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Spring 2005 Whole New Ball Game

The BirdieBall is on a roll. The practice golf ball that John Breaker and his father, Richard, invented is getting rave reviews, not just from golfers but from the world of golf—including the press and the PGA. National golf retailers that weren’t interested in BirdieBall a year ago now place orders. Golf pros want to know how to use it to improve their clients’ golf games (and their own games). Top sales reps want exclusive BirdieBall territories. Fortune 500 companies like Oracle and IBM order custom-logo BirdieBalls by the thousands. And at the company’s store in Colorado Mills in Lakewood, CO (ten miles west of downtown Denver), golfers get to try BirdieBalls out for themselves, whacking one after another, and buying tens of thousands.

Add it all up, and it comes to a million sold to date, and counting. But that’s just the half of it.

The other half is the recent opening of the two BirdieBall courses nearby. That’s BirdieBall the game, played with BirdieBall the product. And it’s what the latest buzz is about, and not just in Lakewood.

John Breaker, president and CEO of Birdie Ball, Inc., finds all of this rather amazing. Especially since the BirdieBall wasn’t so much as a sketch on a napkin just a few years ago.

Less is more

Breaker fondly recalls the day in 1999 he and his dad, a civil engineer, were watching the Masters on TV and chatting about how golf balls have been engineered over the years to fly farther. “[The sportscasters] were talking about the fact that the course was too short, now that the pros were hitting golf balls so far,” he says. “And we started talking about ways you could limit the flight of the ball, because the core of the golf ball is sort of infinitely ‘engineer-able.'”

Why would anyone want to limit a golf ball’s flight? For just one reason: money.

“If the golf ball goes farther and farther, then the golf course has to be longer and longer,” Breaker says. “If the golf course has to be bigger, you have to buy more real estate. And you have to buy more fertilizer and more water.” Rising costs for course owners mean rising costs for the players, “and that means it gets harder and harder for the average Joe to play golf,” he says. And that echoes what is arguably golfers’ most common complaint: how expensive a round of golf is these days. Creating a limited-flight golf ball might help solve some of the game’s most pressing problems.

Steadily rising greens fees is one of them. “Golf has been losing player rounds since about 2001 at about five percent a year,” Breaker says, and that’s why young people—the game’s future players—aren’t taking up golf as they once did. Instead, they’re indoors playing video games or surfing the Net, to name just two options that didn’t exist just a generation ago, when Breaker learned to play golf. In short, there’s competition for young adults’ leisure time and money.

At the core

And so the father-and-son duo “started drilling holes into golf balls to analyze the core, the elastomers inside the golf ball, to determine if we could come up with some methodology for having a limit on the reboundability, or the hysteresis, of the golf-ball core,” he says, revealing his background in plastics plus a natural curiosity about how things work, a trait he shares with dad. Happily drilling away, they made progress—and a mess: hundreds of hole-y golf balls littered the backyard. And then came the “Aha!” moment.

“I was just hitting the balls toward my house to clean up the backyard so I could mow the back lawn. [That’s] when I realized that the golf balls that I was hitting with the holes up were flying exactly like a golf ball should fly, but just for a very abbreviated distance,” he says. “The golf balls that had the holes lying sideways were ‘knuckling’ in the air, not behaving properly.”

That observation led to more drilling and bigger holes. About a year later, the Breakers had their first limited-distance prototype—which looked nothing like a golf ball. It looked more like a big plastic napkin ring. But it flew just like a golf ball, climbing high, drawing and fading realistically. What’s more, it felt like a golf ball when hit with a club, and it made that crucial golf-ball “ping!” But what really gave this new ball valuable commercial potential was the big hole in the middle. That big hole caused the ball to travel about 40 yards, which made it perfect as a limited-distance practice golf ball.

Now to address marketing. How many people buy limited-distance practice balls? Precise numbers for the size of this market are hard to come by, Breaker says, but he estimates that each year, five percent of the world’s 110 million golfers buy one of the most popular models, commonly called a whiffle ball. He says it’s only five percent because they’re “garbage” compared to the BirdieBall. If he can sell every golfer in that five percent universe a sleeve of three BirdieBalls, he calculates a cool $16.5 million in annual sales. If he can convince ten percent of the world’s golfers to buy a dozen BirdieBalls, that comes to a stunning $246 million. Now to get there.

The next step

imageInventing a product you believe is so superior you can capture a worldwide market to the tune of a quarter billion should motivate anyone—and it motivated the Breakers, father and son. They financed their start-up costs, which included significant outlays for prototypes and patent applications, and formed a separate company that holds the patents. John launched the website, and in April 2003, opened the store with considerable help from his long-time friend, Paul Olsen. “I really started the store on my own,” Breaker says, “but Paul helped me for months for free, because he’s such a great human being.”

He and Olsen, now the company’s VP of business development, formed Birdie Ball, Inc., which owns the rights to market and sell BirdieBalls. “We had already done all the filing for the patents and everything,” Breaker says, “and I grabbed a BirdieBall and took Paul to a park.” Olsen’s reaction after hitting his first one: “That’s cool, but who would ever use it?” Clearly, Olsen wasn’t sold, and over dinner at a Colorado Mills restaurant he told Breaker, “I really just don’t see it,” but he’d help him launch his dream anyway.

