June 2, 2022 at 11:55 AM by Nicolas Toison
It is at this time, Porte d’Auteuil, in the courts of Roland-Garros, the tennis festival in France. But also, for the Baoblat teams, a 49-player partner from the table which the clay legend Rafael Nadal, a particular workload. Who are these ambassadors and how are they recruited? What role does the brand play? Or even Babolat’s place in the tennis and, increasingly, paddle tennis segment? So many questions like Sports raised to Jean-Christophe Verborg, global marketing director, of the Lyon-based company …
As a French company, sponsor of the best ground players of the moment (Christmas, Alacaraz, etc.), is this fortnight of Roland-Garros a great meeting of the season for you?
Jean-Christophe Verborg: There are several important encounters with the professionals, but it is true that Roland-Garros is still one of the important tournaments of the season. It is a very difficult competition to win, very physical. It’s a grand slam taking place in France, so it’s a must-see event. When our players succeed Roland, we are obviously very happy. This is the Grand Slam we have won the most, with Rafael Nadal of course, but also with Li Na, Francesca Schiavone or Garbine Muguruza. In addition to being a French company, the tournament also mobilizes many teams, which accentuates the scope of the event.
What’s a good Roland-Garros for you?
Jean-Christophe Verborg: First, the athlete. I know in this 2022 edition that Rafa is there, but also the fact that there is a young generation of talents, such as Carlos Alcaraz, Holger Rune, Felix Auger-Aliassime or even Leylah Fernandez. They are young people who are winning in the right way, with the right attitude and the right values. You can see that they are having fun on the track. They are very important personalities for us, and that goes beyond the athlete. As for our teams, this Roland-Garros allows us to finally see agents, players and coaches in normal condition. It’s been a long time coming. The last two editions have been complicated, but this year everything is back to normal. When it comes to hospitality, it’s easier. Roland is a tennis party, so being unrestricted is happiness.
How important is Babolat in the tennis market?
Jean-Christophe Verborg: We are truly a leading brand in the tennis market. We had a historic growth of + 40% in volume in tennis, with a Babolat tennis racket sold every 20 seconds worldwide. Growth is also amazing in paddle tennis, a booming sport. Eric Babolat’s desire is for the brand to be seen as the number one brand for tennis and racquet sports enthusiasts, and our players are part of that strategy.
Is Babolat the number one product on the market?
Jean-Christophe Verborg: Yes. However, we must not forget that the brand was created in 1875 by Pierre Babolat, but it was not until 1994 that Babolat marketed the snowshoes. If you put it in perspective when we created our brand, it seems very recent. This decision was beneficial, as it allowed the company to move from a B2B (Business to Business), with our machines and our ropes, to a B2C (Business to Consumer). The racket gave global visibility to the brand, which contributed to its development.
What does a good ambassador do today?
Jean-Christophe Verborg: There are several criteria to consider. There is the performance, but not in any way: “What are the values, emotions and qualities that our players carry, so that all the people we love Babolat want to join? This is our thought process. My job is complicated because, very often, we look for children who are 11 or 12 years old, and we have to project ourselves for a decade, to say to ourselves: “What is their personality? What are they wearing? Are they able to win? If we want to be visible, we have to win, but the charisma of a player, his ability to generate excitement, and to offer quality tennis are crucial factors.
How many athletes has Babolat hired?
Jean-Christophe Verborg: We have about 120 players with international contracts. It goes from 10 year olds to Rafael Nadal, who is our top rated element of the tour. We look not so much for quantity as for quality.
And how many in this Roland-Garros?
Jean-Christophe Verborg: We had 29 men and 20 women in the main cadres. As for the juniors, 9 boys and 9 girls took part in the competition. However, for our best young people, in most cases, they prefer to favor the professional circuit over young competitions, in a longer-term approach.
How do you recruit ambassadors? How is Alcaraz, whom you saw at the age of 10, a reality in the market to hire so young?
Jean-Christophe Verborg: When our rackets were launched in 1994, the brand was recognized for its strings, but the credibility of our rackets took a while. We had to convince almost player by player. That’s when we said to ourselves, “Even if it takes time, we build our team for the future.” We went to youth tournaments (the Little Aces, the Orange Bowl, etc.), and there we saw young people, like Rafael Nadal. That’s how we build our team, but that didn’t stop us from having Andy Roddick, Carlos Moya or Kim Clijsters. Today the situation is very different. All brands of rackets fight for the best talent. At Babolat the goal is not to close a talent as soon as possible, but above all to build a real story. It is necessary to associate with a human project and a product project. We do not sponsor, but long-term collaboration. That doesn’t stop players from signing up late. For example, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, we recruited him in 2010, when he was already in the top 10 in the world. Dominic Thiem, same. He was the 75th in the world when we teamed up with him.
What is the last nugget hired by Babolat?
Jean-Christophe Verborg: There are a few, but in Asia, an important market for us, there is a young Chinese player named Juncheng Shang, who has very good potential. He is 17 years old and is the 401st in the world. It’s one of the elements that could play in the junior Roland-Garros, but it’s in a senior approach. It’s a profile we like: left-handed, talented, humble … Then it’s up to him to make the necessary efforts to succeed at the highest level.
Is there a hierarchy in terms of visibility among your ambassadors?
Jean-Christophe Verborg: The treatment of the 70 in the world will be the same as the number 1. Then Rafael Nadal occupies a considerable place for his record, but the skill and follow-up will be the same for each of the 120 players. Babolat is a team, but tennis is an individual sport, and it is according to the results that the players will occupy a more important place. Rafa being one of the greatest athletes of all time, it is normal that he has an important place in our team. Be sure to activate your caption. Managing such a “monster” is, of course, specific, but that doesn’t mean we treat others less well.
What are its functions with the brand?
Jean-Christophe Verborg: We always have to be inspired by what the players tell us to find a solution. At the same time, Babolat has teams of engineers, and research and development that innovate, in order to offer new products to players. For example, 2009 was a difficult year for Rafa. He comes to see us Toni Nadal (his then coach, ed.) To tell us that something had to change. At the time, I knew that product marketing had a growing chain. Then we have a need for the player, as well as a novelty in one of our products. And from there the development began, then the launch of the RPM Blast that will adopt Nadal. Thus, permanent exchange allows us to move in the right direction. We also communicate with them about the designs. Cameron Norrie was in the company during Lyon Week (May 14-21) for cosmetic stories. The same thing will happen with Dominic Thiem. We need your feedback to make you feel comfortable on the court. To be effective, it is also very important that we have known them for a long time. There are no 15,000 times a year to test, so we need to be efficient when players need changes.
Interview with Nicolas Toison