Courting success: Floored briefly by the global pandemic, Praters eyes a record year

When the global pandemic threatened his business in 2020, John Prater looked to the 1990s.

These days, Praters Inc. is known worldwide for designing, painting and finishing portable basketball floors for colleges and universities, professional teams and leagues and special events, including the Olympic Games. Prater says his Rossville, Ga.-based facility is the largest of its type in the world, at which his employees can store 50 portable floors and work on up to nine at a time.

But Prater recalls that his very first job was painting and finishing the playing floor in Baylor School's Jimmy Duke Arena.

"I probably got $3,000 or $4,000," he says.

So when the pandemic shut down 2020 college basketball tournaments and forced cancellation of multiple events in the following months, Prater went back to his beginning.

"I started out doing work for [secondary] schools within a 100-mile radius – Hamilton County, Catoosa County, Walker County. We still had that business and, though schools were closed, contractors were allowed in to work between April and July.

"It wasn't as profitable, but beggars can't be choosers," he says. "We'd had $750,000 of booked contracts go away. We were fighting for any revenue source we could get."

Praters caught a break the next year when the NCAA played its basketball tournaments in 'bubbles' – the men's at various sites in and around Indianapolis, Ind., and the women's at multiple venues in and near San Antonio, Texas.

"We had 10 courts in Indianapolis and 12 in San Antonio," says Prater, who adds that the company landed more business when the NBA and WNBA came back in Florida bubbles.

"And we networked like banshees during COVID," he adds. "So many people in the basketball-event business were scrambling to get work; we forged some good relationships and were very busy last fall. The relentlessness of trying to keep things going has really paid off."

The result, Prater says, is that the company is on track in 2022 to top its previous record year, 2019, by an eye-popping 20 percent.

"That's a testament to the people who surround me every day," Prater says. "The best people in the world.

"It's easy to be a team member when everything's going well," he adds. "It's when everything falls apart right in front of you we weren't in panic mode. We got together and said, 'How are we going to work this problem?'"

Prater concedes that his company hasn't been immune to supply-chain and labor shortages that have plagued businesses worldwide in recent months, but he tries to view those through a different prism.

"[Labor] is a numbers game," he says. "We've utilized our coaching and school-system friends to help us find people who are good fits.

"And one of the things I'm most proud of is that we weren't late [delivering] anything in 2021," he says. "I can make an excuse about the supply chain, throw my hands up and say, 'I just can't do it,' or find a way to make it happen.

"That's what I hang my hat on – that we're a can-do company," he says.

While designing, painting and finishing portable courts remains the core of Praters' business, the company's owner says it's growing in a couple of areas. One is decals, which Prater says can range from 20 feet in diameter to go on the center of a floor to big enough to wrap an entire regulation floor. Decals now account for about 30 percent of the company's annual revenue, he says.

"We got a patent in 2017," Prater says. "Our play-on decals allow us to create a unique event for sponsors who want their branding front-and-center, and we're the only company in the world who can do [decals] in a completely safe way for players."

"We coat the decals with a finish at our shop that gives them the same coefficient of friction as the floor," he says. "The NBA, the NCAA, ESPN and others all recognize that our decals perform, and there's not another decal out there that does."

Praters is also going Hollywood. The owner says the company was scheduled to deliver a court to Los Angeles for a remake of the 1992 movie "White Men Can't Jump."

Marketing director Anna Prater, the owner's daughter, says the company provided the floors used in the 2006 film "Glory Road," last year's reboot of "Space Jam" and the gym-dance scene of 2021's "West Side Story" remake.

"And we've recreated the floors in [HBO series] 'Winning Time,'" she adds. "It's all the same floor – we fly [crews] in at different times to wrap it so it looks like the floors used in 1979 by the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.

"We've got another couple of film projects we'll be working on this summer, in addition to another season of 'Winning Time,'" she says. "[Film/TV] has been a really fun way to grow as a company."

And it's another reminder for John Prater of how his company got its start more than a generation ago.

"We provided graphic design and full color for Hixson High School 25 years ago," he says, "and now we're doing that for Warner Bros., Paramount and [director] Steven Spielberg."

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