Tennis company Prince eyeing a comeback

Gone are the days when Maria Sharapova used a Prince racket. But the company is still swinging. AP Photo/Paul J. Bereswill

When the big brands stumble, it's often about failure to evolve and complacency at the top.

That's not the case with Prince, which heads into this year's U.S. Open hoping to mount a comeback.

The stalwart tennis company, famous for inventing the oversized tennis racket, emerged from bankruptcy earlier this month after driving itself into debt by pushing its new age technology, while forsaking almost everything it had built in the past.

Now, company's primary creditor, Authentic Brands Group, has taken over Prince's property and licensed the brand to three partners throughout the world. The main partner is a company called Active Brands, an Omaha-based investment company whose majority owner is Norman Waitt, who co-founded Gateway Computers.

"People in the industry like to bash the brand and say Prince has gone away," said Chris Circo, CEO of Active Brands, which has the rights to the Prince name for the next 40 years. "But the reality is, the business is on the mend and we'll be back to where we once were."

Prince was once the top racket brand in the world. But, five years ago, officials risked the company's entire past on the future. They said their new racket with its patented "O Port" holes would dramatically help improve racket speed. The idea was to differentiate itself from the marketplace, but it wasn't necessarily what the market wanted.

Many had gotten so used to the grommets on the head of the racket that held the strings in place.

"It's fine to come out with new technology, but you can't get rid of everything else you have ever done," said one tennis insider. "They basically said to players and retailers, 'Take it or leave it,' and that's not necessarily a great way of doing business."

In the coming years, Prince had to undo a lifetime deal with Maria Sharapova and let James Blake out of his deal because the two couldn't get used to the holes in the racket. That came after both Sharapova and Blake pleaded with Prince to offer a different type of racket that they could use -- to no avail.

As business declined, Prince also started to have some supply chain management issues, which seems to be common in the niche tennis market. Circo said his experience running the largest family-owned industry distribution company gives Active Brands a leg up.

"I'm not uniquely trained to sell you a tennis racket, but I can fix the inner workings of how a racket gets from here to there," Circo said.

Circo told ESPN that the Prince brand will be back with a grommeted racket in 2013, with technology that he says allows the player to put 30 percent more spin on the ball.

And Prince will have the support of the top-ranked American male tennis player, John Isner, to help spread the word. On Tuesday, the company will announce that it has re-signed Isner to not only a racket deal, but also will put him in Prince shoes for 2013.

"I have played with Prince for a long, long, long time," Isner said Monday. "I don't like messing with that much stuff. I don't want it to get into my head."

The Prince comeback attempt will be interesting to watch, as it has lost a significant amount of ground to companies like Babolat, which has not only benefited from having its rackets in the hands of many pros, including Rafael Nadal, but also by seeding the grassroots market with its product perhaps better than any other brand in sports.