Sports Marketing

How Spikeball’s CEO plans to build the brand without paid advertising

The company, which relies mostly on user-generated content for social posts, aspires to the storytelling skills of brands like Formula 1.
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Screenshots via @spikeball/TikTok

5 min read

Chris Ruder wanted Spikeball to be known as the beach game when he founded the company in 2008—so much so that he made it the product’s tagline.

It turns out that playing on the beach isn’t necessarily representative of the game’s clientele. “When sales started coming in, I realized that most of our customers didn’t live within 100 miles of a beach,” Ruder said. He ended up scrapping the original tagline and going with “Find Your Circle” instead.

Regardless, it’s not appearing in any massive ad campaigns: The company has, for the most part, forgone more traditional types of advertising, instead taking cues from sports like Formula 1, which have relied on storytelling and community to build the brand and the sport.

Story time

Summer’s an important time of year for a sport like Spikeball (which is actually called roundnet, but that’s a whole different story). Frequency of play is 100x higher in the summer than in January, Ruder said, and mid-April through early August marks the time when sales tend to, well, spike.

As a result, it’s also when players are creating the most content around the game. And for better or worse, 99% of that video content is of “what happens on the field,” Ruder said.

While it’s fun to watch, videos of players diving to make sure the ball doesn’t hit the ground don't exactly provide viewers with much background on the sport and its players. So, in addition to that type of content, Ruder said he wants to follow the Netflix documentary formula, citing the success of the streamer’s tennis series Break Point, its golf series Full Swing, and the F1 series Drive to Survive—the last of which helped boost the sport’s popularity among viewers and advertisers in the US. (While there’s no roundnet docuseries in the works at the moment, ESPN aired a 30-minute program called The Story of Spikeball last year.)

“We are trying to get better at storytelling,” Ruder said, noting that he wants people who see the brand’s content to be able to learn about the athletes playing. “That’s what I think really makes people invested, and we haven’t spent a whole lot of time on that.”

This year on Valentine’s Day, Spikeball started a series on its blog called “Spikelove,” which featured a married couple who met playing roundnet. To help keep the content coming, Ruder hired a production company run by two roundnet players called the Roundnetwork to film tournaments and capture stories beyond the action on the field. So far, the Roundnetwork has made videos about the Spikeball Richmond Major tournament, and is working on coverage of the College National Championship, which took place in May, Ruder said.

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“We’re hoping that we continue to do more and more [storytelling], and that’s going to draw more people in,” he said. “Maybe they’re not going to play, maybe they’ll just become spectators, and they’ll watch a little bit longer.”

Another sport Spikeball is taking a cue from is pickleball. Ruder said he and his team have been experimenting with prototype paddles similar in quality and shape to pickleball paddles, which he hopes to release this year, ideally capitalizing on overlap between the roundnet and pickleball communities. A popular pickleball TikTok account recently posted a video of people playing roundnet with paddles, which has nearly 20,000 likes.

Spikeball is also gearing up to release a new “mammoth” set with a wider base that stands higher off the ground and comes with a slightly different ball, all changes that Ruder said will hopefully contribute to longer rallies that make roundnet “more entertaining to watch.”

Player-generated content

Outside of Ruder’s early efforts to document more personal stories behind the game, Spikeball relies on players to generate about 90% of the content for its socials, according to Ruder.

The Spikeball hashtag on TikTok has almost 300 million views, and the brand’s account has more than 1.3 million followers and over 26 million likes on its posts—twice the amount of likes as Nike, Ruder said. It has an additional 510,000 followers on Instagram.

The team tries to post once or twice a week on Instagram and TikTok, but if there’s no good content to share, “we’re not going to just post garbage,” he said.

On top of that, Spikeball’s paid media budget is “next to nothing,” Ruder told us. The brand spends the largest portion of its advertising budget on Amazon, and runs some ads on Google, but Ruder said the brand doesn’t allocate significant spend to social campaigns, other than anywhere from $50 to $1,000 for occasional test campaigns.

And while Spikeball’s largest social audience is on TikTok, “I literally don’t think we’ve spent a nickel [on that platform], even though we’ve got the numbers that we do,” Ruder said.

At the core of Ruder’s approach is to continue to focus on telling genuine stories, whether that’s through short-form user-generated videos or more professionally filmed content.

“The highest compliment I get when people are sharing with me what they liked about Spikeball, is when they somehow talk about that authenticity,” he said. “I don’t want people to think Spikeball is this preconceived brand that people are perfectly crafting behind the scenes. It’s something that this community has had a hand in making and shaping.”

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