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Inflatables with Shawn McEachern of IDG
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Shawn McEachern founded the Inflatable Design Group (IDG) five years ago when he recognized the virtually untapped potential of the sports market.

Shawn is a lifelong sport fan whose company has quickly become one of the world's largest inflatables producers, who has made tunnels and sports games for hundreds of teams in all sports. Let's talk about the major categories of inflatables that sports teams are about introduction tunnels.

McEachern: Introduction tunnels are very popular, and they vary quite a bit. Some are as generic shaped as a football helmet for football teams, customized with their logo.

For helmets you can also get a range of sizes. Two standard sizes are 20 feet tall and 15 feet tall. Usually the 15 foot models are for high schools and colleges.

Prices range depending on the size and level of customization. Helmets can sell for as little as $5,000 and some of the very large complex logo-style tunnels can run up to $15,000. How about sponsorship, what do you have to offer as sponsor inventory for teams?

McEachern: Every inflatable I have ever made, for professional, college or high school teams, everywhere I can find to put a sponsorship banner on, I do it.

I understand the importance of sponsorship, because I have done this for so long and for so many teams. I understand the importance of being able to sell this to a sponsor and make it valuable to them. I am very conscientious about that. Whether it be an entrance way or inflatable game, I am always looking for a sponsorship opportunity. Let's talk about the larger scale fan zones and interactive games.

McEachern: I started the company when I was 23 years old in 1996. I was just out of college working for another inflatable company. I was immediately aware of the advertising potential that inflatables have. I also have always been a huge sports fan. My family has been involved in sports, including my namesake cousin who plays for the Ottawa Senators.

When I started out I went right after the sports market. Most of the response from the sports industry centered off these large interactive games for sports teams.

After a short time I decided to break off and start my own business and cater to the niche market of sports teams inflatables, focusing on the quality and service, specifically for sports and events.

I really focus on how these inflatables can be more than money spent and how they can become money generators, which became a large selling point.

There are really two ways to do this: Through sponsorship or via charging fans to participate with the game. Inflatables have a huge advantage over, say dasher boards in hockey. These are portable so you can take them out to your fans and use them all over the community.

And because the games are interactive, you can often charge fans for the experience. For example, if your team has a fast pitch baseball game, you can charge fans $1 for 3 balls. Some teams bring in $30,000 profit over the course of a season from these games. So for the fast pitch and interactive games, you sell the radar hardware with that as well?

: We try to be as turnkey as possible. When you open the crate you have the inflatable, stakes, rope, extension cords, a mallet...everything you need to make it all happen. How about the new inflatable mascot costumes?

McEachern: Yes, these are getting very popular. First of all they are unique looking, they have a different type of character and persona than the regular costumes that fans are used to.

A lot of people say, "I already have a costume" but this is really a different character.

Some teams like the Bulls have their character and now they have added an inflatable. They are really fan-friendly and cartoonish and kids love them.

I have heard from several NBA teams that the inflatable mascot races (see photo) is the funniest promotion they have seen. How about the portable branding tools, like a product specific inflatable ( like an inflatable Speed Stick can)? Are teams using items like that, or is that still used only by companies?

McEachern: Most of teams stick to customized items for the team and the sponsorship is limited to branding the inflatable with logos. It's rare to create a piece like that for teams. What's the best thing about inflatables for a team? Portability, branding, visual presence?

McEachern: The best thing about inflatables is that they are easy to set-up and take down, as well as the unique opportunity to put them anywhere to create a huge presence. Its much more than a standard advertising banner.

All you do is take it out of the bag, plug in the fan, stand back and watch a 15-foot inflatable pop-up in under 2 minutes. It makes a significant impact in any space. At the end you can pack it back up and take it in the back seat of your car to a different venue or event. Is there anything really new and exciting that teams are using?

McEachern: It varies with the sport. In football most of the new fun zones have the football toss, with the receiver targets and a radar gun so you can see how fast you are throwing and how far you can throw. We also now have an inflatable field goal kick game.

Obstacles courses and bounces are still very popular.

In baseball the fast pitch still rules. Its a perfect fit in minor league baseball, great for families and as I mentioned, it generates its own revenue. I'd say about 90% of minor league teams have these now.
: Let's talk generally about turn around times. First for a standard inflatable, say a fast pitch game in my team colors. How long might that take to get and contrast that with a customized inflatable.

McEachern: Normally I would say 6 to 8 weeks for most projects. It doesn't take that long to cut and sew, its just that we are busy! We are the biggest inflatable company in the world and we normally have 100-200 inflatables in production at any one time. How about on a personal side, what project were you most excited to work on?

McEachern: That's tough. I get as excited for a high school team in Texas as I do for a project with the Dallas Cowboys. Every level gives me a different satisfaction. For a high school team its great to see them get involved and its a huge investment and a huge deal for them. I just have a lot of pride in every inflatable that I ship out. Thanks for your time.

Thanks to Shawn for his time. It was a pleasure to speak with someone who enjoys his business as much as Shawn does, and that is visible in his products as well.

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