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Midwest

Chris Clark: Founder & CEO of Toss and Spin

Molly Doehrmann | February 11, 2022


Originally from Battle Creek, Michigan, Chris Clark grew up playing tennis and loved it. So much so that he played in college and continues through his adult life. When the time came to make a living, Chris followed his passion into the world of racquet sports and corporate marketing, ending up at several renowned companies, including Wilson and Gatorade. 

 

However, in July 2020, Chris was furloughed among millions of other Americans during the global health crisis ⁠— the Covid-19 Pandemic. But that didn't stop Chris from chasing his dreams. He went back to his roots: tennis, and with some creative naming from his wife, founded the company Toss and Spin.

 

The business was established to deliver a one-of-a-kind racquet sports experience, curating tennis content to encourage new players, while also offering racquet sports programming available for anyone interested in simply learning how to play. Chris's goal is to give access to as many people as possible. For him, it's all about giving back to the game that's given so much to him. Learn more about Chris's tennis background and see exactly how he's grown a successful business... and how it's just getting started.

 

Q: Chris, when did you first pick up a tennis racquet?
A: It’s actually a funny story!

I started playing when I was about nine and a half years old. It was a Saturday morning… Gosh, I’m going to get the math wrong. It was probably like ’95 or ’96. Somewhere in there… And they had programming at the Y and my parents were like, “Hey why don’t you try tennis?”

I was the little kid who had a lot of energy— I’m sure you can tell. So I was always bouncing around, looking for the next thing to do. So they took me to tennis and I liked it. Picked it up right away... Then the local Y coach called my parents and said, “Hey there’s a local tournament and someone pulled out. You think Chris wants to play? It’s just one day, three matches, four kids in the tournament.” I was like, “Yeah! I’d love to play!” I ended up winning this little, local tournament after playing only two weeks, and then the rest is history… I kind of just went on to really love the game. I guess it brought something special out of me.

 

Q: What about the sport brought you so much happiness as a kid?
A: I had a history of playing football, basketball, baseball, soccer.

I was always involved in sports, but I felt like tennis was the first sport I played that allowed the soccer footwork to come together… Being athletic on the tennis court, jumping and chasing around balls... It took all my prior sports experience and put it into one [sport].

 

Q: Did you continue competing?
A: I grew up playing in the Midwest Section. So I’d been to Indy probably six straight years playing in the Midwest Closed.

The best Midwest Closed result I had was the quarter-finals. My claim to fame! But yeah, I started playing at the local YMCA and then got a coach. Then started competing in Western Michigan— That was my district. Then started competing in sectionals, then onto Nationals. I actually played for my high school team. I finished third in the state my senior year... I was a good player, but I had to really develop that mental side of the game and the belief. So I played in high school and I played in college as well.

 

Q: What’s your favorite tennis memory from college?
A: I played for the University of Toledo in the Mid-American Conference.

I played four years there, and then I was also the grad assistant for the women’s tennis team while I did my MBA... My senior year [of high school] there were three or four colleges I really wanted to go to. Of course Michigan State. It was in my backyard. Toledo, University of Iowa and actually Valparaiso. Those were the four schools. My parents loved Valparaiso as well as Toledo for the smaller class size. Of course, parents are thinking about learning, I’m thinking about where I’m going to play. Haha! It came down to Iowa or Toledo. Toledo gave me a scholarship. Iowa didn’t. So I went to Toledo and it was the best decision I made, but we ended up playing at Iowa my senior year of college. I was playing number two singles and I beat them! And their coach actually sent me a note, and he said something like, “I get it. We made a mistake… I’m really proud of you and what you’ve become. Wish you the best in your next endeavor in life.” I still have that note that he took the time to handwrite and mail to me. That was a special moment.

 

Q: What was it like being a grad assistant for the women’s team?
A: It was probably one of the best times of my life.

From a tennis perspective, I was young, I was 21 and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. Am I going to go into corporate and be behind a desk for the next 30 years? I didn’t think that would be best. There was an opportunity at Toledo… So I took that. It was really fun. I learned a lot about coaching, and it built something great in me. I just found a joy for coaching and working with others, trying to solve on-court problems. Matter of fact, we still keep in touch with Toledo and my coach, Al Wermer and the women’s coach, Tracey Mauntler. We still laugh about those days. It’s definitely cemented a special place within me.

 

Q: Then you did end up transitioning to work in the corporate world. How was that?
A: Gatorade was the first place I started, and I spent four years there.

Essentially they built that team culture. Instead of hitting tennis balls, I was doing the same thing, but for my specific job. You’re working with former athletes and it was just a really cool experience. I learned so much there specifically about marketing.

 

Wilson was a special place… I was a global product manager. So I was managing three different categories: recreational racquets, tennis balls and tennis ball accessories. It was so cool being able to travel the world… Just being able to interact with German people, and French people, people from Japan and all over the world and then understand different cultures. There’s different cultures and then there’s different work cultures, and it all comes out in these products! One of my best experiences there was when I worked on the Triniti tennis ball for about three and a half years. Before I left, I got a chance to test them with a lot of pros. So I was on the court with Naomi Osaka, Victória Azárenka, Tommy Paul, Félix Auger-Aliassime… Really cool people and they were just nice. Watching how far this ball had come was a very rewarding moment for me.

