Football glove makers are counting the ways

Rico Williams wears Neumann football gloves. He loves how they protect his hands. How warm they are. How they give him a great grip.

Funny thing is, the 28-year-old hasn't played organized football in seven years.

Gloves have been worn by NFL wide receivers for decades, but only recently have the on-field accessory for football divas become a big business. Sales will surpass $30 million this year, a 50-percent increase from 2003, and a large part of that growth has come from unintended users -- the working people of the service industry.

Freight-delivery drivers and airport-baggage handlers, like Williams, have made football gloves their mitt of choice.

"There are definitely more of us wearing them," says Williams, who works at Philadelphia International Airport. Although his employer, Southwest Airlines, provides free gloves, Williams and some co-workers take on extra expense -- paying up to $50 a pair -- for added comfort.

Adams USA's Neumann brand isn't the only one cashing in. Laura Beraznik, who owns Cutters Gloves with her husband, Jeff, recently saw a pair of her company's gloves on the local Staples delivery driver. A few months later, a New York City sporting-goods retailer told Jeff that postmen were walking in asking for the high-performance gloves.

"The producers of sports gloves have been ahead of the curve from a technology standpoint," says Chris Gallo, who oversees licensed performance apparel for Reebok. The company's glovers are a fixture on Sunday highlight shows because of endorsement deals with TD-happy receivers like Chad Johnson, Steve Smith, Torry Holt and Plaxico Burress. "People understand that if it's good enough for wide receivers to wear on Sunday, it's definitely good enough for them to wear to work."

Bonus customers from unexpected sources surprise businesses all the time. A few years ago, makers of surgical scrub pants were inundated by bulk orders from sororities, which were giving them away in date-party goodie bags. And pickle juice came into vogue a while back as, of all things, a sports drink.

In fact, the folks at Hillerich & Bradsby, makers of Louisville Slugger batting gloves, could have told their football peers that this was coming. Five years ago, the company noticed gardeners using its gloves, so the Kentucky firm began marketing to the 80 million Americans who grow, mow and hoe.

Football glovers have been helped by the fact that employers like the U.S. Postal Service don't have uniform rules for hand wear. Some 85,000 UPS drivers must don Brown's clothing, but the UPS Pro Handglove is not required attire. So drivers can, and do, grab for the same Reeboks as a player like Smith, who makes as much per game in base salary ($62,500) as the average driver takes in all year.

Garry McNabb, part owner of Adams USA, is glad to see people other than athletes wearing his gloves. "The problem is, we don't really know how to capitalize on what we are seeing," McNabb says.

The other thing McNabb can't capitalize on, at least overtly, is NFL players. Reebok's contract with the league stipulates that no other brand may show a logo on gloves during games. That makes it pointless for Neumann to pay big endorsement bucks to receivers.

But companies are finding other ways to cash in. Chiba Sports, a 153-year-old German company, is negotiating with a large shipping firm to outfit its workers, says Gregg Moran, a Chiba VP. His firm is also marketing its football technology to the folks in blue, saying its gloves make it easier for cops to grip guns and execute pat-downs. (The gloves also make it easier for perps to grip guns, but Chiba's not targeting that market.)

Under Armour offers more than 10 types of gloves, some with foam and leather in the palms and others for various weather conditions. Variety has helped position the company right behind market leader Nike in glove sales less than two years after entering the business. Reebok plans to upgrade its receiver gloves next year, going beyond their current Gryptonite technology.

Industry insiders were surprised that blue-collar buyers would pay so much for work gloves. Not anymore. "A $40 pair of gloves can save someone a lot of pain and suffering," Moran says, "and thousands of dollars in medical expenses."

Johnson is among the NFL leaders in receiving yards, and his Bengals are headed to their first winning season since 1990. So he's earning his endorsement money. But given working-class fashion trends, Reebok might want to consider sponsoring one of the six guys named Chad Johnson who drive UPS trucks. (Yes, the company counted them for us.)

Unlike wideouts, these guys are guaranteed to deliver.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com