With some high-profile pros and a grassroots push, Babolat’s move into racquets 10 years ago has been paying off.
By Mark Winters
Years ago, “Babolat” was pretty much the only name that came to mind when talking about gut racquet strings. Today, while still a leader in gut strings, the 129-year-old company is a growing presence in the racquet game, as well.
About 80 percent of the focus of the family-owned company is on the tennis market. “Since we introduced racquets and synthetic strings, gut, which used to be 100 percent of the business, is now about 5 percent, because the other products sell so well,” says Vice President Jean-Louis Boyre at the company’s headquarters in Lyon, France.
What pushed the company into going beyond gut strings? The simple answer is a creative and innovative racquet marketing approach, one that followed a solid business plan built on taking small steps rather than making one big splash promotion.
“Tennis was very flat in 1994-1995,” Boyre says of the time when Babolat moved into tennis racquets. “Many in the industry perceived the decision as a gamble, but we realized that if we wanted to keep our independence, the company couldn’t be just string. We had to become more.”
Though Babolat was not in the racquet manufacturing business, it did know that end of the game because of its years of producing gut and stringing machines. “The market was distressed,” Boyre says. “There were too many racquets. We had to come up with a racquet technology that was easy for retailers to understand.”
The key, according to Boyre, was “to establish a marketing strategy that would easily work country to country. We had an advantage because people knew our string, which gave us contacts with players and their agents. As success was achieved, the approach was expanded globally.” Babolat racquets entered the U.S. market in the spring of 2000.
The company struck gold, though, when it signed Carlos Moya in the fall of 1996. He was an Australian Open finalist in 1997, and a year later, he won Roland Garros,” says Boyre. “[His] Pure Drive [model] was the first racquet designed for serious and professional players offering power without the loss of control. We also signed Kim Clijsters at 14 and Andy Roddick when he was 17.”
Boyre admits that “without Andy Roddick, we wouldn’t be at the same level. He has played a major role in where we are in the U.S. today.” But for Babolat, success bred more success, says Boyre. “Because more and more competitors are product-oriented, they will move to a successful brand.”
Another important piece of Babolat’s marketing strategy was to develop a strong grassroots program in each country in which it sold racquets, says Boyre. “This was extremely important when we entered the United States. We started building relationships with youngsters who may become the next Roddick or Clijsters.”
Babolat’s formula for success is “good playing racquets and highly visible professional and junior players in key markets worldwide,” says Boyre.
And down the road?
“[Right now,] we are not that big in tennis racquets,” says President Eric Babolat, who is the fifth generation of his family to be involved with the company. “We want to get into the top three worldwide in the next three or four years.”
Babolat recalls 1994 as “a crazy time” to start making racquets. But he seems pleased with how his company has fared over the last 10 years.
“People now see two worlds,” he says, “their world and that of the professional player. They all expect more from us.”
See all articles by Mark Winters
About the Author
Mark Winters, who played college and professional tennis, is a former Junior Davis Cup team and college coach. He spent time as a USTA clinician nationally and in the Middle East. He has written about the game for more than 25 years, with his stories appearing in Tennis Week and Florida Tennis as well as the Los Angeles Times and a host of international publications.