Equipment: Knocking It Off
The sports industry, including tennis, is taking steps to combat counterfeit products, which harm manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
By Kent Oswald
Fake sports products, including tennis racquets, shoes, apparel, strings and accessories, are a disease that too often we all try to ignore.
Manufacturers worry that highlighting knock-offs of their products may tar their brands. Authorized retailers can never be sure how much money they may be losing to sales of fake products since it is often only when a racquet gets on a machine for restringing that they are face to face with a deception. And customers often are reticent to admit they were taken in by the too-good-to-be-true deal they nabbed on the Internet or on a street corner.
No matter how many eyes are averted from the threat (see “Faked Out” in the January 2011 issue of RSI), the problem does exist for tennis and the sporting goods industry as a whole — even as specific incidents of loss for individuals or companies within the industry are hard to pin down. The tennis industry itself estimates, conservatively, that legitimate dealers are losing $30 million a year to fake racquets.
Examples of recent enforcement success hint at the overall scope of the problem and efforts to drive counterfeiters out of business. In May, the U.S. Department of Justice seized more than $1.5 million in proceeds as part of a crackdown on counterfeit sports merchandise codenamed Operation in Our Sites, begun in 2010 to fight intellectual property piracy. Last November, the DOJ “celebrated” Cyber Monday (the peak day for online sales in the run-up to Christmas) by taking down 127 domains selling counterfeit sporting goods. In both cases, tennis merchandise was part of the scam.
And, in a critical development, apparel brands UGG’s and Hermes recently won millions of dollars against websites selling counterfeit products — and they were awarded the money from the defendants’ PayPal accounts. Previously, it was nearly impossible to recover money from defendants, but the initiative (by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) puts some teeth into anti-counterfeiting efforts and allows the DOJ to recover funds collected via PayPal as well as money transferred from PayPal accounts to bank accounts in China.
Surprisingly, the response from one large manufacturer’s spokesperson to a query regarding this problem’s scope was that they “do not have counterfeit issues with their merchandise.” This despite a documented and fairly extensive trail of mentions in articles and chat on tennis bulletin boards to the contrary.
Bruce Levine, a member of the Tennis Industry Association’s Retail Panel and general manager of Courtside Racquet in Lebanon, N.J., suggests that, “If it’s a minute problem, [companies] are going to try and hide it. If it’s under control a company may not want to talk about it so the consumer doesn’t hear about it.”
“We saw some of this for a while, mainly [of two well-known brands],” says Steve Vorhaus, owner of Rocky Mountain Racquet Specialists in Boulder, Colo. “We haven’t seen one in about a year. My recommendation to consumers is not to shop on auction sites.”
The TIA, in fact, has taken steps to bring this problem to the forefront with a “Counterfeit Racquet Alert” campaign that includes the website keeptennisreal.com to help consumers, and to have retailers become “verified dealers.” The free service for “verified dealers” allows retailers to be listed on consumer searches and provides dealers with materials they can use — both in their stores and on their websites — to alert consumers to the problem of counterfeit product.
“We’ve been talking with the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association and other groups to help fight this problem,” says TIA Executive Director Jolyn de Boer. “There is a proliferation of internet shopping sites popping up, with the majority from China, that offer discounts and amazing deals, and these sites are illegal. They hurt the industry, the manufacturers, retailers and the unknowing consumers who buy counterfeit equipment and product.”
“Consumers initially may think they are getting a good deal, but when they use the counterfeit product and realize performance and feel is well below the expected quality and performance standard, they will end up spending more money overall — to purchase the authentic product plus the money wasted on the counterfeit,” says TIA President Jon Muir, who is also the worldwide general manager of Wilson Racquet Sports. “This is as much a brand issue as consumer issue, and Wilson is very active monthly in identifying and shutting down illegal sites and auctions, and we actively pursue any counterfeit racquets we find in the market.”
The TIA also is making consumers aware in conjunction with friendly rival golf, whose efforts to combat piracy are outlined at keepgolfreal.com. Success for one is good for both, and to that end is good to note that in the last 18 months the golf folks have worked with Chinese law enforcement to execute 18 raids resulting in the seizure of nearly 110,000 counterfeit golf products.
Golf group spokesperson Jason Rocker describes the mutual enemy, 90 percent of which he estimates is manufacturing their counterfeit wares in China (home also of most legitimate manufacturing) as, “just an evil group.”
The industry fear is that golfers who thought they were getting a deal are more likely to wonder why their club underperforms in distance or control — assuming that the shaft doesn’t shatter upon contact or the head fly off mid-swing. “You are dealing with a criminal element,” Rocker says. “Sometimes the lack of organization of that is the challenge that we’re facing in terms of we have to work extra hard to identify them and shut them down.”