Soon thereafter, with a little help from his friend and a TV news crew, Olsen had an “Aha!” moment of his own. “[Paul and I] went out to a golf course to meet the head instructor,” Breaker says. “Paul had never seen a pro hit [a BirdieBall] and react to it. I also brought along a film crew to film the instructor’s reaction—I have a buddy who’s in the television business. So the instructor hit the BirdieBall, and then was so effusive in… his praise. He just couldn’t believe it. Over and over he was saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ and ‘Oh my God!'” And with that, Olsen turned to Breaker and said, “I think you’re on to something here.” Breaker laughs at the memory. “I never let him live it down.”

As it turns out, the film crew was impressed, too. “We ended up being the lead story [on local news] that day in Denver,” Breaker says. The US Open was in town, so chances are good that numerous golfers saw his wondrous new practice ball on the news that night.

“People are so skeptical at first, but then when you let them hit it, they turn around and you see their faces and it’s amazing. They hit it and… turn around and go, ‘Wow! I can’t believe it!'” Breaker and Olsen hear outbursts like that a lot at the Colorado Mills store, where they sold about 100,000 BirdieBalls ($2.99 each, $19.99 a dozen) the first year. The company doesn’t release sales figures, but Breaker estimates that the store accounted for about 20 percent of total revenues that year. The website was doing a brisk business, too.

Show biz

It’s not surprising, then, that when Breaker and Olsen flew to the PGA Merchandise Show in early 2004, they thought they might impress a few people in the golf world. “The science behind the BirdieBall is so fundamentally strong that we knew someone was going to pay attention,” Breaker says. “But the rate of people [who] paid attention surpassed all of our wildest expectations. I mean, if you can come away from a trade show being awarded the Most-Scanned Product [people requesting more information] and then being interviewed by US News & World Report and Business Week and Golf Week and Golf World and shown on Cold Pizza on ESPN, you know you’re definitely hitting a nerve.”

It hit Tom Ferrell, president of OnTour Media, a golf-marketing company in Denver. “I’ve been at the PGA shows and watched PGA professionals, who are generally jaded people, just be totally amazed at the performance of this product. They really could not believe what they were experiencing,” he says. “John’s vision with the BirdieBall and experience with these space-age polymers has really made a difference here. One of the most important elements to a golfer is the sound of impact, and the hardness of this polymer gives you that sound. When you hit it well, it sounds like you hit it well.”

Why did this product take off so far and so fast? “Because it’s the ‘alpha’ product,” says Breaker matter-of-factly. “Everything in golf is a derivative of something else… a driver that has a titanium head and is perimeter-weighted… is still a driver,” he says. But this is the ‘alpha’ product: there’s nothing else before it and nothing after it. Everything after will be a derivative of this.”

Takin’ it to the streets

imageMark Fine, golf course designer, consultant, and owner of Mark Fine Designs, Inc. (Allentown, PA), says he took his first BirdieBall swing about six months ago and was immediately impressed. “I play off a low handicap, and I thought it was a great product,” he says. He admits that he’s “somewhere in the range” of a three handicap, “but for anybody who plays golf, it’s fun to hit,” he adds. “It’s not a gimmick. It really works.”

Fine recently put the final touches on a one-of-a-kind course he designed. He turned a one-acre lot in urban Bethlehem, PA—right next to a Boys & Girls Club—into a golf haven for the neighborhood’s kids. Working with The First Tee, a PGA-backed organization whose mission is to introduce kids to golf, Fine’s design is “getting rave reviews, and could represent a prototype for other organizations with limited space requirements,” he says. “It’s a really neat facility that combines BirdieBall with another golf concept called the Sindelar Golf Learning System. The beauty of it is that you basically have a full golf facility in an acre of land.”

It’s easy to see what The First Tee, the PGA and numerous other golf organizations see in BirdieBall. And some insiders have hinted to Breaker that BirdieBalls might just be the savior of a declining industry, bringing in new young players when even Tiger Woods couldn’t. “We’re really getting a lot of traction inside the PGA because the connective tissue… to building golf again is to get the young people doing it,” Breaker says. “We believe BirdieBall can get the young people playing because BirdieBall can get them playing at home in the back yard… the park… the softball field. And that then morphs itself back to more of them golfing on the course.”

Private golf-course owners are starting to show interest in BirdieBall the game, as well. “BirdieBall courses can be built alongside or inside current courses,” Breaker says; a golf course with a brand-new BirdieBall course will “get more activity and more excitement, and bring younger people in.” Just as snowboarding brought more activity, excitement and younger customers to ski resorts around the world, BirdieBall can do the same for golf courses.

“We’ve gotten together with some really smart marketing people out of Chicago who say the worst thing we can do is put the BirdieBall in the golf category,” Breaker says. “The thinking is: ‘This is BirdieBall, it’s own thing, BirdieBall the [Gen-X] game, the snowboard to the ski industry… I’m trying to make the world aware of the next great breakthrough in golf, and yet our dilemma is that we don’t even want to be pigeonholed into that.”

New game or not, BirdieBall is in play. Fore!


Nancy Tanker

Nancy Tanker is the former managing editor of Specialty Retail Report. She has covered the specialty retail industry for nearly 15 years for a variety of publications and can be reached at srrtanker@mchsi.com.

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