Tennis On Old Tobacco Road

by: Ross Kenneth Urken | April 07, 2010

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Jim Palumbo is driving his Ford F-150 pick-up down to the Greene Ridge Racquet Club in Snow Hill, N.C., a sleepy town about an hour and a half east of Raleigh set among sweet potato and tobacco fields. He has a tan, sunken face and is known to strike matches on his scruff when he smokes the occasional cigar. In the mornings, the tennis ball czar might sometimes double fist an Egg McMuffin and sweet tea and drive with his knees on the way to his mill, but despite appearances, the 57-year-old New Jersey native is still an outsider down here.

His printing company, SmartPlay USA, which has a contract with Wilson to stamp corporate logos on 80,000 giveaway tennis balls for the U.S. Open, has found unlikely success on Tobacco Road. In an area hard hit by factory closings and a decline in tobacco production, Snow Hill has made tennis its new crop. Once the second-most tobacco-dependent county in the nation, Greene County is now a national leader per capita in USTA memberships.

Palumbo’s company handles ball logos for Heineken, Evian, Polo, Rolex and the rest of the U.S. Open’s sponsors. The promo balls are an integral part of the Open’s promotional efforts. “This is the most important of all of our licensing products,” says Sarah Cummins, managing director of merchandising and licensing at the USTA. But the balls come from an unlikely source, where g’s are dropped and “y’all come back now” remains the only appropriate valediction. When Palumbo moved here, his buddies at the venerable Sea Bright Lawn Tennis and Cricket Club in Rumson, N.J., gave him hell. “They thought I’d lost it,” he says. “They were ready to have me committed.” In their eyes, he’d gone from country-clubber to country bumpkin.

The first time Palumbo drove into Snow Hill, which has a population of 1,614, he couldn’t believe the town had a billboard dubbing it the TENNIS CAPITAL OF THE SOUTHEAST. “It seemed tongue-in-cheek,” he says. All he saw around him were fields of soybeans and cotton and encroaching kudzu. But it turned out that Palumbo’s business fits the bill for this town’s tennis public-relations mission. Since moving here in 2006, Palumbo has worked symbiotically with the county’s effort to create a “tennaissance” in the region.

It wasn’t Boca Raton or Atlanta, but here was a tennis Mecca that drew 10,000 tennis players in 2008 (half the county’s population) for their many tournaments, including 14 annual USTA events, and has a Greene Central High School girls’ team that has reached the state final 10 out of the last 12 years. The crop that made this county is called “tobaccah” around here, and the sport that’s keeping it going often comes qualified with a definite article—“the tennis.”

Palumbo pulls into the racquet club’s parking lot at 6 P.M., just as the after-work crowd starts to fill the courts. Inside the vinyl-sided clubhouse, locals discuss the tennis boom’s origin. Part of the sport’s popularity comes from the lack of excitement in Snow Hill, according to Jim Cooper, 65.

“It’s the only place in town to go,” Cooper says with a smile. “If they opened a bar, I wouldn’t have to come here and play tennis all the time.” Snow Hill has a law of no liquor by the drink, meaning that hard alcohol is available only at liquor stores.

Bobby Taylor, Greene Ridge Racquet Club’s owner and operator, played tennis for one year at Western Carolina University before dropping out. He worked mowing lawns for 20 years, and in 2000, he used his savings to build the club, which he designed. He explains how he began developing tennis in the area in the 1980s. He started the first local tournament in 1982, and in 1990 orchestrated an NTRP tournament through a tennis nonprofit he created with Donald Clark, the tennis coach at Greene County’s high school. Tennis took off . Now Greene County hosts league state championships and has 32 USTA league teams.

“Tennis is probably the largest thing we have going for development right now,” says Taylor, who is also the chairman of the county’s economic development commission. What began as a simple pleasure is becoming a means for the county to support itself. Taylor says tennis is a “five-year crop” that has to be cultivated to net results. For now, he’s happy to harvest the crowds and the town camaraderie.

While Palumbo originally came to Snow Hill for the cheap mill property, the area’s tennis bent made SmartPlay an attractive option for the town. Economic pressures early in the last decade led manufacturers to seek cheaper methods of production elsewhere. Companies like Paxar, which makes clothing tags, and Parker-Hannifin, an industrial products-maker, left the area. Palumbo had founded his company in 1991 in New Jersey to address a tennis void in the corporate ad market for novelty items. An engineer educated at Syracuse and Rutgers Universities, he caught the entrepreneurial bug after learning about mass production at Platronics, his father’s gold-plating firm. Palumbo bought the old Paxar mill at $3 per square foot; a comparable place in New Jersey would have cost $200 per square foot.

When Dunlop moved its ball factory from Hartwell, Ga., to the Philippines in 1993, and Wilson moved its overall manufacturing process, including ball imprinting, from South Carolina to multiple locations in Asia in 2002, Palumbo saw an opening. Asian production, which requires minimum orders of 432 balls, is fine for colleges and resorts. They order in bulk and don’t need a quick turnaround. But for corporate sponsorships, which require smaller orders, SmartPlay is nimble enough to pull off the turnaround. Now SmartPlay produces tennis-ball logos for at least 1,500 corporations around the world, including Ford, Morgan Stanley,  NBC, Pfizer, Lacoste and Texaco. And ifyou’re at the French Open, the BNP PARIBAS printed on your tennis ball souvenir was stamped in Snow Hill. In 2004, Wilson subcontracted SmartPlay as its only authorized corporate logo imprinter in the U.S. The company also has an agreement with Penn.

SmartPlay, which currently employs 10 people from the area, used three massive hot stampers to brand the fuzz of 6.5 million tennis balls in 2009 (5.5 million of which were for the pet retail industry).

“All the balls you see with corporate sponsor logos on them at the Open weren’t done in Nanjing or Guangdong, but here in the U.S.,” Palumbo says.

Lucy Slaughter, 46, left her native New Hampshire when the shoe factory she worked for moved out of the country and her husband found work in North Carolina. Her kids were 17 and 9 at the time, and she wanted to do something other than work at Wal-Mart, something that would allow her to develop a skill. Slaughter now operates stamping and canning machines and drives forklifts at SmartPlay. “I’m pretty much a perfectionist when it comes to stamping logos,” she says. “I like them to look perfect. I like doing it. It might sound a little crazy.”

On court at Greene Ridge Racquet Club, Palumbo places a volley inches over the net, twisting his racquet as if peeling a peach. He’s playing Paul Skillicorn, an environmental engineer based in Austin, Texas, charged with agricultural redevelopment in the area. It’s a grudge match between Snow Hill’s horticultural roots and the rise of tennis.

But Skillicorn is also a tennis fanatic. “There’s Gary,” he says, describing a few of the tennis converts he plays, “the truck driver who calls you from ‘somewhere outside Kansas City,’ who wants to set up a Friday afternoon match. There’s a 66-year-old dirt farmer-turned-math teacher calling to tell me his ‘stent’s working fine’ and suggesting we play on Wednesday. I could go on.”

The next morning, Palumbo drives his truck to Greene County Central high school to see the men’s 4.5 tournament being held there. “It’s an anomaly, paradox, irony, whatever you want to call it,” Palumbo says, still marveling at how out of place tennis seems down here. But, he adds, “there’s no greater satisfaction than producing something from nothing. You can’t put a dollar price on that.”

The options were simple in Snow Hill: adapt or die out. As Palumbo passes farmers driving rusty pick-ups and tractors, there’s no doubt that a few of them have a racquet in the passenger seat just in case someone’s up for a set or two.



Originally published in the April 2010 issue of TENNIS.

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