A gaggle of eco-friendly sports apparel startups have launched over the past several years, with several starting to gain traction. But there has been a lot less action in the green sporting goods field — think basketballs, footballs, etc.
Until now that is, with the launch of EcoSports, a startup that is looking to challenge the Wilsons and the Spaldings of the world with more environmentally friendly alternatives.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with EcoSports founder Troy Akin about where his idea for making greener sporting goods came from, how the company is doing now, and how he plans to scale the business.
GreenSportsBlog: Before we get into EcoSports and the company’s more environmentally friendly basketballs, footballs and more, tell us about your circuitous journey that led you to this point.
Troy Akin: Well, I came to the Green-Sports world through sports. I grew up in Orinda, California, near Berkeley. We were a sports family, a basketball family — my dad played at San Francisco State and my two older brothers played. I played high school ball; our team got to the quarterfinals in the state tournament my senior year. It was an awesome experience with a great group of guys.
I also got very into tennis in high school, especially my junior and senior years. After that, I went to a local community college, in part to improve my tennis game. That led me to Division III Chapman University near Disneyland, where I played #1 singles.
Academically I studied communications and acting, taking part in several student films. Like many, I ended up moving to LA to be an actor, getting my real estate license to be able to make money while I pursued my dream. Did some ads for Apple and Gatorade, acted in a small indie film and some small TV roles but, after pursuing acting for 5-6 years, I couldn’t really make a living.
GSB: That must’ve been tough. How did you process it and what did you do next?
Troy: First, let me say that even though I didn’t make it as an actor, I gained so much by going down that road. I was a shy kid; that held back my humor, my charisma. Acting brought me out of my shell and allowed those qualities to come to the fore.
It also helped me as I pivoted to real estate sales where I became my own boss. And my acting background really became pivotal for me as I became an eco-preneur with EcoSports.
GSB: Great segue, Troy. What led you to become an eco-preneur?
Troy: Well, my interest in the environment and climate change started about three years ago. I was 25 at the time, still playing tennis and was getting injured often. I started investigating plant-based diets and its injury prevention benefits. Reducing my meat intake really helped me in that regard. Anyway, I came across an article about the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet and learned about the massive negative climate impacts of Big Ag and the meat-industrial complex, especially when you consider the fossil fuels. So, I went fully plant-based in 2019, adding 15 pounds of muscle.
Then I started researching using fewer animal products outside of diet. In so doing, I learned about the toxicity of leather. There were no high-performance eco-balls out there, whether you’re talking basketballs, footballs, or soccer balls. There were no eco-friendly baseball gloves either.
GSB: What did you do about that? After all, you’re not a materials engineer!
Troy: I did a lot of research about the toxicity of leather, how all sorts of products were being made using less in the way of animal products. I soon discovered TPU or thermoplastic polyurethane. It is biodegradable, recyclable, non-toxic and better for workers. It is fossil fuel based however there is a bio-based version that is being made but as of now there is more fossil fuel-based TPU available.
GSB: How can the fossil fuel-based version be biodegradable?
Troy: This is a bit wonky but here goes: Biodegradable plastics contain polymers that can be broken down and digested by polymer-degrading microbes in aerobic environments where methane isn’t a byproduct. If key environmental factors such as temperature and moisture align, then enough microorganisms can adhere to the surface of the plastic, ingest it and enzymatically degrade it.
I also looked at plant-based leathers; I reached out to the major basketball manufacturers, Wilson and Spalding, but didn’t find much there. Finally, I found a company in China that could make a ball out of cactus leather, which was very efficient to grow. Thing was, it was very expensive to get both a prototype made and to manufacture if successful; it might cost $100 a ball, which was way too much.
So, I went back to TPU and asked suppliers to make basketball and football samples.
The first thing I needed to do was to see if the performance of a TPU ball was equal to the standard leather ball. I found some manufacturers who’d make up some prototypes and I tested them out in 2020 with some top players and they found them to be excellent. Now, the Wilson Evolution ball at $80 is considered to be the best. Our TPU ball, made by a manufacturer in China, goes for $45 and the players who tested it found it to feel great, couldn’t tell the difference between it and the top balls, and saw it as a great mid-price-range ball.
GSB: So, the performance hurdle was overcome. What happened next?
Troy: We launched EcoSports last September with $50,000 in investments, a mix of my own money as well as friends and family investments. We used that money to order 5,000 TPU basketballs. Our first ball sold in mid-November. There were some early challenges due to the global supply chain issues that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic; an order from a top basketball camp that didn’t get fulfilled in time is a prime example. But we have largely been able to overcome those early issues. We had a strong 2021 Holiday season, selling about 800 TRU balls. Most were basketballs; we also had one football order and two soccer ball orders.
GSB: That’s great! You use the word ‘we’. Who else is on the EcoSports team?
Troy: Well, my dad Paul is our VP of Sales; he has a long-time sales background with his own 50+ person company, Collier Warehouse, Inc. I handle the marketing and manufacturing sides.
GSB: What is EcoSports’ marketing strategy?
Troy: We advertise heavily on Amazon, and we use testimonials that are posted on TikTok. Both have performed well for us. EcoSports has also been approved to be sold on the Go Viably, the sustainable products marketplace. They will also consult with us on our carbon footprint accounting, which is great.
We’re also interested in having environmentally minded athletes who like the performance of our products become endorsers.
Also, 10 percent of the profits on every purchase is earmarked for the planting of trees through We Plant Trees of Fredericksburg, Virginia. And after the Supreme Court decision in June announcing the overturning of Roe v. Wade, we donated 10 percent of the profits from every sale to Planned Parenthood.
GSB: What’s next, product-wise?
Troy: We’ve got TRU baseball gloves in R&D.
GSB: What are the prospects for plant-based balls and gloves? When do you think they’ll be viable?
Troy: Think of the Prius. While it still consumes gas, it was a much better, more efficient alternative than a gas guzzler. Our TPU balls are more sustainable than the competition, but there is always room for improvement. Our next line of sporting goods will be 100 percent plant-based, but that will take time, research, money, and development. So, we released TPU goods right away. After seeing such a high demand, we are now ready to invest in the 100 percent plant-based leather.
GSB: Finally, what are your long-term goals for EcoSports?
Troy: First and foremost, our long-term goal to change the way sporting goods are made, with the environment and athletes equally in mind.
Schools will be a significant target for us. Most school-districts have made climate education a major emphasis and we will help them to practice what they preach. Someday, we would love to supply environmentally friendly products to the NBA, NFL, MLB and more. And we want to work with the best athletes in the country, inspiring them to use their influence to impact a generation of climate activists. And EcoSports would love to start leagues and tournaments for underserved communities to get young people outdoors.
Photo at top: EcoSports TPU-based football (Photo credit: EcoSports)