Wilson Sporting Goods was incorporated in 1913 as the Ashland Manufacturing Company, and was originally established to find unique ways of using slaughterhouse by-products of a nearby meat-packing firm. By 1914, the company was producing such items as tennis racquet strings, violin strings, and surgical sutures, and had expanded into baseball shoes and tennis racquets. In 1915, the company appointed Thomas E. Wilson as president, a hard-headed businessman who saw the potential of a sporting goods company. He began to focus exclusively on the manufacture of sporting and athletic equipment, and then named the company after himself in 1916.
Thomas Wilson immediately started to expand the operations of his company by acquiring the Hetzinger Knitting Mills for the purpose of producing high-quality athletic uniforms. A small caddie bag company was purchased for its extensive line of luggage products but was reduced to the manufacture of golf bags alone. Basketballs and footballs were also added to the company's rapidly growing list of items for sale. In 1917, the company was so confident in the quality of its product line that it announced a two-year unconditional guarantee on all of its products. During the same year, the company began manufacturing golf clubs and football helmets. By the end of 1918 sales reached the $1 million mark, an enormous amount of money for a company that had been in existence for only a short time. The company closed out the decade by hiring Arch Turner, one of the prominent craftsmen in the leather industry. His innovative designs for the leather football had a profound influence on the development of the game.
The 1920s were one of the most successful and most innovative periods for the company. In 1922, Wilson introduced the Ray Schalk catcher's mitt, which from that time onward set the standard for design, comfort, and padding within the baseball industry. During the same year, the company established its advisory staff of athletes, with the famous golfer Gene Sarazen as its first member. The most influential member of the advisory staff, however, was the football coach of Notre Dame, Knute Rockne. Rockne worked with Wilson to develop a new double-lined leather football, and the first football that was valve inflated. Wilson was also making a major impact in other areas of sports as well, such as the cardboard tube containers for tennis balls that soon became the standard packaging for the industry.
In 1932, the company developed the R-90, a sand wedge golf club inspired by Gene Sarazen's victory in the 1932 British Open. That year alone, Wilson sold over 50,000 of the sand wedge clubs. In 1939, Wilson achieved a major innovation in the design and manufacture of golf clubs with its ability to bond different layers and types of wood together to produce a criss-cross pattern that resulted in more power, better direction, and a longer period of use than previous designs which employed other wood.
By the end of the decade, it was evident Wilson had managed its product development so well, and had marketed its items so successfully, that even through the worst years of the Great Depression the company not only survived but prospered.
World War II and the Postwar Era
Wilson continued its focus on the development of innovative products during the war years, including the introduction of the Wilson Duke football. Yet the war effort seriously affected Wilson's manufacture of athletic equipment and uniforms, since almost all of the company's production facilities were retooled to make war material such as duffel bags, tents, and helmets to be used by American soldiers fighting overseas. As a result, management at Wilson decided to concentrate on fostering an increased participation of the nation's youth in sports, and through a rather sophisticated marketing campaign the company continued its high profile in the sporting goods industry.
Having remained at the forefront of sports equipment and uniform manufacturers, after the war ended in 1945 the company began to expand and grow dramatically. Jack Kramer, regarded as the "Father of Modern Tennis," became a member of the company's advisory board and a close collaborator with Wilson in the design of innovative tennis equipment. Kramer was truly the first world class professional tennis player. He was the number one tennis player for a number of years in the 1940’s and also a promoter of the professional tennis tour. One of the first alliances between a professional tennis player and a tennis manufacturer yielded the Kramer Autograph Racquet in 1949, and this racquet ultimately brought Wilson to the forefront of the industry.
The tennis racquet itself was beautifully and carefully designed using the most modern technology and the highest quality materials. Nowadays, high quality tennis racquets associated with the professional tour players are somewhat commonplace, but this relationship and this leap forward in tennis racquet technology were truly revolutionary in their time. More than 10 million autographed Jack Kramer tennis racquets would be sold during the next 30 years.
During the 1960s Wilson continued its strategy, originally conceived and formulated in the 1930s, of vertical integration through the acquisition of highly specialised firms. International expansion also figured into management's strategy at this time. Wilson not only established its first plant overseas, a baseball manufacturing facility in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, but also opened sales and marketing offices in Wimbledon, Wiesbaden, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.
The 1970's and 1980's
In 1970, the company was acquired by PepsiCo, Inc., who wanted to take advantage of Wilson's high profile and leadership role in the industry in order to enhance its own image. In return, PepsiCo provided Wilson with the financial base that was needed for the company to expand into the international market. By 1976, Wilson opened a manufacturing plant in Galway, Ireland, to enter the rapidly growing market for tennis products. But the company's most important growth opportunities were still in the United States. During the decade, the Wilson brands were chosen as the official basketball of the National Basketball Association, and the official football of the National Football League. Wilson provided almost all of the uniforms for teams in Major League Baseball, and the company also provided the United States Summer Olympic team with all of its official uniforms and clothing. The publicity garnered from these agreements was unprecedented--the Wilson brand name was not only known throughout the United States but around the world. PepsiCo management decided to divide the company into three divisions: Golf, Racquet Sports, and Team Sports, each with its own marketing and sales teams.
One of the strategies Wilson employed over the years to increase sales and enhance its product image was to pursue the endorsement of professional athletes. During the 1980s, Wilson products were endorsed by over 100 of America's most famous and well-respected athletes, including Sam Sneed in golf, Walter Payton in football, Michael Jordan in basketball, and Roger Clemens in baseball. This strategy paid off handsomely in sales as golf club professionals and tennis club professionals used and promoted Wilson products.
In September 1985, ownership of Wilson Sporting Goods transferred to the Amer Group Ltd., a multinational corporation located in Helsinki, Finland. Wilson's new parent company took immediate advantage of its international presence and opened subsidiaries in Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Canada. In Japan, golf balls and clubs accounted for the majority of sales, while in the United Kingdom tennis racquets and balls sold as briskly as golf balls and clubs. As the decade drew to a close, Wilson was also expanding its production facilities overseas, including new plants in Haiti, St. Vincent, Canada, and Scotland.
The 1990's and Beyond
During the 1990s, Wilson renewed its commitment to manufacture innovative designs for sporting equipment. The revolutionary Hammer 2.7si tennis racquet, introduced in 1990, soon became one of the industry's top-selling racquets. The new Conform baseball glove was brought out in 1993, which allowed ballplayers to customise a glove to the contours of their hand. In 1994, the company introduced the Jet basketball, a leather version made specifically for the outdoor market. In the field of golf, in 1995 Wilson introduced the Invex driver, a uniquely designed head made from stainless steel and titanium, which almost overnight became the largest selling of Wilson’s golf clubs to date.
During the early 1990s, Wilson had the largest market share of all the sporting goods companies around the world, with total sales amounting to 8.5 percent of the market.
In today's market, Wilson tennis racquets are associated with incredible professional tennis players including Roger Federer, Venus and Serena Williams. While Federer's choice is among the well reviewed, high powered [K] Six One series, the William's sisters both have racquets from the Wilson [K] Blade series.
Wilson racquets have come a long way since Jack Kramer advised them on their ground breaking Kramer Autograph tennis racquet. Today they remain a cutting-edge manufacturer of high quality tennis equipment and racquets.