Business scores in sports

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on December 14, 2006.

Billy Burbank's fingers seem to function independent of his mind, flickering a threaded shuttle through the twine while he stares out at the water and reminisces about the Fernandina Beach of the past.

It's a past his family has been entangled with since the early 1900s, when William Hunter Burbank Sr. began crafting nets for his fellow shrimpers. And it's a past that has all but vanished as high gas prices and foreign competition have driven shrimp boats off the water.

But Burbank Trawl Makers is thriving: more orders, more employees, more business. It's a good thing Burbank's fingers know the drill as they rush to fill orders.

Now, however, the nets that Burbank sews so nimbly won't be used to pull shrimp from the water. Instead, they'll stop footballs and soccer balls, prevent audiences from being peppered with baseballs and give pitchers a place to practice. They'll be sports nets, filling a range of functions in baseball and tennis, football and soccer.

"We started doing sports to fill the gap" between shrimping seasons, Burbank said, but as the domestic shrimping industry collapsed over the past decade, the shrimp net business dwindled to irrelevance. Meanwhile, Burbank's reputation in the sports world grew, causing that business, operating under the name Burbank Sport Nets, to explode.

Slower, but sure

The 55-year-old man says his hands aren't as quick as they once were, due in part to three shoulder surgeries, a side effect of the days he worked 100 hours a week sewing up nets during his childhood when the shrimping industry was booming. Now, those hands sew with the surety of decades of practice.

The jump to sports nets was a natural one for Billy Burbank, who'd played football and baseball since he was a boy, including a stint on the Gulf Coast Community College's baseball team. His first orders for sporting nets, in fact, came when his old football coach hooked him up with a friend who needed a batting cage.

Now, his customers include University of Florida, Florida State University, Clemson University and about three-quarters of all Major League baseball teams, bringing in a couple million dollars of revenue in the past couple of years. In recent months, Burbank sent a shipment of baseball nets to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, and created a practice area at the home of the Atlanta Braves' Andruw Jones.

"His reputation just kept growing and growing," said University of North Florida baseball coach Dusty Rhodes, who has worked with Burbank since he built some batting cages for the University of Florida, where Rhodes was an assistant coach.

Among the equipment Rhodes has had Burbank create are special dual pitching cages, which allow more players to practice at a time - an idea the coach saw while in Japan with the U.S. national baseball team.

"I've been different places," Rhodes said, "and every time I come back, if I, say, saw something in Europe, if I can give him a picture of it, he can make it."

Burbank and his eight or so employees take assembled nets and, like a tailor uses cloth from a bolt, cut them into pieces and sew them into custom shapes. Working with a welder, the company also produces metal frames and has created a line of ancillary products such as portable pitching mounds.

The skills needed to create sports nets are similar, but not identical, to those used to make nets for the water: Shrimp net knots should slide, for example, while sporting net knots don't, and the direction the knots are facing is vital on shrimp nets but not so important in batting cages. Some things never change, though: Burbank's nets are still coated with the special chemicals the family originally designed for shrimp nets to help them withstand the sun as well as salt water.

Proud of ranking

Although the head of a business that stretches back almost a century, Burbank is interested in ways of taking the company into the future. Leaving the net he's working on hanging from its low-tech stand (a nail in a board), his voice rises with excitement as he walks to the back of the shop to show off space-age textiles that can replace steel cables to hold up nets at stadiums, and he seems shyly proud of the company's Google ranking for searches like "backstop."

For all of the moving toward the future, as Burbank stands in an old brick pogy plant in Old Town, where fish meal used to be created, his thoughts are often on the past, on the days when his grandfather could make a living hand-sewing nets for his neighbors, who themselves could make a living harvesting shrimp.

He wants to bring that past back to life.

In his mind's eye, Burbank can see a living-history center - maybe a little auditorium where he could show how nets were made, where kids could touch pieces of the past. And maybe a little restaurant, selling wild shrimp, the same type his grandfather caught.

"This is the birthplace of the shrimp industry. That's what I want to keep alive," he said. "I want to tell the story of net-making."

Until he can make that dream a reality, Burbank will continue carrying on the family tradition, albeit in a way his grandfather could not have foreseen. And while he does, he'll stand in the old building, and between thoughts about high-tech fabrics and modern stadiums, he'll think of the past, and dream, and let his fingers fly through the twine.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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