half-million participants last year.
And don't forget golf! Twenty-four million people play golf, says the SGMA, and while that number has been roughly the same for the last four years, the number of new golf courses has surged. In 1994, 381 new courses opened, and 1995 saw another 465.
Technology is fueling the growth of many of these activities. SGMA says the market has been flooded with a continual flow of new high-performance bowling balls. Advances in equipment are making it easier and more convenient to exercise, though no one has figured out how to make it less painful. New kinds of boots, wheels/bearings, and braking systems could propel in-line skating to the level of a billion-dollar industry (sales were $742 million in 1995). And new titanium drivers, more forgiving irons, and a host of new "metal woods," are helping lower golf scores.
Certainly, much of the technology in sports has its roots in other industries. For example, advances in the fields of materials and electronics originally developed to put humans in space are also helping them enjoy Earth.
Now comes pinball, which, as we report in this issue, is combining borrowed technology such as DSP chips with custom software and electromechanical devices in a bid to boost its popularity.
All of which points out that in engineering, you often find the fruits of your labor ripening in applications you never dreamed of.