New England

Making Tennis Fun with the Netlets

December 07, 2020

MADISON, CT – Meet the Netlets, a vibrant and peppy group of animated creatures who learn important lessons about sportsmanship, nutrition, self-confidence, and friendship through tennis and the outdoors. The Netlets are the brainchild of Steve Gulla, full-time graphic designer from Madison, CT and nine-time New England No. 1 ranked adult tournament player.


Gulla was a high school All-American, a PTR certified teaching pro and is closing in on his 10th New England No. 1 ranking this year.


Nearly 20 years ago, Gulla was introducing his then toddler sons, Noah and Maximo, to tennis. He took them to his matches and told them bedtime stories that incorporated tennis and valuable life lessons. Soon enough, Gulla was creating recurring characters in these stories and shortly after, the Netlets were born.   


“I would create a new character every night and the boys loved them, so I just kept thinking of more.” Gulla said.


Gulla then took the project a step further. He put pencil to paper, added a digital twist and brought his characters to life.

The first “real” Netlets experience came in the form of tennis balls. Prior to the launch of USTA’s official 10 and Under Tennis program with colored balls, Gulla branded his own youth tennis balls with his characters’ faces on them. He sold them, along with a trading card of the character, in stores and online. The balls were an instant hit. They made it to the shelves of the shop at the International Tennis Hall of Fame and won an American Graphic design award for Product and Packaging.


“People ripped through these in stores. We also did focus groups with the balls and characters in kindergarten and first grade classes, and the kids went nuts. They loved it,” Gulla said. “I would always search pro shops at clubs and go to tennis stores, and there was nothing that really spoke to kids. I wanted to appeal to them and grow the game that way.”

Gulla tried to parlay his early success into something more – an animated series. His vision was to create something bigger and air the Netlets on a TV network for all kids to watch and be able to relate to.


But life got too busy and Gulla didn't have the time to figure out how to properly pitch it. He tried to make connections at different stations, however with the product still an unknown at the time, he wasn't able to get very far.   


"There hasn’t really been anyone who didn’t like the idea, but I haven’t had that break or opportunity I’ve been hoping for — whether it be from a tennis company looking to build brand loyalty from an early age or a media company seeking animated online content," he said.


He did however work with an animator and renowned voice actors to create an animated short, "Don’t Be In A Funk From Eating Junk" (shown above), a small clip of the pilot cartoon.


“It’s hard to get kids started in the game but having something like this that excites them and draws them to tennis while teaching them important lessons, makes it a lot easier,” Gulla said.


After completing the cartoon pilot in 2013, Gulla worked on upgrading the Netlets by naming each character (previously had been named mouse, cat, etc.). He now feels it's finally time to introduce The Netlets to the world. In November, he created Netlets social media pages and soon plans on turning the Netlets into mascots. 


“I thought it was time to try a new approach. It’s 2020, so why not push it online, hope it gets some buzz and then maybe someone will pick it up from there,” Gulla said. “Once I create the first two mascots, I’m hoping to bring them to events and get the ball rolling that way as well. They will take photos with the kids, pass out cards and just spread the word.”


Gulla’s kids, now 19 and 16, are both avid tennis players. Noah is playing at Bard College in New York and Maximo is competing in USTA New England tournaments in the 16 and unders. Both have also earned top New England father/son doubles rankings with their dad.


Noah’s and Maximo’s interest in the game started with their dad and grew even more thanks largely to the Netlets, and Gulla hopes other kids can benefit from his unique characters in the same way his sons did.


“Making it fun for kids is what it’s all about and always been about for me. I wanted my kids and all kids to love tennis more than anything else,” he said.  


You can learn more about the Netlets by visiting their website as well as their Facebook and Instagram pages.

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