The green bottles that players grab during Blackhawks games have the Gatorade logo on the outside, but there’s a good chance something else is inside.
The logo is there for a reason: Gatorade (through parent company PepsiCo) is the official sports drink of the National Hockey League, which means every bottle, towel and water jug on the bench must tout the brand.
But often what’s actually in the Hawks’ bottles is Coco5, a Chicago-based brand of coconut water.
Much like Gatorade’s origin with the University of Florida football team, Coco5 was developed specifically for the Blackhawks. In fact, the team itself was the drink’s first focus group.
Coco5 was born in 2009 out of head trainer Mike Gapski’s search for a sports drink for the Hawks that did not have Gatorade’s colored dyes and other ingredients he didn’t want to give his players.
Unable to persuade Gatorade to make changes he wanted, Gapski decided to create his own. He partnered with Scott Sandler, a serial entrepreneur and former owner of Carpet Mill Outlet in Morton Grove, as well as a food scientist and natural flavor specialist to perfect a formula of coconut water, which was taking off among consumers at the time thanks to its purported health benefits.
Blackhawks players provided feedback as Gapski and his team developed the product—particularly about the taste, which Gapski said had always turned him off from coconut water—until they created what is now known as Coco5. The creators tout it as a “hydration performance drink powered by coconut water” that tastes better than other coconut waters on the market, and they play up the absence of high-fructose corn syrup, aspartame and other chemicals.
The Blackhawks declined to comment on players’ usage of Coco5. A Gatorade spokesman said in a statement that “We’re proud of our 50-year history rooted in science and stand behind the wide offering of products in our portfolio, which has and will continue to include color-free options of Gatorade Thirst Quencher and G2. However, athlete preferences and routines vary, so we continually work with our partners to meet those needs to best serve athletes.”
But Coco5 quickly caught on, both with the Hawks and players on other teams.
“We couldn’t keep (enough of it) in the locker room,” Gapski said, noting that the product’s proliferation among Hawks players correlated with a drastic reduction in how much trainers had to use IV fluids to keep players hydrated.
Today, 18 NHL teams or minor-league affiliates buy Coco5 for their players, Sandler said.
“We’d get players calling us in the off-season saying ‘Send it here, my friend owns a grocery store,'” Sandler said. “Then finally one guy from Pittsburgh called me and said, ‘Why don’t you sell this anywhere?'”
Sandler took that to heart. And with the help of a recent cash infusion from Jim Reynolds, CEO of Chicago-based investment bank Loop Capital, Coco5 is starting to turn up on grocery store shelves around Chicago.
Distribution is small so far: It’s in a number of local health clubs, at every Mariano’s store in the Chicago area and is working its way into Jewel-Osco and 7-Eleven stores among other spots, totaling more than 170 locations. The price is $1.79 per 16-ounce bottle.
Sandler estimates 2015 sales will finish between $2.6 million and $3.6 million, most of which will come from pro sports teams and buyers in the United Kingdom and Ireland, where Coco5 is available to consumers thanks to a relationship with a London-based distributor.
“We’re going to grab market share really fast,” said Reynolds, whose investment track record mainly includes technology and industrial companies.
Reynolds considers himself a health nut and has been a coconut water drinker for years but said he would always “hold my nose” because he didn’t particularly like the taste. His investment in Coco5 was “less than a million dollars” and includes equity in its maker, E Partners CW5, he said.
“I would not have invested in (any) coconut water. I had no desire to invest in it,” he said. “But this is head and shoulders above every coconut brand on the market.”
SHAW THE PITCHMAN
But standing out in a rapidly growing and fragmented beverage sector won’t be easy.
“There’s been so much innovation and explosion of flavors and brands and functional beverages all pursuing similar angles in terms of that healthy lifestyle,” said David Henkes, vice president of Chicago-based food and beverage consulting firm Technomic. “They’re not just competing against other coconut waters. It’s a massively competitive beverage category out there.”
Coco5 also must tread carefully in using its most valuable attention-grabbing asset: The de facto endorsement of Blackhawks players.
The team can’t promote the brand because of the NHL’s Gatorade rules. Coco5 can’t use the Blackhawks name or its imagery, and many players on the team endorse other sports drinks that prevent them from pitching for Coco5.
But some don’t, such as Andrew Shaw. The Blackhawks forward, an avid Coco5 drinker, recently signed on as a spokesman for the brand and appeared in a 30-second ad shot by Banner Collective, the production company that does all promotional video for the Blackhawks and is a property of Wirtz Corp., which owns the team.
Reynolds said the company will turn to more local athletes for future promotion, but not until distribution ramps up.
For now, the brand will settle for spurts of ambush marketing from Blackhawks players, many of whom (to the NHL’s dismay) can be seen drinking or holding Coco5 bottles in the locker room or during interviews if you look closely.
Gatorade is “invaluable not only for us from a league perspective and what they do supporting the game from a promotional and marketing perspective, but also servicing all 30 of our teams and being responsive (to them),” said NHL Senior Vice President of Business Affairs Susan Cohig.
Cohig said the league works closely with the NHL Players Association to determine what can be served to players in the locker room but that “it’s really up to the individual player what are the things that he needs to do in training to ensure that he can perform and do his job.”
Drinking something other than Gatorade during games is nothing new for NHL players. A performance drink product called BioSteel has been popular with NHL players during games since 2011, when it was developed by a trainer for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many of Blackhawks who drink Coco5 actually mix in BioSteel’s supplements.