By Barry Janoff
November 15, 2012: For more than a hundred years, athletes have been paid to endorse products, dating back even before Babe Ruth put his face and moniker on products ranging from cigars and underwear to cereal and soap.
But since the founding of Mission Athletecare in 2009, the current and former athletes aligned with the company have taken what Ruth and his contemporaries pioneered to another level.
Mission Athletecare has more than two dozen products in such areas as muscle care, foot care, anti-chafe, sunscreen and a new category they created, grip enhancement, all developed in conjunction with the athletes who not only inspired their creation and now use and endorse them, but also have a vested interest in the company itself. They are, as Mission Athletecare founder and president Josh Shaw calls them, "equity partners."
When Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat talks about Court Grip — which is sprayed on the bottom of sports footwear to reduce slippage and increase traction on indoor courts— he can say he was there when the product was in its infancy. When Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks or Dwight Howard of the Los Angeles Lakers promote Power Grip — a liquid-chalk technology applied to the hands to reduce sweat and enhance the ball grip — they can say they were there when it was being tested.
And when tennis star Serena Williams talks about EnduraCool — an instant-cooling towel that reduces body temperature over an extended period — she can say she worked on product development along with Howard, MMA icon Georges St-Pierre and pro golfer Sergio Garcia.
In fact, Williams did just that following the launch of the product this past April when she spearheaded a promotional tour that saw EnduraCool featured on TV news and talk shows and in sports, fashion and lifestyle magazines nationwide.
The New York-based company's roster of some 20 endorsers/equity partners come from across the spectrum of sports, including Alonzo Mourning, Amanda Beard, Billy Jean King, Gretchen Bleiler (pictured below), Brandon Jennings, Mia Hamm, Ryan Sheckler and David Wright.
In addition, these athletes work with Mission Athletecare through “Athletes On a Mission,” which recognizes, rewards and inspires youth athletes that give back to their communities.
As the company enters its second season as the "official athletecare" of the NBA and "official traction provider" of the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Assn., NYSportsJournalism spoke with Josh Shaw about athletes, marketing and the future of the "athlete-engineered" products company.
NYSportsJournalism.com: The company is now in the second season of a multi-year deal with the NBA. How would you describe your relationship with the league?
Josh Shaw: They have been a fantastic organization for us. I have been very impressed with the people there with whom we work. They're smart. They're reasonable. They get it. And the National Basketball Athletic Trainers Assn., the tandem group with whom we work with the trainers of all the teams, has been just as impressive. Hands-on, very engaged.
NYSJ: Has anything surprised you about your alliance with the NBA?
JS: For a small company such as Mission Athletecare, we didn't know what to expect going into the relationship. It was difficult to get a sense if we would get the same type of treatment as the big boys get, because we're not Gatorade, adidas or Nike. I have to say now that we have been treated very well and that I am beyond happy with what they have done, where the relationship is and where I see it going.
"We're not Gatorade, adidas or Nike. But we've been treated very well by the NBA. I'm beyond happy with what they've done and where the relationship is going."
NYSJ: Did the lockout last year and shortened season have an impact on marketing and product integration?
JS: Honestly, I do feel as if we dodged a bullet with the lockout. Did we prefer to have a full season? Yes. But we looked at the situation and we were opportunistic. We still went to market with Foot Locker, which was our exclusive retailer at the start of last season. What we saw was tremendous response and integration last year. I think we will be the most successful accessory in Foot Locker history over the next four or five years. That speaks to a strategy that, despite the lockout, getting creative and being innovative and having a product that tells a story, was what made the difference.
NYSJ: How do you prepare for something that happens when an athlete such as Lance Armstrong, or in the recent past Tiger Woods, does something out of your control to jeopardize the relationship?
JS: That is an issue we as a company are well aware of. And we have spoken to our athlete/equity partners about this. They know what can happen to their lives, not just their endorsement deals. For us, the sum is greater than the parts. The athletes are important to us, but of greater significance is the company, the products we send to market and the credibility of the company. We would not market a Lance Armstrong Power Grip for cyclists, for instance. We do not have the Martha Stewart brand model, where a player's name is above the product. Here, the company and the brand come first, and the athletes are the supporting developers and equity partners who ultimately are going to win when the brand succeeds.
NYSJ: Do you discuss this strategy with athletes when they come in to talk about working with and investing in Mission Athletecare?
JS: Absolutely. They know that the way we engineer it is that the athletes are absolutely instrumental and at the center of the company, but at the same time, when it comes to our market strategy, it is an evergreen. We are constantly looking at and assessing what is the right model, the right presentation of the athletes. There never is one athlete who dominates the product and the marketing. They are the ones who support the product and the marketing. On that topic, I want to talk about how great it has been to work with Dwight Howard and in particular Dwayne Wade. D-Wade has a great presence on and off the court. He has a lot of class. If other athletes want to look at someone in pro sports they want to emulate, it would be D-Wade.
NYSJ: A number of the athletes with whom you work had high-profile years: Wade winning an NBA title with the Miami Heat, Dwight Howard being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, Serena Williams winning Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the gold medal in London. Have you seen any impact from that?
