Lens Choices

Effectively selling lens tints for sports

By Brian P. Dunleavy
For more than 20 years, optical researchers have known the importance of contrast sensitivity and visual perception in athletic competition (see the Journal of the American Optometric Association, October 1984). To date, however, information on how specific lens tints—from the more conventional gray and brown colors to the more specialized yellows and reds—can impact athletes’ vision has been anecdotal and largely the result of trial-and-error experimentation in dispensaries. Still, few argue their effectiveness.

Yet, while most experts believe selling custom-tinted lenses to sports enthusiasts can be a relatively easy moneymaker for optical dispensaries, few independent eyecare practitioners have embraced the concept.

“It’s a question of time,” notes Barry Seiller, MD, an ophthalmologist in suburban Chicago and founder of the Visual Fitness Institute, a facility that offers “visual training” to amateur, college and professional athletes. “The typical optician, optometrist or ophthalmologist has huge numbers of patients going through their dispensaries every day. They don’t feel they have the time necessary to sell these products.”

Indeed, until now, sports specialty lenses have remained a niche business at most optical dispensaries nationwide. But ask Dr. Seiller and others who have made sports vision their passion and have seen its importance—and potential for profits—first-hand and they’ll tell you there’s no reason it should stay that way.

“Practices doing this have learned it often isn’t just a second pair add on, it’s the primary reason people come to their office,” says Mike Rinard, president of Post 4 Optics in Lewiston, Idaho, a wholesale lab with a growing specialty in sports optics. “Just think of all the people who buy boats, fishing licenses, hunting licenses and so on. This opens up a completely new market.”

Manufacturers seem to agree. Everyone from lens manufacturers to wholesale labs to coating facilities to big-name sunglass makers have entered into the world of prescription sports specialty products with hopes of championing this largely untapped market. Manufacturers such as Specialty Lens Corp., KBco and BelOptix, for example, offer various tinted lens products, particularly in polarized, with sports enthusiasts in mind. Wholesaler ICare Industries of St. Petersburg, Fla. (through its ICare Sports division) markets a line of prescription dive masks for scuba divers. Coater Great Lakes Coating Laboratory of Troy, Mich. has its own line of tinted mirrored lenses (equipped with backside AR) that it offers for both polarized and non-polarized lenses; sports enthusiasts are among the intended customers. Finally, sunglass brands such as Costa del Mar, Maui Jim, Oakley and Kaenon Polarized have all entered the fray, outfitting popular styles with prescription tinted lenses for sports. And these are merely a few examples.

“Dispensers don’t spend enough time talking to patients about sports,” notes Jennifer Ross of Great Lakes Coating. “They don’t understand what a powerful player it can be in the industry. Manufacturers do.”

“No question there’s potential there,” adds Brian Goldstone, owner of Express Lens Lab in Fountain Valley, Calif. “It’s become increasingly important for dispensers to know about lenses for sports.”
So where do they start?

Practice… just like athletes. Understanding what athletes need from their eyewear is vital to being able to dispense these products correctly. Some sports specialists, like Rinard, participate in multiple sports themselves and know from experience what helps.

“Personal experience is the best source,” explains Robert J. Lee, OD, a practitioner and instructor at the Southern California College of Optometry in Fullerton, Calif.

For those who aren’t very athletic, however, manufacturers and labs offering products and services in this category have plenty of information on sports specialty tints, as does the American Optometric Association’s Sports Vision Section. The Internet also has a number of resources on sports tints but consider your sources carefully prior to dispensing; dispensing the wrong sports lens can be dangerous to the patient. (See “Equipment for the Eyes” for a brief guide to effective sports tints.)

Get a good “team” together. Once you know the tinted products that work best for sports applications, be sure to work with manufacturers and labs that offer them—and know what’s best for sports-specific tasks themselves. Athletes can be finicky customers and if they aren’t satisfied the first time, they may not come back.

