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words & interview // Zac Dubasik
When you think of innovation in terms of basketball footwear, things like cushioning, materials, construction and, especially as of late, weight reduction are usually the first things to come to mind. But, all of the technology in the world doesn’t do a ton of good if you are slipping all over the floor. That’s not to say footwear companies don’t pay attention to traction. But, the marquee advancements being made today definitely focus more on the parts of a shoe that don’t actually touch the court. And let’s face it, herringbone, which has been widely used for a long time, pretty much always offers a minimum level of acceptable traction. If a company can nail a shoe’s upper and cushioning, they can slap some herringbone on and call it a day – pretty successfully.
As solid as herringbone can be, though, traction doesn’t always come down to the shoes. Court conditions can hamper even the best traction patterns. And that’s where COURT GRIP comes in. COURT GRIP is the latest product from Mission Basketball, which aims to combat the issue of dusty courts. To find out more about the company and the product, we spoke with the Founder and President of Mission Athletecare, Josh Shaw, and the inventor of COURT GRIP, Mark French of Mission Basketball.
Zac Dubasik: Can you share some background information on your company?
Josh Shaw: The company was founded three years ago, and launched two years ago. At the end of the day, the company is focused on building athlete care innovations – “athlete care” broadly defined as the intersection of sports medicine, equipment and personal care. Our business model is a bit unique; we have world-class athletes as true equity holders of the business. So, Dwyane [Wade], who we’ll talk about extensively, is an equity holder, as is Steve Nash, Serena Williams, David Wright and a host of other world-class athletes.
The business model was not rocket science by any stretch. It was to actually involve the world’s best athletes in the innovation, development and testing process. And it’s proved to be very beneficial, because rather than working in a vacuum like most companies do in some far away closet or laboratory, we are actually working with the world’s best to field test these products, day in and day out, until they’ve reached a certain level of acceptance and get taken to market.
We have about two dozen products in our portfolio; nothing nearly as revolutionary and exciting as what we are launching with COURT GRIP, but certainly some pretty great products that have really done well, and continue to perform. And by and large, those products speak to three areas of the athlete lifecycle, which are essentially the before, during and after competition. We call it, “Protect, Perform and Rehab.” And we’ll talk a lot today about this new innovation, COURT GRIP, which is squarely at the epicenter of Perform.
One follow-up on your business model: Athletes are individuals who can be very wealthy. And whether it’s from old friends, new friends or established businesses, they probably hear investment pitches on a daily basis. Could you talk about how you’ve been able to get athletes interested in investing in, rather than just endorsing, your company?
Josh: To be honest with you, I think we’ve found a white space that people gravitate to. There’s no question; luck was on our side; there’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears. And we’ve been fortunate to have some very good athletes come in early, taking some risks when we were early on as a start-up, and authenticating the brand. And what you just said couldn’t be more true. Our athletes, and frankly a lot of athletes, are pitched every day. Equity opportunities. Investment opportunities. And from every business and any shape and size you can imagine. We often hear that we are one of a million in terms of athlete opportunities that come along. But to cut to the chase, the answer is product innovation. I think these athletes were intrigued by, first and foremost, the opportunity to be part of a groundbreaking, game-changing build of innovation: products that truly meet their authentic needs as athletes. That was first. But a very close second is the idea that we are a blended-value company in that we are highly focused on the non-profit side while we are still a for-profit company. We literally don’t have an athlete in the company today that isn’t an important part of our philanthropic strategy. And quite honestly, the name Mission came from that. Early on, we were meeting with athletes to explore the business plan, before we even had a name for the business, and there wasn’t one meeting we came out of where you wouldn’t step back and say, “They are on a mission.” You listen to these athletes, and they rose up from the ashes. They came from absolutely nothing. They have achieved unbelievable goals and accomplishments, with almost nothing on their side. And then what they’ve done off the field, or off the court, is even more impressive. I think those are probably the two most important reasons the athletes are on board, and why we made it and so many of the other millions haven’t.
So, how did the concept of the COURT GRIP product come about?
