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From the U.S. Open to a Target near you: The business behind sports tape

Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 men’s tennis player, has been known to use it on his right elbow. Andy Murray, who owns a Wimbledon title and Olympic gold medal, sported it on his right knee. Kerri Walsh, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in volleyball, put it on the map in 2008 when she wore it on her shoulder.

What do Djokovic, Murray and Walsh have in common? They’ve used KT Tape, short for kinesiology tape, to gain an edge on rivals. The tape gives aching joints and muscles support during intense competition and, at least in theory, improves performance by just a little bit.

Like the careers of many star athletes, sales of the colorful elastic strips of adhesive tape has been meteoric. The company behind the product says demand is booming with regular people seeking it out for their own sports injuries.

KT Tape’s founders started work on the product after seeing Walsh’s curious spider-like tape job on her right shoulder. The odd sight inspired international intrigue during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and prompted viewers sitting at home to wonder how they could get ahold of the tape for them themselves.

“It captured the media’s attention,” said Jim Jenson, KT Tape’s CMO and co-founder. “It captured our attention as well.”

The use of tape to treat injury has been around since ancient Greece, according to the company. But there was little choice in the market before Walsh’s curious tape job. According to a New York Times article, the brand she used at the Olympics was Kinesio USA, which reportedly donated 50,000 rolls to 58 countries at the Games. Kinesio – developed in the mid-70’s in Japan by Dr. Kenzo Kase – still exists today and claims to be the original kinesiology tape brand.

Tape can be applied to injuries affecting the legs, knees, ankles, back, shoulders, and hands. Once applied along muscles, ligaments or tendons, according to claims on the company’s website, it relaxes muscles and tendons to help recovery from injuries, including that nagging case of tennis elbow.

But an independent study on the effects of taping showed limited benefit. “The efficacy of KT in pain relief was trivial” according to a study published in Sports Medicine in 2012. While taping “may have a small beneficial role” in improving strength, range of motion or more, “further studies are needed to confirm these findings.”

Just months after Walsh’s run to the gold medal, KT Tape received its first order – from Eastbay, a division of Foot Locker (FL). Less than six years later, the company’s product is available in about 30,000 stores around the world. KT Tape declined to disclose any of its financials. But according to Inc., which ranks private-owned businesses, the company had revenue of $9.1 million in 2012, up from $682,000 in 2009.

In July, KT Tape signed its biggest retail partnership to date with Target (TGT) to get into 1,700 of the retailer’s U.S. stores. It’s already available in Dick’s Sporting Goods (DKS) and Sports Authority, among other retailers.

KT Tape managed to get in on the World Cup hype by signing a three-year partnership with the U.S. men’s soccer team in June. It also provided tape to England, Chile and Mexico in the tournament.

The tape comes in colors ranging from “rage red” to “laser blue”, and sells for $20 for 20 strips of the “pro” version. There’s also a cotton line for $13. Meanwhile, the company sells an “ultrastick” spray for use in “applying tape in extreme conditions.” Consumers can buy limited editions of the tape, including one with USA printed in honor of the World Cup. Each box features the image of Kerri Walsh, who is paid to promote the product, on the front.

From a branding perspective, the tape’s marketing gets a lift from sports like tennis, where the product can be clearly seen on achy arms and legs. “We recognize the visibility factor is very powerful with that particular product,” Jenson said.

He also said that with respect to tennis, there are more top players using the tape. “Tennis is kind of amazing because it seems like there’s a higher concentration of the top, elite players who use KT Tape more than any other sport,” said Jenson. “There’s a longer history where its been accepted and used.” He says that’s “largely because” of the trainers and clinical staff caring for the athletes.

Clay Sniteman, a trainer for the ATP World Tour, the men’s tennis association, and a member of KT Tape’s medical advisory board, said he couldn’t comment on which tennis players use the tape. But he acknowledged that the niche is currently booming. He also says that the tape’s use spans across many sports, not just tennis. “You cannot necessarily see it,” he said, especially in sports like hockey and football where a player will have protection and padding on over the tape. “It’s definitely out there.”

While the company has expanded significantly over the years (it has 40 employees now), there have been some obstacles. One of them is the necessity to teach customers how to properly apply the tape, he said.

“The average person doesn’t have a lot of experience taping,” Jenson said. “There’s an inherent challenge in that.”

There’s also the issue of people not knowing the tape exists. Jenson sees a “big opportunity” for marketing initiative.

“We have just kind of warmed up,” he said.