In an excerpt in The New Yorker, author John Jeremiah Sullivan described tennis, with its great yawning divide between players, as “perhaps the most isolating of games.” Despite all of the sweaty, frantic, kinetic energy passed between players—no matter the space between them—many sports necessitate a kind of intimate self knowledge and awareness in each player, and tennis is a unique example.
Tennis, which is often likened to chess, is a game of anticipation and reaction. The best players have a keen sense of perception—of their competitors, risks and bluffs, and of themselves. Within the game is a communal and individual push-pull found in many sports: a rhythm is held between competitors, each in tune to one another and their next move, yet a constant internal focus on the individual and their own physicality and performance is crucial. Every move you make is just as important to zero in on as the one your opponent is making.
No matter the bodies and obstacles and crowd, out there it’s just you.
Tennis brand Slinger knows this. The brand, owned by Connexa Sports Technologies Inc, rapidly burst into the industry with a game-changing piece of equipment, and built an entire community around the notion of independent play and practice. Solo tennis players of all skill levels have rallied around their headlining product: the Slinger Bag, a portable ball launcher that’s more revolutionary than you’d expect. Slinger and its Bag have reinvigorated tennis with a new sense of possibility, where the parameters of the game are a little more free, independent of a partner or even a court.
From Kickstarter to the court: The Slinger Bag's origin
Ball machines are familiar, washing machine-like fixtures around country clubs and Pro Shops. They’re often cumbersome and bulky, requiring plugging in somewhere on the court for power. In short, they’re a drag to lug around. Joe Kalfa, Slinger’s founder and an avid tennis player himself, had been partner-less one day, and found the entire arduous process with the ball machine—getting it from the Pro Shop to the court, setting it up and switching it on, and figuring out how to use it— took nearly an hour. He knew there had to be a better way to play.
From a rough ideation stage, Kalfa engaged a graphic design company to mock up ideas, followed by a rudimentary prototype of what was to become the Slinger Bag. Wanting to prove that the tennis market would be interested in a product that could shake up its industry, Kalfa called Juda Honickman, now Slinger’s chief marketing officer, to set off a Kickstarter campaign. Its success was immediate. “Within 45 minutes, we hit our goal,” says Honickman. “Within seven days, we broke 100K, and in 90 days, we went on to break $1 million.”
What is it exactly that makes Slinger’s key product stand alone in a saturated sporting goods market?At its core, the Slinger Bag is a single player ball launcher, but comparisons to the clunky plastic machine stop there. For one, it’s sleek and portable, designed to replicate the convenience of a trolley bag, and the capaciousness of a duffel bag. Customizable for practicing shot types of any kind, the Bag fires off at varying speeds, frequencies, and height. A few more highlights for good measure: it's battery powered, fits snugly in the compact space of a Smart Car, and even charges your phone.
Slinger is a brand helmed by tennis players, creating a product for their peers—something to make their lives a little easier, a little more accommodating. Besides eliminating all of the obstacles set by its old school predecessor, the Bag was intentionally designed to be as multi-functional for its users as possible. “We looked at it as something that could carry and be everything a tennis player needed,” Honickman explains.
The Bag streamlines a solo player’s experience into what he describes as a “one stop shop,” where rackets, balls, water bottles, towels, and shoes all have a place. “You roll it onto the court, you have your ball machine, and everything else you need for your time on court, all in one bag.”
Mike Ballardie, the brand’s CEO, had an extensive background on and off the court when he came to Slinger: as a tennis player, a coach, and at Wilson, the sporting goods company synonymous with neon green tennis balls. He understood how critical the connection is between a player and their equipment, and immediately recognized the Bag’s potential—that very same rudimentary prototype—on Slinger’s Kickstarter. “My tennis gut kicked in and said, ‘Wow, okay, if this thing is real and as good as it looks, it's gonna be something really big in the tennis world.’ And within a week, I met the founder, tried the product, and decided that I would take this company and set it up from scratch.”
Slinger spent the next year designing the product, sourcing in China, and testing. Tennis professionals were consulted for feedback through four rounds of product iteration. Once the final product was launched, news spread rapidly through the industry (“like wildfire,” Ballardie says) of something fresh and inventive hitting the court. Slinger was now tasked with meeting the overwhelming interest in their star product head on: delivering Bags to 5,000 early adopters. Between March and July 2020, the brand worked hard to harness the ongoing commotion for the product, creating a website to meet pre-orders and communicate clearly to hungry buyers that, as Ballardie describes it, “If they wanted to order a Slinger Bag, they needed to get in line.”
