In the foothills of Biella, Italy, brothers Ettore and Giansevero had an idea: create their own fabrics. When the duo launched FILA in 1911, it originally began as a textile and knitwear company that made yarn and clothing for the people of the Italian Alps.
Decades later, the brothers – along with the FILA family – thought it would be best to diversify the business. They hired avid sports fan Enrico Frachey as the company’s general manager. Frachey was an active tennis player and enjoyed hiking the familiar, yet scenic Italian Alps. He thought the family should create rib knit fabric for them to incorporate into sports.
One of FILA’s first fashion styles was the “White Line” tennis collection, which featured a polo shirt donned with comfortable rib knit fabric. The irony behind the name? It was white only in name – it had color throughout.
While FILA was ingratiating itself into tennis, Bjorn Borg was rising through the sport’s ranks. After he became the fashion company’s first sports sponsor, the Ice Man would win 11 Grand Slam titles. Borg’s FILA sponsorship immediately boosted the brand into the spotlight. Other tennis greats like four-time Grand Slam winner Guillermo Vilas and Evonee Goolagong – the first mother and Aboriginal woman to win Wimbledon in the Open Era – began donning the FILA brand on their kits.
A half-century since Borg first discovered FILA, it remains deeply entrenched in tennis – especially now, on the amateur level.
When Universal Tennis – which is anchored by the sport’s Universal Tennis Rating, announced the new UTR National Championship series, FILA signed on as its official apparel and footwear provider. FILA’s involvement with the multi-week occasion will provide prizes for all winners across various sites across the country.
While FILA is currently worn by four of the WTA Tour’s top 10 players – including world number one Ash Barty, No. 3 Karolina Pliskova, No. 4 Sofia Kenin and No. 7 Kiki Bertens – Lauren Mallon views amateur tennis players as the future of professional tennis.
“Partnering with a technology-based organization like UTR, it was very attractive, and we felt like their National Championship series was such the perfect entree to get involved with them,” Mallon, FILA’s director of strategic partnerships in tennis, said. “UTR resonates with our core demographics and customers, especially the 12 to 18-year-old age group. It’s such a perfect opportunity for us to get in front of them, and it’s a segment where we’ve seen some wonderful growth come from across the company in the past several years… we feel that junior tennis is really important to us because it is the future of the brand and our future consumer.”
The FILA-UTR relationship comes at a peculiar time for tennis worldwide. The coronavirus pandemic has sidelined both the ATP Tour and WTA Tour since mid-March. Exhibition series ranging from the UTR Pro Match Series to the DraftKings All-American Team Cup have popped up across the globe, but without fans and lacking the deep fields with sanctioned-tour events.
Founded by college coaches in 2010, UTR’s main objective was to establish an accurate, universally recognized global rating to recruit tennis players, said President Anne Worcester. The strongest value prop for UTR has been through its junior stars, who, until the UTR National Championship Series, had struggled to find competitive tennis matches to compete in.
Through the first two weeks of the UTR National Championship Series – which debuted for college players and juniors on July 8 and 15 – Worcester says they have attracted more than 600 registrations across 60 events in 11 different states. The college series even saw a waitlist in Michigan, Maryland, Georgia, New York, and California. The junior events are currently being held in Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, with waitlists in nearly half of those states.
The rise in COVID-19 cases nationwide, however, has forced UTR to scale back its tournaments. According to Worcester, UTR has canceled the men’s and women’s college events in California and Florida. As of July 27, Worcester said there have been no reported cases of players in the National Championship Series testing positive for COVID-19.
Even with the recent controversies surrounding Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour and the All-American Team Cup, which each saw participants test positive for COVID-19, Worcester said those incidents have no bearing on whether or not the UTR National Championship Series should be happening.
“No one wants tennis players or anyone to contract the virus,” Worcester said. “Everyone is watching where and when it’s appropriate to run events very, very carefully. Our Pro Match Series in May – we went to a great extent to go above and beyond the local health and safety guidelines of South Florida. We brought in all kinds of professional cleaners from the airlines that can clean overnight jets… we went above and beyond.”
Worcester said the National Championship Series, which concludes on August 2, is the first in a long-term partnership with FILA. Even in this challenging economic environment, Mallon said FILA has seen an uptick in tennis sales both digitally and with its retailers.
With professional tennis set to return in August ahead of the US Open, Mallon wants to lean into social media to generate initiatives and conversations with tennis athletes. That way, players like Barty and Pliskova can use their followings to keep young fans interested and engaged until they are back on the court.
“It’s wonderful to have such amazing players partner with us,” Mallon said. “During this time where there wasn’t professional tennis, we’re really trying to engage with and build our community through them.”