“I find that tints can be an individual thing,” says Lawrence D. Lampert, OD, a solo practitioner in Boca Raton, Fla. and a member of AOA Sports Vision Section. “Athletes have their own needs and preferences. You have to be able to work with them.”

Conduct “pregame” interviews. “Working with them,” according to Dr. Lampert and others, includes asking the right questions. What sports do they participate in? Are there any visual weaknesses they perceive while at play? Sports fans know the importance of postgame interviews in finding out information about their favorite players and teams. Dispensers need to interview their athletic patients before the games to properly outfit their eyes.

Announce yourself. Athletes won’t know they can come to your dispensary for their vision needs unless you tell them. This means marketing your sports services and strategically placing sports-related product point-of-purchase material throughout your dispensary.

James B. Mayer, OD, owner of Agape Vision Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif. has developed a detailed web site for his practice that includes a large section on sports specialty tints. The site shows athletes that Dr. Mayer knows about their needs and offers the products to help them. Chains such as Pearle Vision Centers also have web sites detailing sports specialty tints.

“These are customers who want something and are happy to pay for it, not people who are upset they have to wear glasses,” notes Post 4’s Rinard. “Is this a new opportunity for private offices? You bet.”

Equipment for the Eyes

Tints applied for sports-specific applications should act as filters, reducing the overall amount of visible light reaching the athlete’s eyes while, in some cases, filtering out specific wavelengths of light. Some lens tints also enhance contrast sensitivity, allowing the eye to see greater definition between colors. Reducing the amount of light the eye is exposed to limits eye fatigue and also improves visual acuity.

Sports vision experts don’t always agree on what spectacle products work best for specific athletic activities, but there are some generally accepted rules of thumb. For example:

Golf: Golfers need to “read” greens (for slopes that will impact the direction and speed of putts) and track their shots as they travel through the air. Brown tints seem to be the best choice, though some dispensers offer yellow tints to golfing enthusiasts. Glare is not always an issue for golfers, except on courses with a significant amount of water hazards and/or sand traps.

“I have had some golfers who have complained about polarized lenses, but they tend to have binocular vision problems,” explains Lawrence D. Lampert, OD, of Boca Raton, Fla. Melanin lenses, which block harmful blue light rays from the sun, can also help reduce glare on the course.

Fishing: Polarized lenses block glare off of reflective surfaces such as water. Which tints work best for fishing, however, depends on specific fishing conditions. For deep-sea fishing, informed dispensers seem to favor gray tints, because they can protect against intense glare and still allow fishermen to see into the water. In shallow-water, lake-type conditions, varying shades of brown seem to improve contrast; some dispensers recommend orange in polarized or non-polarized for river/lake fishing on overcast days.

Skiing: The debate—to polarize or not to polarize—rages on. Some dispensers favor polarized lenses to protect their skiing patients against glare from snow and ice; however, they also warn these patients that ice patches can appear to have a gray or flat color through polarized lenses. Melanin lenses can be a safe alternative to polarized lenses. In general, skiers need visual contrast to read the slope and to spot moguls. Oranges and reds seem to work best.

Biking and Driving: Polarized lenses are a must. They reduce glare from road surfaces and passing cars. Grays and browns seem to work best on the road, but yellow lenses can provide excellent contrast on overcast days or in off-road conditions.

Tennis: “Most pro tennis players do not wear sunglasses,” notes Dr. Lampert. There is a perception, he says, that sunglasses slow down the message to the brain, impacting players’ speed and reflexes in responding to a shot. Still, weekend tennis players often say they need lenses to help them spot the yellow tennis ball on sunny days. Melanin lenses or blue polarized lenses can help in this area.

Hunting/Shooting: This perhaps is the most active area of sports specialty tints. For target shooters or hunters, orange, violet, red, blue, green, brown, yellow or gray tints might be best. Determining factors include climate, background, target and/or personal preference. Polarized lenses are a must.