The uneasy tedium of lockdown in early 2020 made for bored and impatient consumers, but something about the Bag’s high speed trajectory in the market felt different. “Everyone wanted everything immediately, but we were doing a million dollars in sales,” says Honickman, reminiscing on the chaos of demand in the brand’s early days.
“This pre-order website that we built via our ecommerce platform was just driving traffic in ways that we did not expect. People were paying today and saying, ‘We'll wait 60 days to get it. No problem.’ And if that doesn't speak to the product, I don't know what does.”
Tennis trends in the pre- and post-pandemic era
The onset of the pandemic was a keen reminder that sports are not only essential to us individually, but societally: as communal entertainment, as social support systems, and as boosts to our physical and mental wellbeing. In early 2020 when gyms, pools, stadiums, parks, and all kinds of spaces that facilitated movement and sporting events were closed, the UN released a concerned brief onthe impact of Covid on sports and social development. Sports and wellness were recognized as critical contributors to a healthy society: from their social and physical benefits to their role in the economy and education.
We simply can’t do without sports, and as such, we’ve always found a way to adapt them to different formats, in different capacities, to work with what we’ve got. We build rinks in our backyards, play hockey in the street (“car!”), use makeshift objects to set up bases and goal posts. Yet nothing quite compares tohuman ingenuity born out of public health emergencies. In 1919, during the height of the flu epidemic, baseball players in Pasadena played aCalifornia Winter League game masked, following a city-wide mask mandate to curb the unrelenting spread. The Los Angeles Herald reported, “The rooting of the fans and their ‘kill the umpire’ cry was somewhat muffled by the gauze masks, but otherwise they appeared to enjoy the contest.”
Pro leagues like the NBA, NHL, and MLB all played throughout the peak of global lockdowns in 2020, through league bubbles, regulated testing, and shortened seasons. Athletes had to maintain and stay on form, hobbyists wanted to keep up their routine, and regular folks wanted to try their hand at a new sport, once infections dropped and restrictions were lifted. And then came Slinger, offering something for everyone: a product that could be customizable to your skill level, taken anywhere for your convenience, and it wasn’t at all dependent on a coach or a partner.
The brand struck while the iron was hot, and it’s only gotten hotter: fervour for tennis has increased substantially in the past few years. Though it may be the “most isolating of games,” social distancing worked to the sport’s advantage in 2020: according to the Physical Activity Council, participation in tennis jumped 22% in the first year of the pandemic, with 4 million more Americans playing in 2020 as compared to the previous year. Just this September, a record 4.6 million viewers tuned in for Serena Williams’ final round in the US Open, marking it as "the most-watched tennis telecast in ESPN’s 43 year history." What does this upwards swing mean for newcomers to the sport, and Slinger?
Depending on your level of skill and commitment, tennis can still be cost-prohibitive, from equipment and apparel to lessons and court fees. (The Bag, which comes in at $899—equivalent to two performance level rackets— is still less expensive than most commercial ball machines.) And the more people find themselves picking up a racket for the first time—which they continue to do in record numbers, adding nearly 5 million new players—this hopefully means less financial and racial barriers entering the sport. In a recent American study of professional tennis players, less than 20% were non-white. Young players and coaches like Arum Akom, Emma Raducanu, and Leylah Fernandez are part of the new generation working to diversify the sport.
Slinger’s self-proclaimed goal is to make tennis more accessible, and level the playing field (or court, if you will). Shaking the table was always part of the plan; the brand has a clear-eyed awareness of the barriers tennis can pose to even the most casual player, and what it intends to do about them. “We deliberately wanted to create a whole new category of product that didn't exist before, that was sold to a tennis player as a piece of equipment—as opposed to being sold to a teaching pro, or to a country club, as a tool,” says Ballardie. Bypassing these spaces means that any player of any skill level can take their commitment to the sport into their own hands, without being reliant on a club, teacher, or even partner.
