Shaquille O’Neal, early in the first quarter of an exhibition game in October, 1997, faked a move, changed direction and drove to the hoop.
A surge of pain shot through his abs. He had strained his lower abdominal muscles, a microscopic tear of the muscle fibres.
It was a recurring problem for the 25-year-old centre, then in his second year with the Los Angeles Lakers, and, at the time, Shaq remembers, it felt like his abs were “ripped in half, hanging together by one little thread.”
Lakers medical staff didn’t know what to do. They prescribed drugs and rest. A year-long recovery and surgery loomed. “One wrong move,” Mr. O’Neal says, “and I’d have been out my whole career.”
The Lakers staff searched for options and came across a Canadian who had successfully treated a similar injury. “This guy in Canada,” Shaq was told, “he can fix you.”
“It was like a solar eclipse,” laughs Alex McKechnie, the “guy in Canada,” as he recalls that January, 1998, day when Mr. O’Neal – all 7 feet, 1 inch, and 325 pounds of him – arrived at his office door in the Vancouver suburbs. The Glasgow native had moved to the West Coast in 1974 and established himself as a go-to physiotherapist for many of Canada’s top athletes.
In the mid-nineties, Mr. McKechnie began to hatch new techniques for his practice. He believed the answer to the abdominal-injury riddle lay in the core muscles, and he started to develop products and workout systems that targeted those muscles.
His first invention was called the Core Board. Similar to a wobble board, the Core Board presented an unsteady perch on which to stand, requiring a person to co-ordinate and use many different muscles to maintain balance.
The second was a system of rubber Thera-Bands, later named Core X. With this apparatus, Mr. McKechnie would use one band to tie patients’ right wrists to their left knees and another band to tie their left wrists to their right legs, with the two bands connected by a central ball. Once the injured athletes were all bound up, he’d get them to perform basic sporting moves, such as strides and pivots.
Working with Mr. McKechnie, Shaq would at one moment be tied up like a marionette, and then he’d perch his huge frame on the makeshift wobble board. It felt, Mr. O’Neal remembers, a bit “silly.” But he was determined to skirt surgery and kept at it. It worked – he was back on the court several weeks later.
Over the next two years, Shaq spent his summers in Vancouver, training with Mr. McKechnie. By the autumn of 1999, he arrived for work with the Lakers more formidable than ever. He played almost every game and scored a career-best, league-leading 30 points a game, topped by a scorching night when he slammed in 61 points on his 28th birthday.
He won his only regular-season MVP trophy and seized the biggest prize of all, leading the Lakers to the title – the first of three consecutive championships.
“He’s the resurrector,” Mr. O’Neal said of Mr. McKechnie in 2003. “He brought me back. I was dead, and he brought me back.”
With the Shaq seal of approval, other celebrity clients followed. The Lakers hired Mr. McKechnie full-time, and people around the physiotherapist began to envision the mass-market potential for his products and methods.
He had a fistful of aces: famous clients, a percolating fitness zeitgeist and his own credentials as a respected physiotherapist. Yet he has struggled in the guise of sporting goods entrepreneur. The Core Board, launched commercially in late 2000, disappeared after just five years on the market. The Core X System, which debuted in 2009, hasn’t fared much better. To Mr. O’Neal, Mr. McKechnie is the resurrector, but whether the wily white-haired Scot – dubbed the silver fox by the Lakers – can work similar miracles on his own business is to be seen.
“The core” is technically known as the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex, more than two dozen pairs of interconnected muscles that work to stabilize the spine, pelvis and hips. It is the central force that provides the foundational strength for upper and lower body movement.
The idea for the Core Board was born in the mid-nineties, when Mr. McKechnie was walking his dog. Passing a playground, he was inspired by a child bouncing on a spring-mounted horse, seeing exercise potential in the recoil and torque of the spring.
“Some of the simplest things are out there and stare us right in the face,” Mr. McKechnie says. “Like a Post-it note. How simple is it? It’s functional. In my rehab program, there was a need: ‘How can I do that?’ It was working back from that, really. It’s not like I sat and said, ‘I need to go invent something.’ ”
In 1999, as Mr. McKechnie was settling into life in Los Angeles, he made a local connection that led to a deal with Reebok, the shoe company, for the Core Board. Reebok hoped to recreate its success from the 1980s, when an aerobics instructor named Gin Miller came up with an exercise program that involved stepping on and off her porch step – an idea that Reebok turned into a sales phenomenon worth an estimated $750-million.