Josh: It’s funny you asked the last question, because, as a business, we get pitched as often as probably the athletes do, by scientists, coaches, inventors, doctors and athletes, with their newest and greatest ideas they think should become part of Mission. And candidly, we’re probably more discriminating than the athletes are. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, we say, “Thank you, but no thank you.” We want to build our brand and invent our own products or acquire products. We rarely, if ever, see something that’s worthy of coming into Mission in a big way. About a year and a half or two years ago, we met Mark French, who’s the inventor and entrepreneur behind it. Within minutes of hearing about the product and understanding the problem solution he was going after, it was clear that he had developed something that was groundbreaking. What was equally, if not more impressive was the response we got when we sat down with Dwyane Wade to ask him what he thought about the problem in the market. Not being a baller myself, I didn’t have much familiarity with the slippage issue. And while I was intrigued by what Mark French shared with us, and explained about his innovation and what he was taking to market, it wasn’t until I really sat there and saw the whites of Dwyane’s eyes telling me that this thing has plagued his life. He literally said, “Guys, this isn’t an issue for just high school kids. It plagues me in the NBA today.” And he went on and on about how slippage is literally the bane of his existence, and it affects every aspect of his game – not just his moves, but his psyche and his confidence. With that, we decided to go ahead full steam and acquire the technology and Mark’s business and his team and bring them in to Mission as a wholly owned part of the company. At that point, he and Dwyane began working collaboratively to take the product from what was still in its formative stages to the finish line, and now to what will be unveiled on Sept. 28th.
Mark, could you take over from there and start to talk about the development process and where this whole idea came from?
Mark French: Do you play basketball? Are you familiar with the issue of court slippage and wiping your soles?
I play as often as possible, and I’m definitely familiar with the issue.
Mark: The concept for the business started as something I’ve had in the back of my mind since I was a little kid. I’d seen myself, and everyone around me, at every level, constantly wiping our soles. Or, what I’m OK with admitting now – which is pretty disgusting – spitting in my hand and wiping my soles, which you’ll see kids do all the time. And Dwyane will tell you it happens pretty much on every play in the NBA as well. I just really saw a white space in the marketplace. Having played virtually at every level, I’d tried every solution, like every other kid out there, whether it’s stepping on sticky mats that really don’t do anything, to pouring soda on the floor. I’ve seen everything, and I’ve tried everything. But I looked at it and thought that it was worth researching. Why hasn’t a solution been developed? Is there a market for this?
As I think Josh alluded to before, I was fortunate to build a really good team, which is now with me at Mission, to examine the business model from every angle, from the chemical engineering standpoint, to the market research standpoint, to the package standpoint. The first thing we did was market research. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just something that bothered me. With the help of Pace University’s research, they polled 500 basketball players for us, and asked them about the biggest issues that cause them frustrations with the game of basketball. And unprompted, over 80 percent said that court slippage and court traction were the biggest issues. So, we knew there was an issue to be addressed. And then when asked the question, “If there was a product that helped enhance traction and limit slippage, would you buy it?” Results were off the charts, north of 75 percent. In my experiences with other businesses, knowing that if you get a number above 40 percent in a marketplace, that’s typically when companies say they are going to go into a sector. Along with my partners at the time, we really knew it was something that we wanted to try to tackle.
With the help of an incredible lead chemical engineer, we really brought in the best of the best on the chemical engineer side to try to figure out how to solve this problem. And I can tell you it took us just about three years, to quote unquote, crack that code. What does that mean? COURT GRIP is a proprietary, patent-pending, traction-enhancing formula, which is really designed for indoor courts. It’s reducing the negative impact on dusty and worn-out courts. It instantly enhances court traction and lowers slippage. What it’s doing for you as a basketball player is allow you to make quicker moves, be more explosive, and play with confidence without worrying about slippage. What we’ve done is developed 140 different versions of the product, tested it with over 1,000 players at the NBA level, the NCAA level, high school level and AAU level. And we’re proud to say that the product has already been approved for play at the NCAA level as well as the NFHS, which is the governing body for all high school sports. Pretty much anyone that can buy this product, it’s approved for play and usage.
How was Dwyane involved?
Mark: Dwyane’s involvement was throughout last season, testing our final formulas – over a dozen – and helping us tweak which ones were the best, along with the help of a variety of different scientists. I can tell you that last year, some premier NCAA programs were also helping us determine the best formula and the best bottles. But Dwyane was really the one leading that charge to tell us which one was the one we should go to market with. Then we would take that to our partners at the NCAA level. We thought across the board that the final formula was the one that everyone thought was the best one. What made it the best is the instant traction, how long it would last, the fact that it was instant dry and easy to use. That was really where Mission came into our business and really got us over the hump. It was originally applied through a shoe polish bottle applicator. When we are dealing with players that have size 13 to 16 feet, it would take a very long time. So we really had to nail that bottle, the ergonomics behind it, and the application method. It’s something we’re really, really proud of.
Was it a challenge to find a formula that was both effective, yet wouldn’t damage sneakers or floors?
