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Nike, Under Armour, Fanatics and other sports retailers are making coronavirus masks

Daniel Roberts
Editor-at-Large

Now that the U.S. has more coronavirus cases than any other country with over 100,000, American manufacturers are rapidly pivoting to help address the urgent shortage of protective medical gear.

Fanatics, the maker of official licensed apparel for all the major sports leagues, has converted its Easton, Pennsylvania factory, where it makes official MLB jerseys, into a hub for making medical masks and gowns for hospital workers.

And it’s making the masks and gowns out of MLB jersey material, beginning with Phillies jerseys.

Fanatics Chairman Michael Rubin (also a co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers) credited Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Attorney General Josh Shapiro with calling Fanatics to kickstart the plan.

The masks are from mesh fabric and are not as protective as N95 respirators, but this week the Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said at a press conference that such DIY masks are “better than nothing.”

On social media on Thursday, Rubin said that the Easton factory has halted production of all MLB jerseys with the cooperation of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred (the baseball season is currently on hold anyway), and now has about 100 employees working “extra distanced and in a very clean and safe environment” to make 1 million masks and gowns to donate to hospitals in Pennsylvania, with the hopes of eventually “extending this to New Jersey and New York.”

Fanatics and MLB are taking on the cost of production.

EASTON, PA - APRIL 4: Commissioner of Baseball Robert D. Manfred Jr. speaks during a joint announcement between Fanatics and VF Licensed Sports Group at the Majestic Factory on Tuesday April 4, 2017 in Easton, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB via Getty Images)

Fanatics is privately held, with a “unicorn” valuation of $4.5 billion. In 2017, Fanatics bought jersey-maker Majestic and took over the Easton plant.

That same year, it took on new investments from SoftBank, the NFL, NFLPA, MLB, and MLS, and was Yahoo Finance’s Sports Business of the Year.

And Fanatics isn’t the only sports apparel brand pivoting to medical masks.

Nike said on its earnings call this week that it is working with Oregon Health & Science University, near Nike’s Beaverton, Oregon headquarters, on a medical face shield prototype. The company aims to start producing face shields (different from masks) to provide to hospitals.

Under Armour, based in Baltimore, is working with the University of Maryland Medical System to make face shields, masks, and gowns. The company says it will produce “upwards of 500,000 masks, 1,000 face shields, and thousands of hospital gowns” in Baltimore to donate to the local hospital system. In addition, Under Armour “employee volunteers” are filling 50,000 fanny packs with medical supplies.

New Balance said this week it has “engaged a portion of its workforce” to produce face mask prototypes at its factory in Lawrence, Mass. The company hopes “to scale production using our other New England factories soon.”

These sports apparel players join a much longer list of fashion labels stepping up to manufacture medical items (including Estee Lauder), along with companies that aren’t in fashion at all, like car-maker Fiat Chrysler (now making masks) and even beer-brewer Molson Coors (now making hand sanitizer).

As the situation has become “all hands on deck,” expect any companies with manufacturing facilities who aren’t making emergency medical equipment to feel pressure to start helping.

[See also: Combating the coronavirus: Automakers, other companies make ventilators and medical supplies]

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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