Meet Slinger – the perfect, portable tennis partner in a bag

Israeli sports-tech startup has plans on changing the landscape of practicing and training for players of all levels

 ISRAELI STARTUP Slinger is looking to change the tennis landscape for players of all levels. (photo credit: Courtesy)
ISRAELI STARTUP Slinger is looking to change the tennis landscape for players of all levels.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel earned its Start-Up Nation moniker in no small part due to the impressive number of high-tech startups that originated in the Holy Land and introduced tremendous innovation to the entire world in fields spanning medicine, agriculture, navigation and many more. The world of sports technology is quickly proving to be the latest stomping ground for Israeli companies to tackle.
Slinger is one of more than 100 sports-tech businesses that have started out of Israel in the past 10 years, and The Jerusalem Post recently had the opportunity to speak with Juda Honickman, Slinger’s Chief Marketing Officer, who shed some light on the origins of the sports startup and the vision for the future.
In a nutshell, Slinger founder Joe Kalfa, an avid tennis player, had a crazy idea that quickly became a core mission for him: that everyone should be able to own a tennis-ball launcher. He loved the concept of tennis-ball launchers, and always used them when he was at the club and they were available. The problem was that they weren’t always available, or easy to use, or even good for that matter.
Kalfa knew that to make a tennis-ball launcher for everyone, besides being simple and incredible, it would have to be both portable and affordable. So he developed a team and got to work.
“All the greatest ideas provide a solution to a problem,” Honickman told the Post. “The Slinger Bag is no exception.
“Slinger Bag is the answer to an age-old problem in tennis, enabling players to go to the courts, hit quality balls without the need of a partner, wherever, whenever. Just like the way that golfers head to the driving range, this was the first time ever that something similar was available to the regular tennis player.”
The Slinger Bag bag is also a unique solution for many people to the global lockdown and restrictions on sports activity as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Since the pandemic has begun, the company has seen a huge spike in interest via its website and social media platforms as Slinger provides a solution to the quarantine and social distancing problem, giving any player of any skill level the ability to go out by themselves and play a sport that traditionally needs two people.
Born out of an on-court experience, Kalfa wrestled with various tennis clubs’ ball machines – battling through the laborious and difficult task of dragging them from clubhouse to the court, untangling the power cord, finding an extension lead and then searching for a power outlet, before loading it with balls and then finally figuring out how to program the machine. All of this taking up his valuable court time. As he was in the middle of trying to set up a ball machine, he noticed a woman walking to the clubhouse pulling a typical tennis trolley bag behind her.
“This was the light-bulb moment that gave birth to Slinger Bag, the world's most portable tennis-ball launcher,” explained Honickman.
The Slinger Bag is a modular tennis bag that incorporates a fully-functional tennis ball launcher that holds up to 144 balls, as well as offering players space to store their equipment including rackets, bottles and towels.
With the belief that everyone should be able to own a tennis-ball launcher, in early 2017 Kalfa channeled his passion for the sport and set about creating a product that was both affordable and awesome in equal measure – one that tennis players could purchase online across the globe.
Understanding that there was a real opportunity to disrupt the tennis market, he formed Slinger and onboarded a talented team he was sure could take the concept to an international audience –  this included his brother, Nick Kalfa (COO), Honickman (CMO) and Arik Yuval (head of R&D).
The team quickly got to work building a prototype and unveiled the first iteration of its patented Slinger Bag in June 2017. The creation was highly-portable, cordless and controlled by a remote-control – thus bringing a new generation of ball launcher to life. What's more, the ball launcher doubled as a bag and phone charger, enabling players to carry their rackets, balls and personal belongings onto the court easily and conveniently.
After several prototypes had been put through the wringer by a discerning group of Joe’s local players, the product launched to the wider tennis community via a Kickstarter campaign in February 2018.
The team's decision to launch through a crowd-funding campaign was immediately validated. The Slinger Bag was an instant hit – surpassing its target of $25,000 in just 45 minutes! In the following 37 days, and after adding an Indiegogo audience, the company sold in excess of $1 million worth of Slinger Bags across both platforms.
The unprecedented reception was eye-opening for the team – they were sitting on a product that had the power to revolutionize the tennis market.
It was at this point the company enlisted the help of tennis industry heavyweight, Mike Ballardie.
Ballardie, a former Prince CEO and Wilson executive – two of the preeminent names in tennis equipment – was hired for his extensive market knowledge and brand leadership experience in the global tennis industry. Having invested in the company, Ballardie has been showcasing the company to his extensive international contacts of tennis coaches, players and dealers, building a global distribution network and driving investment. He is currently putting together a highly experienced management team consisting of other tennis executives for the company.
"Mike has a deep knowledge of, and passionate commitment to, both the tennis industry and the tennis community," said Slinger founder Joe Kalfa. "He is a proven business leader who has successfully brought several high-performance innovations to market for leading global brands. We are excited that Mike has recognized the market potential of Slinger Bag and are looking forward to working together with Mike to build Slinger Bag into a global tennis brand over the coming years."
In December 2019, Slinger reached a landmark in the company's journey by going public in the US via reverse acquisition – launching on the OTC Markets, an American financial market providing price and liquidity information for almost 10,000 over-the-counter securities. Slinger’s ticker symbol is OTC:SLBG.
Hot off the heels of going public, Slinger announced in January 2020 it had commenced shipment of the inaugural 5,000 units of its highly anticipated product. The tennis aficionados who pre-ordered the Slinger Bag, including those who supported the brand’s successful crowd-funding campaign, have already begun to receive the product, with the initial shipments going out in early 2020.
