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AAI/Spalding: Developing Next-Generation Sports Equipment

April 4, 2024

Jefferson manufacturer produces customized equipment for prominent sporting events

Every year, sports enthusiasts around the nation are glued to their screens as they watch popular events like the NCAA March Madness tournaments, USA Gymnastics National Championships, the Olympic Games and more. Little do they know, Iowa products are often at the center of each event. AAI and Spalding—some of the sports industry’s most recognized brands— have strong ties to the state.

In Jefferson, a small team of Iowa-based machinists and welders quietly create competitive trampoline products, the only tested and approved gymnastics equipment in the U.S. and the official backboards of the NCAA and NBA. These manufacturing MVPs wear safety equipment instead of jerseys, but their commitment and collaborative mindset mirror the best on the court.

They produce more than 1,500 products for two brands trusted by elite athletes worldwide: Spalding and American Athletic, Inc. (AAI). Spalding is the largest basketball equipment supplier in the world. AAI is the official supplier and partner to USA Gymnastics and the NCAA and a proud partner with the Federation Internationale De Gymnastique. And it all gets made by fewer than 100 people working in Greene County, Iowa.

“Our employees like what they do and take a lot of pride in seeing the products they’ve made on TV,” said Steve Kohl, general manager for AAI/Spalding Equipment’s Jefferson-based production facility. AAI-Spalding team

Town Square Startup to Top Tier Brand

The manufacturer traces its roots to American Trampoline, founded in 1954 by University of Iowa’s Big Ten gymnastics champion Bill Sorensen. He and his brother-in-law started making and selling trampolines out of the basement of a hardware store on Jefferson’s town square. Now, AAI/Spalding is a division of Fruit of the Loom, a global clothing manufacturer, and still maintains its 70-year legacy in Iowa.

“We're the only [Fruit of the Loom] manufacturer in the United States,” Steve said. “We're not an assembly line because you need to take time to make sure that the quality is perfect. If we’re making a basketball unit that’s going to be hanging over somebody's head, that must be done right. There is no option for it to be done lazily or quickly. Athletes’ safety is at stake.”

When it comes to developing next-generation equipment, Steve’s team turns to the Iowa State University Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS). As collaborative partners, they help develop prototypes and innovative solutions. Durability is about more than holding up against buzzer-beating dunks – each piece must withstand the wear and tear of countless training sessions.

“Athletes today specialize from an early age, so they’ve become faster, better, stronger,” Steve said. “We’ve got to keep up with that.”

Steve Kohl (R) celebrates an AAI/Spalding employee.

Manufacturing Innovation with a Skilled Workforce

Many of the tradespeople who work for AAI/Spalding bring decades of experience and a sense of craftsmanship to their work because they’re working on customized projects. In recent years, teams have accelerated training opportunities to become increasingly cross-functional. Innovative new technology and equipment are enabling everyone to work smarter and safer.

AAI/Spalding also works with vendors across the state to source materials used in their products, like fiberglass and aluminum. The company’s positive impact on Iowa goes beyond their employee base and extends outside of Jefferson: 70% of operating expenses stay within the state.

“[Purchasing a laser tub-cutting machine] allowed us to be more efficient and provide equipment faster compared to some of our competitors,” Steve said. “I think that's setting us up for success, which means more jobs across sales, shipping and other areas of production.”

Steve’s team predicts the Summer Olympics will inspire a surge in demand. They’re already looking ahead to 2028 when the international multi-sport event is scheduled for Los Angeles. The manufacturer can compete nationally and globally thanks to AAI/Spalding’s location in the center of the country and the quality workforce they have here.

“Iowa is the place to be,” Steve said.