As just another sign of the huge growth of our great sport, internationally recognized tennis racket brands have staked claims in the cucumber patch over the last year where there are already in excess of a hundred brands actively sold. First it was Head last fall, and then both Wilson and Prince announced this spring. Having worked for both Wilson and Prince, I was particularly interested in Prince because it was through my own introduction of Prince Tennis that I was dubbed a Baron, my Nom de Guerre, part of that incredible 1980s bronco ride with the Prince tennis racket.
I have never experienced a marketplace anywhere near as confused as the pickleball paddle market. Individual sales are frequently influenced, not by the national champion, but someone who is perhaps only a month or two ahead of their neighbors on the pickleball learning curve. Pickleball paddles have until now been mostly manufactured by family owned businesses started by someone passionate about pickleball. Having been around the business of racket sports most of my career, I am amazed at the industry’s ability to manage growth, especially during these last four years of exploding growth.
The well known tennis and racketball brands also started small with a passionate inventor. The fellow who once hired me, Howard Head, invented both Head and Prince. But with growth the national brands became part of large corporations that frequently became moribund, sometimes lost in procedures and endless meetings and about as far away from their original roots as possible. I operated my own consulting business to introduce new sport brands, and enjoyed poking the flat footed Goliaths in their ticklish spots.
From their official press release, Atlanta based Prince wrote, “Prince paddles will be designed and manufactured by Paddletek and assembled in the United States… As an internationally recognized brand in racquet sports, Prince has always been a leader of design and innovation.”
In the 1980s, with a simple concept – larger sweet spot, Prince upset the entire global tennis racket market and put it on its ear. I know because I was part of that introduction, and experienced first hand what it is like having everyone tell you that you will fail because your new product is different than the rest. Yet as they told me that, factories producing traditional tennis rackets continued to close and be shuttered while Prince Tennis doubled sales year after year.
With this as background, I was very fortunate to have a phone conversation with Curtis Smith, CEO of Paddletek, a company known for innovative performance pickleball paddles. Curtis will continue to lead Paddletek, and also the launch of the Prince paddles as well. He explained that Prince Paddles will, once again, focus on a supersized sweet spot derived from a unique round paddle design, as well as a new proprietary polymer core material.
I still remember the day almost four decades ago when Howard Head sent me an experimental Prince tennis racket to try. My reaction to it was very positive because I felt the much larger sweet spot as soon as I hit a few balls. And it was “Déjà vu” with the Prince paddle that Curtis Smith sent me to try. It also had a bigger sweet spot as well as a longer handle for two handed players, and has been endorsed by Simone Jardim, a former tennis player now at the top of the pickleball world.
Not only will the emphasis be on the larger sweet spot, but the unique polymer core provides a progressive, almost intuitive, playability response. When I had the opportunity to further play test the new Prince design, it greatly exceeded my expectations. My impression of Curtis Smith is that he is confident of his new design, and if initial market reaction is an indicator, this round shape design looks like it will be a game changer.
Curtis also explained that the Prince distribution strategy would be different with more emphasis on large sporting goods retailers. We talked tennis racket and pickleball paddle “shop” at length, and I will be the first to report that his hardcore Paddletek consumers should not worry because he has plenty up his sleeve for them as well.
Having spent my career in the racket sports, I think this certainly is a wise move on the part of both Paddletek and Prince. It helps a large company like Prince avoid the pitfalls that a corporate giant might make entering Pickleball, yet gives Paddletek the benefits that size can bestow like new technologies and advanced materials and designs.
Their relationship is set for a regal start, and I believe Prince is a welcome addition to the industry. How well will the tail wag the much larger dog? I hope my readers join me in wishing them well.