The Slinger Bag is set to revolutionize the tennis industry and capitalize on this opportunity. It has partnered with tennis legends such as Nick Bollettieri – a pioneer of the sport, having created the tennis academy training model, the largest and most prestigious sports training academy in the world, and having coached and nurtured the talents of 10 former world No. 1 players across his 60 years in the industry, including Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, Monica Seles and Serena Williams.
The Bryan Brothers, Mike and Bob, two of the most decorated doubles players in the history of the sport, have also started endorsing the product this year.
“The most rewarding moment of this entire endeavor has been seeing the idea bounce into life,” said Honickman. “Like any startup or product launch, it requires blood, sweat and tears – and it’s often a time of high risk. So seeing all of the hard work come to fruition and now watching tennis players across the world use the Slinger Bag on court for practice and drill, it is certainly the moment when it all becomes worthwhile.”
Like any new concept, success comes from managing all the small details. It is through getting the smallest of details correct that the product becomes more readily accepted by the community of users it was targeted to serve – the regular tennis player. This is a product that has been designed and engineered by tennis players for tennis players.
The initial challenge was to identify potential vendor partners and explain to them what it was that Slinger was trying to achieve.
“That is where the value of Mike Ballardie leading this business comes to the forefront,” noted Honickman.
Through Ballardie’s vast experience in sourcing tennis products and his base of contacts around the globe, Slinger was able to identify the all-important Vendor Management and QC team to act as its daily liaison with the vendors it had identified and to source new partners as necessary.
“With these relationships in place, we were able to embark on the development of the product, confident that nothing would slip between the cracks,” said Honickman. “After a total of seven product iterations, thousands of hours of lab and on-court testing, in November 2019 we finally reached the point where all vendors were producing constituent parts to the level that we required, all QA and QC processes were in place and the products themselves were signed off for production.”
The reaction from both the global tennis community and potential investors has been overwhelmingly positive.
“This innovative concept has captured the imagination of the tennis player market with many players telling us that Slinger is a product that tennis has been crying out for for many years,” said Honickman. “It provides an opportunity for tennis sessions to be greatly increased in every market and it will support other efforts to stop the drain of players away from the game.”
Many lapsed players cite their reason for stopping playing tennis as being because they did not have a regular partner to play with. Slinger eradicates this impediment by simply being a 24/7 Tennis partner. There really is no reason that every regular tennis player on the planet would not be interested in having a Slinger as part of his or her tennis equipment.
Potential investors have been really encouraged by the opportunity that the Slinger team is working to capitalize on.
The existing global market for traditional tennis ball machines is relatively small worldwide and is predominantly focused on the country club, pro shop and institutional markets. Slinger is disrupting this traditional market by appealing directly to the tennis players themselves, and in doing so has already sold a quarter of this traditional global market total in a crowd-funding campaign.
The Slinger Bag market opportunity is even greater, as there is an estimated global population of 1.2 billion people either playing tennis or being regular fans of tennis, and the global tennis market is valued at over $10 billion. These numbers suggest that the sky’s the limit for the Slinger Bag and, as such, it represents an attractive proposition for investors.
“Slinger Bag was originally funded through a crowd-funding campaign – both on Kickstarter and Indiegogo,” explained Honickman. This campaign sold over $1 million worth of Slinger Bags and has enabled us to bring the product to market. The response to our crowd-funding campaign was incredible, one that really surpassed all our expectations, but went a long way in validating our proof-of-concept and provided us with a platform to change the game.”
Since that time the company has received $4 million in additional investments, allowing it to build a highly experienced management team, on-board global strategic partners for logistics and business-enterprise systems, on-board endorsees such as Bollettieri and the Bryan brothers and invest in the required inventory to start the global business.
Slinger may have been the brainchild of Israelis, but is headquartered in the US, with subsidiary companies in Israel, UK and Canada. It is very much a global operation. The management team splits its time between Israel, US, UK and China. It is now well into the process of building a global network of highly respected tennis distribution partners with currently 55 markets and partners involved in this process.
Over the course of the next two or three years, Slinger will be focused on dominating the global market for tennis-ball throwing devices, including entering the emerging markets of Pickleball (USA), Soft tennis (Japan) and Padel Tennis (Spain and South America). The longer-term objective for Slinger is to become recognized as a global tennis brand and for the Slinger Bag to become a staple piece of tennis equipment alongside rackets, balls, and soft bag products.
“Once we are established as a credible tennis company, we will look at natural Slinger product extensions through both organic and license options to cover soft-goods, accessories and other product categories,” said Honickman.
In his role as CEO, Ballardie couldn’t be more excited with the direction Slinger is heading.
“I have been involved in tennis since the age of four as a player, coach and business leader,” said Ballardie. “I built a career from the bottom up at Wilson in the 1990s that culminated in me leading their EMEA Tennis business. In this period I played an important role in introducing a series of products that became global market leaders in tennis. After Wilson I joined VF Corporation and worked for their JanSport brand. I established JanSport as a brand and a business in all International markets outside of the US, including very successfully here in Israel, where JanSport remains sought after today. In the early 2000s I moved back into tennis and joined the Prince company. Over the next nine years, I helped transform the Prince brand and business into a global leader in tennis. I see the same potential with Slinger.”
Indeed, everyone on the Slinger team sees the transformative potential of the product in the sports world.
“The product is a game-changer, for game-changers,” exclaimed Ballardie. “It’s as simple as that. The Slinger Bag is a 24/7 playing partner that will enable tennis players, from grassroots to pro tours, to hit more quality balls on court whenever they want and without the need for having to constantly find playing partners. It will help grow the game of tennis and increase play occasions.
“All the greatest products provide a solution to a problem – Slinger Bag is no exception. Slinger Bag is the answer to an age-old problem in tennis, enabling players to hit quality balls without the need of a partner, wherever, whenever.”