Pickleball Points — Endorsements can make a market, or break a company

Date Published: 
Nov. 2, 2017

Professional endorsements work because consumers make them work. Seldom, but sometimes, the company involves the athlete in product development. Billie Jean King and Chris Evert were involved in their Wilson autograph tennis rackets.

Endorsements are not to be taken lightly because of the financial risk, which can ruin companies.

I went to dinner in London with a friend — the CEO of a European tennis company — the night before he planned to possibly pay the first million-dollar tennis-racket endorsement contract to the great Bjorn Borg. When asked my opinion, I borrowed a piece of paper from the restaurant and sketched out a few numbers onto one sheet.

The first was my guess as to the average selling price of all his rackets sold, and then I subtracted the number that was my best guess as to his average manufacturing cost of all the rackets he sold. My third calculation was to divide a million dollars by the difference, which I estimated was $20.

He had to sell 50,000 additional units just to pay for the contract and another 50,000 to properly promote the Borg relationship to his products. On top of that, he had to finance the additional 100,000-unit inventory.

When faced with that sheet of paper, he got tears in his eyes and admitted this was his last chance to save his company and keep his workers — all friends and neighbors centered around his factory — employed. He had miscalculated, and you have likely never heard of his company.

That’s one side of the coin, but the other is the benefit of the endorsement. When the pros are involved, they indirectly force the company to add several features that would have likely been missed by some product manager just trying to meet a deadline and sell more units.

The CEO of Pro-Lite Pickleball Paddles, Neil Friedenberg, said, “We listen to our pros on what they look for in a paddle. They have thoughts on weights, length, feel, power — you name it. We always take into consideration their backgrounds, too. This is how we develop new shapes and materials… we coordinate it with what a tennis player looks for, racquetball player, table tennis, squash, etc.”

Endorsements bring players to pickleball who had different backgrounds. Typically, we think tennis, but a great many of them come to pickleball via the racquetball world.

What if a pickleball manufacturer built into a paddle the same geometric benefits of the design of the racquetball racket? Would that be a pickle of a paddle? A game-changer? Well, a pickleball paddle with those specifications is about to come onto the stage next week.

Then there is this photograph is of a new model — the Pro-Lite SuperNova paddle — which was developed in direct collaboration with Simone Jardim, currently the top female player in the world, who brought her distinctive two-handed backhand from her tennis.

There is a longer handle to accommodate her second hand, and Pro Lite altered the face for better performance, with the latest in a carbon-fiber surface over a polymer honeycomb core, to mimic the ball compression and control of a tennis racket. The paddle design intentionally increases the sweet spot, as well as dwell-time of the ball on the paddle.

So endorsements can benefit companies if there is a good fit between the athlete and the company culture.

When asked what I looked for in a potential endorsement athlete, I quickly responded that it was fairly easy, because at the upper levels of all of these sports, the players already have all the shots, and they all are motivated and serious about improving them. They also all had great balance, speed and endurance.

I looked internally, at passion and commitment. I explained that the final decision, for me, always came during a breakfast or lunch where I had a chance to look into the heart and mind of the athlete to see if they had that enigmatic championship quality so easy to recognize, yet hard to define.

While breaking bread, I sometimes found an incredibly gifted athlete who had really never thought much about their game, but by virtue of strength or speed had beaten their opponents. But greatness requires more.

Immediately after winning Wimbledon, the already-great Billie Jean King told me she was already thinking about what she needed to improve for next year’s championship.

Think about it. Striking the Pickleball, the table tennis ball, the tennis ball and the golf ball are fairly straightforward endeavors. Use the face of your equipment to cleanly strike the ball surface and the ball goes exactly to the spot you hit it. What’s the big deal?

The problem, of course, is replicating that one clean shot in the wind, sun or heat, a thousand times. The key is not the shot, but the ability to replicate that shot for hours, under competitive pressure, in unbearable heat and humidity. The professional is playing in all of those conditions, so they become a great barometer as to how the paddles they endorse will perform for you.

Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.