By John Prater
It started when I was in college.
My roommate had just moved out of our dorm, leaving me without anything on the walls. So one day, I was staring at my cinder block wall while listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” when it hit me – that album cover would look awesome painted in my dorm. A friend of mine was an artist, and gave me the idea to go check out a projector from the library, trace the art onto the wall, and paint it. After a few coats, it looked just like the album. I couldn’t believe how easy it was.
Then a few years later, I graduated and forgot all about it.
Eventually I moved back to Chattanooga and started doing basketball courts. I realized very quickly that if there was something you could present to a customer that would set yourself apart from everybody else, then you’d have a leg up on the competition. Court design at that time was bare bones – maybe some block lettering, but that’s it. The way in for Praters, in my mind, was through adding more graphics.
The only problem was that I had no artistic capability, whatsoever. So how could I market big, creative designs and logos to schools? I had to figure out a way to get these graphics onto the courts.
So I invested $12,000 in a computer that, today, wouldn’t run an alarm clock. I’d go to sporting goods stores, who all carried clipart of common school mascots. I made copies of their clipart, then went home at night to scan them into my computer and import them into Corel Draw 1, which was the first real computer drawing program. I compiled a database of logos, and gave customers a few court designs to choose from. No other company even comprehended that this was a possibility.
We promoted this with every quote, and got our first sale in 1994 – Tennessee Wesleyan College. They contracted us to put a bulldog on the floor.
My thought process went back to Pink Floyd, and I figured if I make that look good on my dorm wall, then I could put a bulldog on this floor.
The process was tedious and bulky: we made a copy of the logo on a transparency, we put kraft paper on the wall, we drew it out, we perforated the seams, and then we put baby powder and pantyhose together to make a powder that would go through the perforation. Then, we’d lay the kraft paper down, add the baby powder, pull the kraft paper up and it would leave an impression of the logo in baby powder on the floor through the seams. Finally, draw the logo out with a pencil on the floor, tac up all the baby powder, and hand paint it.
That bulldog was very small – it fit within the 12 foot center circle. But eventually, like everything else, people saw the work we were doing and began to want bigger and better. We started going outside the center circle, and our logos began getting bigger and bigger. We even began using ladders to draw these huge logos on multiple panels of kraft paper. But the method stayed the same.
As time went on, we kept thinking – what’s the new thing? What’s better? What’s next?
Innovation had brought our company into the game, and we didn’t want to get stale.
In 1996, while preparing to do the Orlando Magic’s court, I stumbled across a sign company that introduced me to adhesive-backed vinyl templates for painting. So I asked them to do part of the graphics for me, the baseline lettering, and I gave it a shot – stick the stencil down, paint it, let the paint dry, then pull the stencil up. It was so easy. Again, I couldn’t believe it.
In that process, I saw that computer technology could help us enhance our offerings and save us time and labor in the painting process.
During this time Mark Frainie, a real artist who hand painted a lot of original designs on basketball courts, was working for us. He’d taken our business to the next level, because we’d never had an artist on our team before.
Painting on a court 5 days a week is hard work. It’ll break your body down. So Mark came to me after about 4 years and said we needed to find a better way to do this. We made the decision, then and there, to invest in computer software and cutting machines that allowed us to cut our own vinyl logo stencils.
Mark spent a year learning how to use Adobe, how to vector artwork and digitize our images so that we could provide templates for painting. We were the first ones to do this in house. We’ve always had great timing in that our ideas were in sync with the most up to date computer technology. For us, every time the technology has been there, we’ve tried to capitalize on it.
During this time, Praters flourished with our graphic design, and we became known within our industry for being able to brand and create unique basketball court designs for customers.
After initial reluctance from other flooring companies, they eventually caught on and followed suit, once they realized how simple it was. In fact, we began providing the stencils for many other companies to use, and still provide these for companies all around the country. It was an opportunity for us to generate revenue, but also it was an opportunity for the industry to embrace graphic design and be able to give customers better floors.
In 2002, we launched our portable basketball court division. This opened us up to provide our graphic design services at the highest level of competition. At this high level, graphics became more and more complicated. Customers called with intricate designs, and ask if we could pull it off. Our answer was always yes and we would figure it out afterwards.
While the stencils allowed us to paint amazing logos, that just wasn’t enough anymore. It was just the normal thing.
So then, again, we started thinking – what’s the new thing? What’s better? What’s next?
We started playing with stains, and how they are utilized on maple flooring. Through our relationships with our customers on the portable floor side and the tournaments that we do, we began to be asked if we could change the color of the court. We didn’t really like the effect of stains on the basketball court. They are blotchy and you are really limited on color. Stains also have the tendency to penetrate into the floor, and eventually schools will want to change their floor and won’t be able to because the staining process has caused permanent damage to the floor that won’t sand out. And while amazing graphics are important to us, the quality of the floor itself is non-negotiable.
Our fix? Using pigmented water based sealers, rather than just staining the courts with traditional oil stains, to get great color and consistency while minimizing damage. That started with some wood tones, but we found quickly that we could do the full color scheme by mixing paint in with sealers. It brings an entirely different aesthetic appeal than paint. Finish companies even have fan decks now that promote these pigmented sealers as part of their product line.
Oh, and one more thing…
The first project we ever did for the NCAA tournament was the East Regional Final court in East Rutherford New Jersey, around 2005. That year, the NCAA wanted their blue disc logo for center court to be a sticker, instead of painted.
We’d never worked with a sticker before.
The project went through just like any other – we brought the portable court in to our facility, sanded it, sealed it, painted it, and finished it. And at the end, all that was left was to add this NCAA sticker to center court.
Well, because we’re floor guys first and foremost, we realized immediately that the sticker would be too slippery for athletes to safely play on. So, unbeknownst to anyone, we coated the sticker with gym floor finish. We weren’t sure what the end result would be, but we had a feeling it would have a much better result than just having the sticker on the floor.
That was the first year of branded NCAA tournament courts, and there were four of them – each with a sticker of the blue NCAA ball as the center logo. Throughout the tournament, there were terrible complaints of the slipperiness of the stickers. Except for ours. That’s when we knew we were onto something.
In 2011, the NCAA made a ruling that decals had to have the same like-condition as the rest of the court. Also that year, the Maui Invitational, one of the biggest tournaments in college basketball, had to pull up their branded stickers during a game due to safety issues.
Around that time, we made a video showcasing how our decals were better and safe for athletes. The Maui Invitational team stumbled across it, and we went to Maui that year.
All of the teams and coaches in Maui were well aware of our decals on the court, and aware of the fact that most decals aren’t safe. Two of the biggest detractors of decals in NCAA coaching, Roy Williams from North Carolina and Buzz Williams from Marquette, were both at the tournament. So we told them to practice with the decals and give them all they’ve got.
After practices, both coaches and teams were satisfied with the performance of the decals and were able to focus on just playing basketball. And after that, we knew we had something special.
We’ve been providing our decals, which we named PlayOn for their like-surface quality and safety for athletes, for the Maui Invitational and countless other tournaments and events throughout the world ever since.
There’s more to come.
There are lots of companies who continue to advance what we’ve brought to the market, and that’s great for the entire industry. We’re very proud of the fact that we played a part in the way basketball courts have evolved and continue to do so.
But we’re always looking at what’s new, what’s exciting, and what can set a facility apart from the rest. We’re never going to stop innovating, because we’re always finding new ways to give our customers a product that is beyond their expectations.