The Core Board enjoyed a brief spell as a hot item, with one published report indicating that 20,000 units were sold, at $249 each, in the first year – a fast $5-million haul. Looking back, Mr. McKechnie feels Reebok made mistakes marketing Core Board. By 2005, with the licensing deal set to expire, Reebok was bought by Adidas-Salomon AG, and the Core Board disappeared.
The Reebok experience left Mr. McKechnie feeling burned by big business, and he left it behind to focus on his physiotherapy practice. But not long after, Mr. McKechnie met Jeff Cowan, a businessman who had dealt in medical supplies and was running a printing and embroidery business. The two men struck a bond, and Core X System LLC was started in 2009, a company majority-owned by Mr. Cowan and an unnamed partner, with Mr. McKechnie and two others as minority owners.
The basic product cost $69.95 and included the bands that connect the arms and legs, as well as instructional DVDs and the like. An “elite” version went for $129.95.
What’s kept the company afloat so far has been the patronage of professional sporting teams. Core X says it has made sales to two dozen NBA teams, a dozen in the NHL, another dozen or so in football, as well as Premier League soccer teams such as Manchester City, and college sports programs.
“We never had to market to teams,” Mr. Cowan says. “It was word of mouth, the best marketing. It was Alex’s name.”
But reaching a broader audience, the real goal, has proved a much bigger challenge. Mr. Cowan at first plowed money into infomercials. The pitch for Core X: “Used by top athletes to strengthen and beautify the bodies of everyday people.” The results were underwhelming.
“I think we probably sold a thousand units,” Mr. Cowan concedes. “People are looking for the magic pill. Our system works, it’s backed by science, but if you leave it in the closet, it won’t move itself.”
Core X took in roughly $100,000 in those early months in 2009. Mr. Cowan, bowed by the failed infomercials and running out of cash, then turned to the Internet. He attempted to sell Core X through the company’s own website, advertised the product through Google, and secured deals with online retailers such as Costco.com.
Sales did pick up, but to this day they remain slow: Core X had projected sales of 5,000 units for 2011, up from about 3,000 in 2010.
It is a break-even proposition at best. As of September, 2012, sales were moribund, and the product was no longer available through Costco. The Core X website had been revamped, as planned. The new pitch: “Fun! Fast! Easy!”
The question of how a star physiotherapist with a slew of celebrity endorsements has failed to translate all that into a profitable business is a thorny one.
One problem for Core X is positioning. The product looks complicated, seemingly for use by pros only. “It doesn’t look like it’s fun to do,” admits Mr. Cowan, “and that’s what sells right now.” But more fundamentally, according to several consultants, Core X lacked a clear focus when it went to market – and it has failed to spark an emotional flare.
The trick is to turn something that may in fact be a need into a want, says Graham Robertson, who spent more than a decade marketing products for Pfizer Inc. and then Johnson & Johnson.
“A lot of the Core X messaging is rational,” says Mr. Robertson, who works now at Level5 Strategic Brand Advisors in Toronto. “When people have back issues, muscle issues, it’s highly emotional – the emotional component is the big missing element [in Core X’s marketing]. Every brand has that magic point. The magic is where it gets emotional, where the product becomes a brand.”
The challenges facing Mr. Cowan and company are daunting. Even a big specialty player such as Nautilus Inc., with its well-known Bowflex brand, has seen its stock collapse 90 per cent in the past five years as sales plunged by two-thirds. The fitness market is tough. Still, Core X’s salesman-in-chief remains confident of ultimate success.
“Core X is on the cusp,” Mr. Cowan says. “This could blow up to be huge.”
It could also fade into obscurity, like so many faddish products before it. As for Mr. McKechnie, he says he does not stay awake at night devising ways to sell Core X, despite his stake in the company.
Last year, he joined the Toronto Raptors. The role of director of sports science is the most expansive of his career. Bryan Colangelo, the team president, calls Mr. McKechnie a “guru.”
Business is more complicated. Mr. McKechnie is not a businessman. He is a healer.
“Day to day, I don’t run it,” Mr. McKechnie says of Core X. “Obviously, Core X is used in my life, every single day. For the most part, I’m promoting it constantly.
“Would I like to see it do better? Of course I would. Has it got potential? Yes, it does. It has huge upside. But like anything, it takes time.”