Ballardie, whose 30 years in the tennis industry inform his perspective as CEO, saw how the Bag could fill a gap in the sport. He mentions the ease of play in golf as something tennis has always lacked: “If you're a golfer, you can put your golf clubs in the trunk of your car, and you can go to the driving range and play. That doesn't exist in tennis,” he explains. “What the Slinger Bag has created is to reinvent the sport of tennis, to such a way that it's now like golf. You can put the Slinger Bag in your car, you can go to a court. It doesn't even have to be a court. During Covid, people were playing it on the street.”
Slinger is offering autonomy. This ability to call the shots—literally—is repurposing tennis into something new, in a quietly revolutionary way. Beyond this ease of play, Slinger puts the sport’s parameters into the player’s hands, on their own terms. Where courts and country clubs add an element of public performance and skill that can be intimidating for first timers, the Bag opens up spaces like parking lots, driveways, and backyards, for practice and play. (Its long lasting battery also does away with another hurdle to playing solo wherever you like: finding a power outlet to support the ball machine.)
Bernie Bachino, the brand’s digital marketing manager who also has a long relationship with competitive tennis, says the sport is “all about repetition.” It’s in this repetition that you hone in on your weak spots, strengthen your fore- or backhand and, to put it simply, get better. “A ball machine does that better than any human because you feed in the same ball over and over again,” Bachino says. If you add a coach to the equation, the dynamic is even more beneficial: “They’re coaching you right there while the ball machine is doing its job, which is classically a problem in tennis—the coach has to be screaming over the net to be able to give you the instruction, while they’re feeding the ball.”
The Slinger Bag is an unmistakable hit with its customer base. In a quick scan of the brand’s Instagram, you’ll find commenters crediting it for further developing their relationship to the sport: in building their form, honing their technique at their own pace, and gaining better accuracy, strength, and consistency. To even the most casual of players, the Bag falls into the category of one of those innovative pieces of equipment that make you wonder, how has something like this never been done, or perfected like this before? And most importantly, who can I tell about this?
Digital word of mouth is an indispensable marketing tool for the Bag. Despite the social and logistical challenges of the early pandemic, fast-growing excitement for Slinger’s key product is what kept the brand’s momentum going. “[Users] started posting these incredible videos of how the Slinger Bag was being used in very unique situations, whether it was in their backyards, on the streets, in open parks places,” says Ballardie. And not only for tennis: the Bag was even being used by baseball players for catching practice, scenarios he describes as “crazy things it wasn't really designed to do, but it just worked.”
The excitement was mutual, with Ballardie and the rest of the Slinger team finding themselves buoyed by the overwhelming response to their product and the impact it had on its users. “Over those two years, it became quite an inspirational reaction that we felt within the company for all the people that we were indirectly helping get through the trials and tribulations of the pandemic.”
Rather than dimming as restrictions lifted and social circles expanded, enthusiasm for the Bag has only continued to grow. Slinger has attracted and built a community of its own, and it’s clear that maintaining this ongoing engagement with their users—even if they’re using the Bag in an entirely unexpected way—is working. “I think because we responded in a very positive way, that’s held us in good stead,” Ballardie says. “We’ve become a well recognized global tennis brand in a very short space of time, which in itself is quite an achievement.”
The Slinger Bag was just the beginning
Since facing considerable obstacles—the turbulence of 2020, an oversaturated sports market, and a game that clings to tradition—Slinger is ready to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They’ve infused tennis with a healthy, much needed dose of engagement and participation, and they intend to keep new waves of players rolling in.
Fostering their community comes first—on the brand’s website, you’ll find a page spotlighting loyal users and newcomers, along with the heavy-hitters that make up Slinger’s ambassadors, like Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach of ten years. On their YouTube channel there are tactical drills and pro tips to round out an interactive experience from a brand that wants to ensure you’re enjoying your Bag, and your game, to the fullest.
At the moment, the brand is most focused on generating new technologies and products that can open up different pathways for play. They’ve been beta-testing an app that captures and analyzes a player’s game through video, with suggestions to maximize and improve your technique. Pickleball is now on the table, with a Bag customized for the rapidly growing sport coming down the pipeline, along with another for paddle tennis. Much like its star product, Slinger isn’t keen on limiting itself to one set way to play or connect with its users. As Bachino notes, “Freedom is the keyword.”
Keeping this momentum going poses its own challenges, but the brand is more than ready for anything being volleyed at them. (Launching a risky new product in the midst of a global pandemic will undoubtedly build that kind of resiliency.) Clearly, Slinger is only winding up for more. The Bag was just the beginning.