That’s a great question. That was one of the key things. When we went into it, the mandates that I gave to the scientists were these: First and foremost, it cannot be detrimental to the sneakers, nor to the basketball court. It has to dry instantly, which is a big part of our proprietary technology. And why? Because if basketball players put it on, it has to literally be ready for play instantly. Believe it or not, cracking the code in terms of not being detrimental and not harming the sneakers – that was difficult, but not that difficult. The hardest part was making it activate upon pressure. What I mean by that is that it’s pressure-sensitive technology, so you’re really getting traction when you want it. The analogy that I make often is really kind of the science behind the science. If you think about a race car tire, and the additives that are in a race car tire, when you are putting pressure on the outside tire going around a turn at high velocity, that’s when the tire is really biting into the track. And that’s what you want with COURT GRIP. You want to be able to make traction-based moves in game-speed environments.
The beauty of the product, and Dwyane actually says this better than anyone, is that you don’t feel it when you’re going north and south. You don’t want to feel sticky, but you want to know that when you’re making a crossover, or when you have to get through a high pick-and-roll, you want to know that you’re not going to slip. And that’s exactly what we set out to do. And that’s probably what took us the longest, was to figure out what’s the right amount of traction for those sorts of environments.
How much of a concern was it that the product would be approved for organized play?
When building the business model, it was something we thought about right out of the gates. The initial thought was that we wanted to be sure it was something that was enhancing the game, as well as enhancing player safety. You can’t over grip. That’s a perfect example. If you apply more, it’s not that you are getting more traction on your shoes. It’s really baked into the nanotechnology, which is the formula. So, it was one of our primary goals to ensure that the product did exactly what it was supposed to, and that it gives you just the right amount of traction and not too much.
Are all shoes equal when it comes to COURT GRIP? Are there certain outsole compounds or traction patterns that it works better with?
The beauty of COURT GRIP: it is compatible with any basketball sneaker. It has literally been tested pretty much on every sneaker in the marketplace that came out over the course of the last three years. The product has nothing to do with sneakers. That’s the bottom line. It is all about the court. The issue with traction really is about the accumulation of dust on the court, and what our product is doing is actually addressing the court dust. So, any pair of sneakers that you put it on is going to give you that advanced traction and really nullify the negative impact of what it does to basketball.
It’s really interesting that it is more about the court than the sneakers.
That’s always been the focus for us. I think one of the better questions is, does it work differently on courts that are a little dusty versus very dusty? And the answer is, it actually works just as effective on any type of court in the market. We’ve seen performance levels excel whether it’s a filthy community center court, or it’s an NBA court. The product has the same type of effect.
What is the suggested use for the product? When do you put it on? How often to you need to apply it?
Mark: One of the things that we are pretty fortunate with is that we’ve worked with all of these NCAA programs, as well as with Dwyane. And we really measured all of last season how often players were applying. And what we’ve seen is typically what guys will do, and Dwyane is the perfect example, is just applying in between each quarter. A quick application of the product will last you a whole quarter. But what was very interesting to see, and we tested it with a variety of different players, is that you see guys coming out of timeouts, especially in the fourth quarters when it’s really important and they want to make the most dynamic moves, they’ll apply again. They want that extra feeling of confidence. It was interesting to see when people would take additional grips. The other thing is that guys apply on the bench, right before they go on the game. But what we’ve also seen is at the scorer’s table, guys will apply there as well before they check in.
Josh: But you don’t need to apply any more frequently than every 15 minutes. The reality we’ve seen in the market is that people become so addicted to it – to have that grip – that they may even come out every five minutes, or when they have a chance, they’ll grab it from the scorers table and reapply.
Mark: And we’ve seen other premier players that say they only need to put it on once a game, and it’s doing unbelievable things. It really does depend on the player.
Going back to Dwyane, why was it that you approached him to be a part of this, and what’s he been like to work with?
Josh: I can tell you honestly that we’ve worked with about two dozen athletes since the start of the company, and we’ve worked intimately with all of them. He is at the top of the list in terms of enthusiasm, passion, intelligence and interest level. One of the things I left out of my answer before, in terms of what gets the athlete excited, there is a distant third, and it’s not that far off – being an entrepreneur. I will tell you that above and beyond being a champion, having high integrity, being authentic and smart, he is an entrepreneur at the end of the day as well. And of all of the athletes we have in the company, Dwyane has been extremely cooperative and collaborative in this process. He’s highly engaged, has frequent communication and gives really good feedback – not just on the formula, but the applications, the design, and frankly, all the way through to the marketing campaign.
Mark: I would agree across the board. Just in terms of the passion for the product, as well as in terms of access, and wanting to test, and wanting to give feedback. He’s really just incredible. Dwyane also was really encouraged throughout the process to hear about the testing and focus group work that we were doing with AAU players and hearing how excited players felt when using the product. Without putting words in his mouth, I think he’s pretty excited that he put the time and effort in with a product like this that could potentially really change the game of basketball and the way that we’re all playing it.
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