URBANA — Former Illini tennis greats have helped promote an upstart sports apparel brand that's targeting the youth market.
Amer Delic, Rajeev Ram, Kevin Anderson and Ryler DeHeart have all worn Athletic DNA apparel while competing professionally.
That brand, launched four years ago, sells shirts, shorts, socks and hats for men and boys to wear on the tennis courts.
This spring, the Kirkland, Wash.-based company plans to debut a women's line that includes shirts, skirts, tank tops, shorts, pants, track suits and hoodies.
Former Illini tennis player Michael Calkins, who graduated in 2004, was one of the founders of Athletic DNA, which concentrates on the junior tennis circuit.
That's a market Nike, Adidas and the other heavy hitters in sports apparel haven't pursued aggressively.
But Evan Zeder, the company's director of sales and sports marketing, is doggedly doing so.
Last summer, he took an RV to junior tennis tournaments across the country, making sure players got to see and sample Athletic DNA apparel.
"The secret is being in front of them face to face, having an actual brand that's cool, servicing and supporting the junior tournament," he said.
That approach yielded results.
Of 12 winners in the national junior tournament last year, "six of them were wearing our brand," he said.
Some of the most popular Athletic DNA items are the splashy Ignite and Eclipse shirts that feature "aggressive and edgy" designs, Zeder said.
"Our designs are much louder and more aggressive" than other tennis wear, he said. "The thought was to put an edge to a sport that never had one."
Zeder — a former UI tennis player who graduated in 2005 — said "almost all the Illinois alums" who play professionally are "playing in our product."
Delic and Ram are both under contract, and Anderson's contract, which recently expired, is being renegotiated, Zeder said. DeHeart is coaching now, but when he played Rafael Nadal in the 2008 U.S. Open, DeHeart was wearing Athletic DNA attire.
"We got a lot of exposure through that," Zeder said.
The idea for Athletic DNA came through Calkins' involvement in the Northwest High Performance Tennis program in the Seattle area.
The program worked with 10- and 11-year-old players. One parent said the approach appeared to change the kids' attitude, work ethic and character — as if all the kids had developed "athletic DNA."
"What if you branded what you guys do with these kids?" the parent said.
Calkins and colleague Dan Willman followed through on that idea. Zeder, at the time, was working in commercial real estate in Chicago, but when he heard the idea, he flew to Seattle to get involved.
The founders decided to build the brand from the grass roots, showing the clothing at top junior tournaments and convincing higher-ranked players to wear it.
Athletic DNA doesn't sell in great volumes yet.
"What we've done is reasonably small," Zeder said. "We've sold strictly online for the last three years, and the reason behind that was, we weren't ready for retail, we didn't know how to do it.
"We wanted to make sure we had a brand before we thought of going into the retail market," he said.
Now as Athletic DNA relaunches the entire brand this year, it's putting clothes into specialty retail shops — among them, the Atkins Tennis Center in Urbana.
In addition to the new women's clothing line, the expanded men's line will include 12 new "design" shirts, four types of hoodies, three types of track suits and eight types of shorts.
"We have a much larger selection of junior apparel than any other brand," Zeder said.
The company has fewer than 10 employees, he said, but it does have the services of 10 outside sales reps.
First-quarter sales this year exceeded full-year sales from 2011, he said, and the company expects to quadruple sales this year.
Still, the business is not where Zeder expected it to be.
"When I told myself I was going to move out here, I thought in two years, we'd be the next Under Armour," he said. "Four years later, I'm still driving the bus around."
But Zeder figures following a few simple rules will bring success.
He said former UI tennis coach Craig Tiley "always told us to surround ourselves with the right people, and we've worked hard to do that.
"The only way to get past a lot of things is working hard and getting out there," he said.
Zeder said among junior players, the competitive tennis market includes tens of thousands of kids, and the recreational tennis market has many times that.
But Athletic DNA hopes to go even further. The company's backers want to cross into sport, fitness and training apparel eventually.
"People behind the brand are heavily interested in not being just the tennis brand," Zeder said. "They're going to focus on what we've established in tennis and bring it into other sports and types of training."
Athletic DNA clothing comes in a multitude of materials and is made in El Salvador and China on a contract basis.
Tennis pros who tested early lines of the apparel recommended design changes that were incorporated in newer lines.
For example, players wanted shirts to be longer so they didn't ride up too high during serves.
Plus, the newer versions of shorts are "definitely a little longer," Zeder said. "The younger guys like wearing them a little longer."
This is the first year Athletic DNA will have fall and spring lines, and next year the company may introduce three seasons, Zeder said.
Though building a brand is hard work, "you enjoy life more if you're doing something you're passionate about," he said. "I think I've found that. It's a lot of fun. It's definitely worth it, that pride of knowing you've built something."