 

I will say Kraft was a good experience, [but] you know, I’m a sports guy. So when you try to switch industries... The money you think is just going to make you happy— it doesn’t. Right? I quickly found out, I don’t want to manage a two-billion-dollar cheese business. I’d much rather be talking about who’s hitting the biggest forehand and backhand or be on the tennis court or doing something like that. I think the life lesson for me was, if you’re not happy, in my mind, it’s not worth doing. I really appreciate what I’m doing now because I get to control my own time and I think owning my own time, for me, is by far the greatest asset that I have… Looking back on it, had I loved cheese, then we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. I think there’s a place for everyone.

Q: So you started your own business — Toss and Spin! You say your wife came up with the name?
A: My wife did come up with the name. She totally did. Haha!

After I left Kraft, I started working for a start-up based in the Bay. Essentially that company was a sports league sport company. So we’d get contracts with like Google, and then Google would play Gatorade. It was pretty cool, but we relied on people being in the office. You can tell how quickly the investors pulled their cash from that start-up when people realized we weren’t going back to the office [because of the pandemic]. We floated along for a bit there then I was furloughed in July of 2020. At that point I was already teaching tennis, back on the court, having fun a few hours a day. So one day my wife just sort of looked at me and said, “Why don’t you make this something real?”

 

I was going to call [the business] Chris Clark’s Tennis or something like that. She was like, “No. How did you name products in corporate?” So we started brainstorming! It probably took like a week with these brainstorming sessions. Essentially we came up with, What are the two most important things in tennis? Well I preach that if you don’t have a good toss, your serve's not going to be good, and if you don’t hit spin, at some point, you’re going to hit the ball long and you’re not going to be able to keep the ball on the court. So we came up with Toss and Spin…

 

Everything with Toss and Spin, I tried to do the right way, filing the name, getting the rights to the name, creating the website, really investing into the business. It took a while to get that stuff up and running and it’s still evolving as we speak today, but I’m super proud of this idea that we brainstormed 18 months ago that is now what I would consider a thriving business. 

We’re partnering with city parks, and really, we exist to provide good programming. In the past, everyone would go to the clubs and the programming’s great, but then you go to the park and the programs aren’t great. The pros aren’t experienced... I wanted to break that paradigm. Just being there to service the community and giving back because the game has given me so much. I try to instill that in myself and also my staff that works for Toss and Spin.

 

Q: Toss and Spin started with about 50 players and now has more than 800 active players across nine city parks. How old are these new players?
A: We’ve had players as young as three and probably as old as 75.

When I was in college, we’d go through our pre-match routine: What’s your goal for today? My goal was to always have fun. Fast forward now almost 14 years—wow that was a while ago—fast forward to now and the goal of my business is to ensure that everybody who comes into contact with [the business] has fun. We’re not playing to be the next Roger Federer. We’re playing to stay in shape. We’re playing to learn something new, meet new people, have fun.

 

Q: Where are these players active?
A: Chicago’s like a city and neighborhood. Every neighborhood has a Chicago Park District.

So I’ve reached out to those park districts in those areas to say, “I would like to rent space.” So last year I was like, once I rent space, I go find the players. Once I find the players, then I have staff. This year, I have the players so now we’re hiring staff, but more importantly, we’re dotting ‘i’s and crossing ’t’s with the city so that I can be guaranteed a certain amount of hours. But there’s also a certain amount of city programming that Toss and Spin will provide for the city. I really want to be the blueprint to show [how to] work together for the greater good. I think I can do great by myself, but I’ll do much better if the city works with me because they’re going to provide resources. They’re going to help me market… Then it’s a win-win for everybody. My business is profitable and at the same time, we’re offering free programming and opportunities to communities! 

 

Q: Toss and Spin is based in Chicago. Where is it going next?
A: I have this motto: Think bigger.

I could be satisfied with doing programming for one park, but there’s so many people in Chicago. There’s so much opportunity, and what we’re doing is powerful. So why not keep expanding? I picked out some cities that have a similar footprint in terms of: young professionals, active city, not a lot of clubs, very little tennis programming done from a city perspective. Those are the cities that I want to go after next. Like Baltimore, Washington D.C., Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte. You know, Florida has a tennis court at every stoplight so Toss and Spin probably wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing in Florida, but that doesn’t mean— San Diego’s another good market! But in order for it to work, I need help. I need pros in those areas. It’s also about making sure I don’t over-extend myself because what we’re planning in Chicago I think could be really really big. So I have to ensure all these other markets would run without me being present.

 

The last two things I would say are, one - this concept of think bigger. There are pros at clubs… Think how you can have an impact on society… Like how are you going to impact these peoples’ lives? The last thing is, I would force every human being to ask themselves, what is your superpower? What are you really good at that no one else can do like you can? For me, as a kid, I thought I should be at the Australian Open but the reality is, me being able to bridge my corporate experience with my tennis background creates a superpower. I challenge everyone to find what they really love to do. Find your superpower. Lean into it and good things will happen.

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