Prince Sports Group, Inc. is the leading global manufacturer of tennis racquets. From its origin as a manufacturer of tennis ball machines, Prince has proven itself to be an industry leader in the innovation and manufacturing of performance racquet sports products.
The growth and success of Prince Sports Group is primarily attributable to the efforts of American inventor, sportsman, and entrepreneur Howard Head. Head, a consummate tinkerer and inventor, was an aeronautical engineer by trade during the 1940s. It was in the workshop of his Baltimore home that he staked his claim to fame. In 1950 Head invented the aluminum ski. Light and flexible, the innovation took the ski industry by storm and virtually revolutionized the sport during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1964 a pair of skis built by Head's ski company were used to capture a gold medal in the Olympics; the Head name was instantly imprinted on the minds of skiers around the world.
In 1971 Head was ready to retire from his business and decided to take up, among other pursuits, the game of tennis. Head found the tennis frustrating, partly because he found it difficult to hit the ball squarely with the small racquets that were used at the time. True to his nature, he went back to the drawing board and designed a better racquet. Head spent two years perfecting the first all-metal, oversized tennis racquet to replace the traditional small, wooden tennis racquet. He patented the racquet in 1975 and decided to try manufacturing and selling the invention himself, as he had his aluminium skis.
In 1976 Head purchased Prince Sports Manufacturing Company. Prince had been founded in 1970 as a small manufacturer of tennis ball throwing machines and had enjoyed some degree of success in its niche. Head planned to use the company to make and market his new design. Critics were initially amused with Head's new racquet. Big, metal, and apparently unwieldy, the racquet looked silly and out of place among tennis traditionalists. Just as Head's aluminium skis had changed the sport of skiing, however, the new racquet was destined to change forever the game of tennis.
Importantly, 16-year-old Baltimore native Pam Shriver used Head's unusual racquet to become one of the youngest players ever to advance to the U.S. Open Tennis finals. That achievement renewed Head's international fame and established the credibility of the oversized racquet.
Sales of Head racquets exploded during the late 1970s. Amazingly, by 1980 Prince was in control of a whopping 30 percent of the entire tennis racquet market. The key to Prince's success was obvious: a larger racquet head made it easier to hit and control the tennis ball. Indeed, the face of the racquet that Head sold during the late 1970s proffered 108 square inches of surface area, which was a full 30 square inches larger than standard racquet faces. Its larger 'sweet spot’ gave both recreational and professional players more control, power, and flexibility. The result was that the game of tennis was forever changed as more players adopted the oversized weapon and adjusted their playing strategies.
Late in 1984, Prince, for the first time, introduced two new racquet head sizes: a 90-inch head and a giant 125-square-incher. The 90-inch head was tailored for long, hard shots more typical of singles play and was thus designed to compete in the burgeoning market for 'mid-size' racquets that had become popular with veteran pros like John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. That segment was expected to offer the most growth through the mid-1980s. Prince's supersized magnesium 125-square-inch racquet was designed for doubles players, and was specifically intended for players who liked to plant themselves at the net and block the ball. Even Prince admitted that the racquet was less than ideal for ground strokes from the baseline. Described as a "garbage can cover" by one sporting goods salesman, the racquet pushed the limits of the International Tennis Federation rules.
In addition to the two new racquet sizes, Prince tried to beef up sales beginning in 1985 with a new line of tennis apparel. Spearheading the entrance into the apparel market was a tennis suit lined with polypropylene, a material used in paper diapers that was designed to carry perspiration away from the skin to the outer layer of the garment.
Prince's new product introductions were integral to its survival during the malaise of the mid-1980s. The number of racquets sold in the United States plunged to 2.5 million in 1985 for a total of only $160 million in receipts. Many racquet manufacturers left the business or were absorbed by their struggling competitors. Prince, by contrast, managed to sustain moderate growth by snapping up market share. Aside from new sizes and new composite materials, Prince sustained growth through savvy and efficient marketing. Prince had chosen not to hire big-name tennis players to promote its products. Instead, it had invested heavily in collegiate and recreational marketing channels. It had also emphasized advertising to hard-core club players, because they tended to stick with the game and therefore were more reliable than more leisurely tennis players.
In 1987, Prince Sports Manufacturing Co. was purchased by members of its senior management team along with Brentwood Associates. Under management ownership, Prince continued to boost sales and profits during the late 1980s, despite lacklustre growth in the tennis industry. Prince diversified its offerings to include footwear, various apparel lines, racquet strings, sport bags, ball stringing machines, and other racquet-related gear that could be marketed under the respected Prince name. Most notable was Prince's entrance into the racquetball equipment industry with its Ektelon line of racquets and related gear. Likewise, Prince penetrated the golf market with golf shafts sold under the Grafalloy brand name.
In 1990, management elected to sell the company to allow Prince to continue its growth and development as the world's premier racquet sports company. Management sold the enterprise to Edizione Holding SpA, the Italian company that controlled, among other companies, Benetton Group. Also in 1993, the company's name was changed to Prince Sports Group, Inc. The name change reflected Prince's increasing product diversity during the early 1990s. Indeed, erratic tennis equipment markets required that Prince expand into more prosperous arenas to sustain growth.
To that end, Prince aggressively chased the global sports apparel market, drawing on Benetton's proven track record in the apparel industry to make its mark. By 1992 Prince had elevated itself to the fifth largest global manufacture of tennis apparel and the sixth leading producer of tennis sneakers. In addition, it was posting gains with its racquetball and golf equipment operations. Going into 1993, in fact, tennis racquets were contributing only about 60 percent of total company sales.
Prince expanded production capacity to keep pace with growth, and added distribution facilities in Holland and Singapore. All the while, it continued to lead the tennis racquet industry. Prince controlled about 25 percent of the global tennis racquet market in 1993 and about 35 percent of what was considered the high-end racquet market. To help make up for an early 1990s downturn in the tennis industry, Prince introduced new products and initiated new marketing schemes. Early in 1993, for instance, Prince introduced the Synergy Extender, a monster racquet with a head of 116 square inches and an extra-wide body for added power. It also brought out racquets composed of new ceramic, alloy, and synthetic materials.
Also in 1993, Prince organized the first Prince Cup, an amateur tennis tournament sponsored by Prince. The event drew about 6,500 participants in the United States, and the company planned to follow up with a world tournament beginning in the mid-1990s. Going into 1995, the company retained its position as the leading global tennis racquet manufacturer and remained active in golf, racquetball, and sports apparel industries. It served those markets through three divisions that were created in 1993: Prince Golf International, Prince Sports Footwear, and Prince Racquet Sports.
Prince continues to revolutionise the game with the introduction of racquet technologies such as Oversize, Longbody and most recently with O3, Speedport and EXO3. Prince is committed to continually delivering top-quality tennis products in all categories – outfitting players with the very best in footwear, apparel, strings, balls, accessories and more.
Prince has leveraged its international exposure by sponsoring some of the sport's most elite athletes, including Maria Sharapova, Nikolay Davydenko, Jennifer Capriati, Patrick Rafter, Jimmy Connors and Martina Navratilova. Their success at the highest level of competition has heightened consumer interest in the brand as well as the sport of tennis overall.