After seven years as a morning drivetime sports radio host, Josh Miller, a retired NFL kicker, wanted to return to working with athletes instead of kvetching about them. Miller left his Pittsburgh radio gig in 2018 and began tinkering with ideas to help athletes maximize their performance. Turns out the best idea was the simplest: Create a weighted practice ice hockey stick to add speed and power to players’ shots.
After selling more than a million dollars’ worth of his custom sticks to college and youth hockey programs, Miller now has his eye on a far larger market: the world’s 60 million or so golfers.
“We built a better mousetrap, like the doughnut on a baseball bat,” Miller said on a phone call. “After the first four minutes of using it, you’re hooked. … You feel instantly like you’re gaining an edge.”
While the idea is simple, the design is painstaking: Miller’s bare-bones outfit, Gelsport, fills the shaft of company-made hockey sticks built to the specs of popular brands with an industrial polymer for which he holds the exclusive sports license. The polymer allows the stick to flex and be fully customizable like a game model, while adding evenly distributed weight, replacing the habit of taping pucks to sticks to try and generate the same effect.
The training tool quickly caught on. Miller, who was a punter of some of the great Patriots teams of the 2000s, flew it out to Boston hockey legend Mike Eruzione, who in turned showed it off to the men’s and women’s hockey coaches at his alma mater, Boston University. Miller says the coaches ordered a batch after trying it for five minutes.
Fast-forward to today, and GelSTX, which sell around $224 a piece, are used by 61 collegiate hockey programs, as well as youth teams and some pros. Speed guns show players add 3 to 7 miles per hour to their shots, Miller said. Columbus Blue Jackets winger Cam Atkinson, one of the pros who uses GelSTX and an investor, joins friends and family of Miller’s who have valued the company at $2.5 million after its last fund raise.
But success has brought its own problems. Growth has been mainly through word-of-mouth, with Gelsport spending just $24,000 in its four years of existence on marketing costs. Miller is convinced if he could spend $10,000 a month on marketing it would immediately produce $45,000 a month in sales and then grow from there. He’d also like to finance inventory for big box stores that want to carry GelSTX, such as Sport Chek, Canada’s largest sporting goods retailer. “They want to put it in a hundred stores, but we can’t afford that because they pay in 120 days with only half up front. We have to pick and choose the projects we want to attack,” Miller said.
Gelsport’s next project could also be the most lucrative: making polymer-filled golf shafts to improve the swings of golf pros and amateurs alike. Based on early testing, Miller says duffers see a 10- to 15-yard improvement on their drive distance. He also has received testimonials from well-known instructors like Bob Ford and pros like Mathias Grönberg. “I saw a dramatic difference in swing speed and ball speed… very, very happy to have found this,” Grönberg said in an informal parking lot video after practicing with a prototype.
Gelsport is also pitching a weighted shaft for lacrosse, but trends in golf probably bode best for the idea. The National Golf Foundation estimates more than 40 million Americans played golf last year, up from 29 million a decade ago. The number of course players has dipped in that time, but it’s been more than made up for by people who play off-course golf at driving ranges and golf entertainment venues like Drive Shack and Topgolf, according to the organization.
While ice hockey has some 1 million players worldwide who are already obligated to buy pricey pads and skates, golf has some 66 million users who tend to be wealthier—and who have a reputation for jumping on the latest gadget to improve one’s game, like Big Bertha drivers in the 1990s and face-weighted putters last decade. Miller hopes to rustle up investors to back a manufacturing push to fill orders immediately, rather than ask customers to deal with the current multiweek manufacturing backlog.
“[Golfers] impulse buy. If they see something on TV, they want it in the next five days or they forget about it. No one wants to wait two months for anything they buy,” he said.
The better mousetrap may catch the casual athlete’s attention, but only rink rats are willing to wait, it seems.