Fighting, even finding, such malefactors requires more than just tennis and golf cooperation. Bill Sells, the vice president of governmental relations for the SGMA, explains that the umbrella organization of the sporting goods industry has aligned under an even larger political lobbying group, the Coalition Against Counterfeiting and Piracy. That group “is working with Congress and the Federal Government to help address the problem of online sales of counterfeit products. We also support efforts by the Custom and Border Patrol’s (CBP) Immigration and Customs Enforcement division targeting imports of counterfeit products.”
There are positives and neutrals to report. SMGA’s spring 2012 “state of the industry” report includes the summary of action: “With no legislative fix currently available, the industry had some notable successes working with the federal government’s Intellectual Property Rights Center. The IPR Center has successfully shut down rogue websites trafficking in counterfeit goods.”
The SGMA estimates the retail value of counterfeit products seized by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in 2011 at $1.1 billion — with footwear and apparel the largest sports-related categories, making up about 23 percent of that total. SGMA ominously notes an increase in the number of counterfeit seizures as more shipments are made directly to consumers.
Guilt By Association?
While the successes are newsworthy, there does seem to be a sort of melancholy in the air about “solving” the problem of counterfeiting — kind of like cleaning up a Jell-O mess using a hammer. One company’s sales manager (who preferred anonymity) explained that, “We do our best to provide customers with high quality, premium products that provide them with a positive performance experience. When consumers purchase a fake product and have a poor experience with it, we don’t want them to associate that negative experience with our brand. Counterfeit racquets are quite easy to find on the web, and getting across the message, ‘If it looks too good to be true, it probably is,’ can be difficult to get out to uninformed consumers. We take a very proactive approach against websites that sell counterfeit products by going after the hosting companies, who want nothing to do with trademark infringement issues. The challenge here can be that new sites pop up as quickly as you shut them down.”
Mostly unspoken, although certainly one of the largest concerns in a difficult economic environment, is that every effort to fight the “bad guys” adds to the cost of a legitimate sale.
“We have implemented policies and procedures to prevent counterfeiting of our racquets and strings on the ‘front end,’” offered another company’s sales manager. “It does come with additional costs, but it is better to implement these policies and procedures to protect the products of the brand while protecting the consumer and retailer.”
And since those costs reverberate, it is incumbent on everyone at every level of the sales chain — manufacturer to consumer — to do what they can to buy legit, speak up when they suspect something is amiss, and always keep in mind the basic mantra: “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
What to Look For
Counterfeiters are becoming increasingly sophisticated. While we can’t emphasize enough the importance of purchasing from an authorized, verified dealer, if you get a product that looks suspect, here are some things you can check.
- Check graphics carefully for “misspellings,” questionable paint jobs and other cosmetic miscues.
- Compare published racquet specs such as the weight and balance.
- Listen for any rattles or loose parts inside the frame.
Clothing and shoes:
- Consider “hand feel” of the garment, or the “interior construction” and “comfort” of the shoe.
- Look for shoddy stitching or missing, poorly designed labels.
- Look for the manufacturer’s stamp on the string and make sure of correct brand name, model name and gauge.
- If there is a question, check for industry updates or file a report at keeptennisreal.com.
Our International Connection
A few months ago, we received an email from Petros Biris of Greece, a USRSA Master Racquet Technician and the head coach and tennis manager at Nea Ionia Tennis Club. Biris (racketspecialist.gr) is a longtime stringer for recreational and professional players, and has strung at top pro tournaments since 1997.
Attached to his email was a photographic journey comparing a real Head YouTek IG Speed 300 frame, the kind of racquet used by world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, with a counterfeit version of the same frame. “The results of our research proved that factories are a step closer in producing widely deceiving frames, at least at first look,” Biris wrote.
His document included 16 photos showing side-by-side instances of where the fake frame differed from the original — but in some instances, the differences were incredibly hard to distinguish, if at all. Then he and his staff hit with the frame.
“Our on-court tests showed that the fake stick falls short in performance, being unable to quickly recover from its bend position following impact,” he wrote. “A dead feel was present in almost every shot due to the lack of proper stiffness at multiple points along the frame and to the cheap material used. The complete absence of on-court performance makes it enough to distinguish the original from the fake. The common flaw of the fakes is always present and it is no other than the so-called ‘dead feel.’”
We’ve reproduced some of his photo comparisons here, but you can see the whole document, with photos, here.
As Biris concludes: “Shouldn’t you think twice next time you buy from non-trusted sites?”
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.