JS: First of all, believe me when I say that I look at our roster and know we got lucky. We have athletes who work hard 24/7, and give their blood, sweat and tears. They all are outstanding. We couldn't have asked for a better year. Serena was on fire. Dwayne won the NBA championship. Dwight goes to the Lakers. Sergio Garcia had a good year. I mean, it literally seemed as if we had a crystal ball when we put this roster together. [Laughs.] We had great karma. Celebrity power certainly has helped a lot. But that said, we have a lot of great people in the company who have worked their butts off to get us to where we are.
NYSJ: What is your goal as far as integrating your products among NBA players?
JS: We were looking to get as many players as possible to use Court Grip and Power Grip. The guys on our roster — Dwayne, Dwight, Carmelo Anthony, Brandon Jennings — have been very good about spreading the word.
NYSJ: Have you gotten a good response from NBA players beyond your core group of spokesmen?
JS: Because of the condensed season (66 games) the players had no preseason and limited days for practice during the season because there were so many back-to-back games. So to get guys who have been playing ball for 15, 20 years, who have rituals and now are paid professionals, to try a new product when they don't have a practice day or an off-day to try it, is a huge statement. We saw 35%-40% of the players using Court Grip, and this is according to the NBA Trainers Assn. That is a testament to the product, the solution and the pervasiveness of the problem. We have a group of guys who are equity partners who use the products. But it's even more exciting when our products are used by Russell Westbrook, Jeremy Lin, A'mare Stoudemire, guys who have nothing to do with Mission Athletecare.
"It's even more exciting when our products are used by Russell Westbrook, Jeremy Lin, A'mare Stoudemire, guys who have nothing to do with Mission Athletecare."
NYSJ: What type of growth would you like this season?
JS: We don't want that to taper off for this season; we want to see it expand. Our hope is to get 50%-60% of players using it. That would be excellent.
NYSJ: How has this translated to your company's bottom line?
JS: Broadly speaking, the business has effectively doubled from 2010 to 2011 and then 2011 to 2012. And we are on track to more than double from 2012 to 2013.
NYSJ: Has the fact that athletes such as Wade, Howard and Serena Williams have roles in developing products made an impact among other athletes and among consumers?
JS: It absolutely has had an impact. When you're talking about the Alpha Male strategy, we have the influencers, the guys who have earned respect not just among younger generations but also among their peer groups. When the peer group respects the Alpha Male, it has a viral affect.
NYSJ: Do you find that the athletes themselves are more committed to Mission Athletecare than other products they might endorse because they have a vested interest in the company?
JS: They understand that these are not just paid endorser deals. The athletes are genuinely equity owners. So they care on a much deeper level. The feeling they have is we're not going to win until you win. So it's not like they say 'I'll show up an an event and talk and say what you want me to say.' They have a vested interest in the products and in the company. They want to understand how the products work, I want to have input on how to make the products work better or what areas we might explore to come up with new products based on their experiences. They are part of the decision-making process from research and development to packaging and marketing.
NYSJ: Last year you had an exclusive deal with Foot Locker, but now the products are also in such retailers as Dick's Sporting Goods, Modell's, Sports Authority, Sport Chalet, Finish Line, Big 5 and Hibbett. How important a role will these retailers play in the growth of Mission Athletecare?
JP: Getting our products into more stores gives us the opportunity to reach more consumers. But you can't expect sales growth without having a product that consumers want to purchase and want to tell others to purchase. We have a strong group of retailers that are getting our products out nationally and on a regional basis. Mitch Modell (CEO of Modell's Sporting Goods) has been great to work with. He has been very supportive. This year has been a coming out party for everyone and they have all really stepped up and embraced the products. And sales have started to click nicely.
NYSJ: If your products could get human traits, would they all be jealous of EnduraCool towel, which has been on TV, in magazines and is getting a lot of national media attention?
JS: [Laughs]. I think the other products, as great as they are, are in a niche situation. They address a pervasive problem. Even though Court Grip, for example, can be used for basketball, volleyball and other sports on a court, it is truly a performance product. The EnduraCool towel is not just for basketball or football or baseball. It has such a ubiquity to it. It can be used by anybody. Serena can use it at the U.S. Open. Dwight can use it during workouts. Georges St-Pierre is going to use it in the ring. There is a true global appeal to it. You can use it after a workout at the gym, after Pilates, in the yard gardening, in the stands at a Nascar race. So the towel lends itself to a much broader consumer base than athletes.
NYSJ: How involved will you be with the NBA All-Star Game in Houston this February?
JS: We are not sponsors, but we are lucky enough to have some players who use the products. Like last year, we expect to see our products in use during the dunk contest and in the game itself.
NYSJ: What can you share about your plans for 2013?
JS: We just acquired another company, which we soon will be announcing publicly. And we are investigating new categories. But we are doubling down in two categories: Cooling and Grip. Those are the two categories in which we are really investing. They are the two in the portfolio that we will be pushing forward. There will be a broad assortment of cooling towels launching next year and a much more functional in-game product. And in Grip, we will continue to build Court Grip and Power Grip, but we will also be getting into a new grip category. I think the big story last year was that technology is not just Mark Cuban talking about social media, it is technology in the form of products that can help athletes play better. You will see more of that from us.