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January 31, 2022 Startups, Innovation & Technology

Hartford-based entrepreneur Davey brings at-home tennis simulator to market

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED The Fast Track Tennis simulator shoots a ball roughly 6 feet to a consistent spot every three seconds.

Before the Division I scholarship, back injury and transition to a 20-year Wall Street career, there was the wall. It’s where John Davey forged his love of tennis.

“When I was a kid, growing up in Detroit, we didn’t have any money for tennis lessons,” Davey recalled, “so when the bank parking lot would empty out at 4 p.m., I’d hit balls against the bank’s back wall.”

The hours of repetition and practice laid the foundation that earned him a tennis scholarship to the University of Vermont. And while a back condition cut short any aspirations of a professional career, it did not diminish Davey’s love of the game nor his appreciation for the skills he developed with that wall.

In fact, the wall was the inspiration for Davey’s new business venture.

“Tennis is a game of practice, repetition and muscle memory,” said Davey, a Hartford resident who over the past year-and-a-half has self-funded a startup company, Fast Track Tennis, to develop an indoor tennis simulator that exposes more people to the game and enables them to build skills more quickly.

John Davey

“The biggest problems with tennis are it takes a long time to learn and it’s expensive,” Davey said. “But if people can practice at home, they’re [more likely] to stick with it.”

Growing the game

Davey’s investment to date has been entirely focused on research and development for his patent-pending product design – which measures 7 feet in height and width and 3 feet in depth – and features hardware including a net, ball machine, specialized tennis-like balls for motion tracking and an app-based software for tracking shot data.

While his product officially launched in the fourth quarter of 2021, Davey said, he has spent no money on marketing, nor pursued venture capital to accelerate production capabilities.

“I want to show traction and consumer feedback to prove out the market [first] and grow better market valuation,” he said.

Davey is entering a home sports simulation market that has heated up during the pandemic at a time when tennis — given its socially-distant format — has also seen a strong resurgence. According to a study commissioned by the Physical Activity Council, tennis saw a 22.4% increase in participation in 2020 after years of stagnation.

Davey said he hopes his product can help reverse the trends in the sport that have emerged over the past decade. A 2019 Aspen Institute/University of Utah National Youth Sports Survey found that among 21 sports, tennis had the third shortest length of participation – just under two years – for youth between the ages 3 to 18. Tennis also had the highest average annual cost for lessons — $471 per child – than any other sport, including golf ($467), gymnastics ($422) and ice hockey ($389).

By comparison, Davey’s Fast Track Tennis system costs $300 and is designed for players of all levels, from the novice to dedicated players. Over the past few months, Davey said, he’s targeted his initial sales pitches at tennis coaches and clubs.

“I want to grow the game of tennis, but to have staying power [and grow sales volume], I need to sell [initially] to tennis players,” he said.

Early adopter

Craig Davidson has been an early adopter. As the coach of West Hartford’s University of St. Joseph’s men’s tennis team and an instructor at both the Enfield Tennis Club and Jewish Community Center (JCC), Davidson said he has incorporated Fast Track Tennis at all three locations.

“As a coach, it has a multiplier effect,” Davidson said, “because if I have four different groups, I can give different groups feedback as others are still occupied and getting their reps in.”

The product, which Davey said should optimally be used with four balls, shoots a ball roughly 6 feet to a consistent spot every three seconds. That provides roughly 1,200 shots per hour that a user can practice.

“For beginners, it helps them feel [the game] out, how to grip the racket, the weight transfer and [to learn] the right contact point,” Davidson said.

“It’s uncomfortable to learn something new and people are often self-conscious,” he added. “This machine helps [beginners] build their [tennis] confidence.”

Brandon Best is among the beginners learning the game. Growing up in Hartford, Best — a Kingswood Oxford graduate — played sports, but he said racket sports were not in his wheelhouse.

“Tennis is not something that was played in [my childhood] neighborhood,” Best said, noting he thinks Fast Track has the potential to bring the game to more people, including more marginalized communities.

And it didn’t take long, said Best — who works with Davey’s wife, Jane — to gain a basic level of comfort with tennis.

“Over the course of five lessons, I hit thousands of shots [with Fast Track Tennis] and I learned quickly what was working and what wasn’t,” Best said. “I got into a rhythm and I look forward to doing more with tennis.”

One of Davey’s objectives through his startup is to expose more minority and low-income families to the game, he said.

“I don’t want tennis to be [perceived as] just a country club sport,” Davey said.

Broader markets

Davey is also hoping in the not-too-distant future to provide more learning opportunities for players and coaches through the Fast Track app, which will ultimately track more than its current metrics — ball and rotation speed — but also show where the ball would have landed on the court in an actual game through a visual shot chart.

Since the product launched a few months ago, Davey said he has sold about $35,000 worth of units to high schools, colleges, tennis clubs and homeowners.

While he intended to launch in Connecticut only, Davey said the Fast Track system was highlighted in a trade publication that has generated sales as far away as Louisiana and Oklahoma.

“I am talking to customers every day,” he said, “and there have been no returns or complaints.”

But there have been suggested improvements, which Davey said he welcomes. For instance, he wants to create a more industrial strength frame and perhaps provide different color support bars for the netting to make assembly simpler. He ultimately wants to gamify his product and allow users to compete in skills challenges with a leader board through the app.

“It could be to [track] who hits the most shots in a month or to hit a certain number of targets [to practice accuracy],” Davey said, noting virtual coaching — as a supplement to live coaching — could also be a feature.

With global gaming simulation expected to grow annually at more than 15% over the next decade, according to Allied Market Research projections, and a U.S. youth sports market – including private coaching – valued at more than $19 billion a year, Davey also has his long-term vision on expanding his business to other sports, including soccer, baseball and lacrosse.

“Basically, you can track any sport that uses a ball,” Davey said.

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