An interview with Philippe from Petanque America

By Mr.Bordsenius at 2005-09-13

We have had a chat with the man behind Petanqueamerica, Philippe Boets. He is in fact a Belgian that lives in France!

How did you get involved with pétanque?
Well, I grew up in Belgium and every summer our family went to the coast in De Panne, the last town before the French border.

As a matter of fact we often walked to France over the beach. Every day, sometimes for hours in a row, we played pétanque. Parents vs. kids, girls vs. boys, one family vs. another family, whatever. I still have the most wonderful souvenirs from those summers.

Many years later, meanwhile settled in Miami, my wife and I were sitting on the beach at 25th St, one Sunday afternoon. We saw a lot of families and suddenly I wondered why I had never seen anyone playing in the States.
So, on my next business trip to Europe, I decided to visit the people of La Boule Obut. I was driving from Antwerp, but the weather was so awful that by the time I reached Lille I dreaded driving one mile further. So I left my rental car at Lille airport, flew to Lyon, picked up another rental car and made it to St Bonnet-le-Chateau, just in time for my meeting.

They told me that many people had tried to develop pétanque in the States: some had predicted that they (ànd Obut of course) would become millionaires (in dollars) overnight. But some of them never even paid for the boules.
One lady, a champion in California, was still active selling Obut boules, but planning to move back to France shortly. Bottom line, not much going on. I told them it would take at least ten years before we would see some results, and that I was willing to accept the challenge. I felt confident in that we already had an import/export company with the necessary infrastructure. I stressed that initially we should concentrate on the family sets, not the expensive boules, because “to appreciate a DS, people first need to drive a 2CV”. I was years behind on the French car market, but they got the point.

After an internal meeting behind closed doors, while I was sitting in the waiting room pondering why anyone in his right mind would have two rental cars in the same country on the same day, Mr de Mazenod of Obut came out. An imposing, bearded gentleman who for decades was the driving force behind pétanque in France. “Vous nous semblez une personne réaliste”, he said, and agreed right there and then to give us the exclusive distributorship for the United States.

I was very proud, although in reality it meant no more than getting the exclusivity for a US brand of ice hockey pucks for,say … the Middle East! That was in 1991.

How did you start off?
Pétanque seemed such a hard word to pronounce in English that for a while we considered renaming it for the US market. We registered the name “K’nickerball”, a wordplay on ‘knikkers’, the Dutch word for ‘marbles’, and also the origin of the words Knickerbocker and Knicks, but with the first ‘k’ clearly pronounced. We had a nice logo, pretty colors, and even registered the trademark.
But soon we dropped the idea, because it meant nothing to the French community, the logical market segment to start with. Also, Peter Mayle’s books about Provence were becoming bestsellers. Provence was ‘in’. Provence, pétanque, would be the way to go.

We gave away hundreds of sets to Alliances Françaises, to French American Chambers of Commerce etc… Our phone line would always get very busy come July 14 when all these organizations had picnics and raffles and were looking for needed prizes!

A first small breakthrough came when Air France ordered 800 sets to give to their Concorde passengers. Obut was quite impressed that we, in Florida, got the order, through a New York PR agency to boot.
Remember, there was no Internet! Everything had to go by phone, fax or mail. We needed to reach the people who knew the game, but had no clue where to find the boules, short of hauling them across the Atlantic.

We had been putting ads, in the New York Times for instance. Very expensive, and sales never made up for the cost of the ad. But at least people found out we existed. We spent hours on the phone: some almost cried, happy that one could finally order boules by mail order and pay by credit card. I will never forget the friendly gentleman from NY, who on a Friday night, after telling me how he had enjoyed playing in France, ordered some $300 worth of boules, for a party the next day at his house in Connecticut. I drove to UPS right away: the freight was about $400, yet he was the happiest man on earth entertaining his friends.

We also sent out thousands of catalogs to campgrounds, Bed & Breakfasts, youth organisations, schools, etc...

After approaching numerous stores and providing plenty of samples, this was around 1995, we got a purchase order for some 2400 sets, from Brookstone, a chain with stores all around the country. We picked up a bottle of champagne at the closest Walgreens and popped it that night in the office! Brookstone wanted it in staggered deliveries, over a 3-month period, so we positioned a container at a warehouse close to their distribution center in Missouri to make sure we would comply with the strict delivery dates. So far, so good.

But after we had delivered one third of the goods, they abruptly cancelled the balance of the order! We were appalled. My lawyer friends – I had lots of them in Miami, we played pétanque and poker together - told me we had a clean case, but that a lawsuit would take years, would cost us a lot in legal fees, not to mention the tons of stress. We ended up shipping the container back from Missouri (by that time we called it “misery”) to the plant in France. The boxes were labeled for Brookstone so they had to repackage everything!
That’s when we made a pledge to stick to one strategy, and one only: teach the game to one player at a time, who in turn would teach some friends, who in turn, etc.. Like a snowball that keeps growing when you roll it.

You mentioned there was no Internet in the beginning. How did Internet change things?
It saved us. There’s no other word for it. Especially because the US was way ahead with Internet at the time. I think we in the US - the smallest market on the planet as far as boules were concerned - were the first to put a boules catalog online, shortly followed by an online store.
In those days, the word “pétanque” generated 200 hits on AltaVista or Lycos. About 15 on Yahoo. We started getting orders from faraway places, like Japan and New Zealand. That has meanshile slowed down, because I gather there are now distributors over there as well.

What about the US pétanque federation?
Of course, FPUSA were first on our “to call” list when we started, in ’91. Robert Morrison in Virginia was the president and happy to work with us. He was passionate and they had already taken several initiatives to promote pétanque. The federation had exactly 825 members then.

Ever since, we are regularly in touch with FPUSA and have sponsored them here and there when our budget permits. Right now there are about 1200 members.
I know that is an incredibly small increase. Over the last 14 years, we alone have shipped out thousands of sets – mostly leisure sets, I should add – to households all over the country, and we know from the repeat orders we are getting that people use them, and want more. We talk to new pétanque players almost every day of the year. And in the late 1990’s other importers started selling boules online as well.

Then why so little progress?
One of the main problems is the sheer size of the country. Many players do not see the need to join if the closest FPUSA club may be 800 miles away. So far only California and Florida have more than three clubs. How many players in Europe would drive or fly from Amsterdam to Barcelona for a day to play a few games?
So they play at home, campgrounds, in parks and other public places, and compete amongst themselves, outside the federation.
But recently there has been an interesting development, both in Detroit, Michigan and in Portland, Oregon – where clubs have split into two smaller clubs at two different locations. It saves the members a lot of driving time and makes both cells grow. We hope that principle catches on: more clubs, or satellite clubs, if you will, in and around one city.
It would be interesting to hear comments from a country like Australia that no doubt is - or was? - faced with the same problem of distance.

You spend a lot of time in France. How does that work with Pétanque America?
Indeed, since 2000 we live in a small village in Provence. That’s where our kids go to school and I pick up ‘baguettes’ at the bakery on my 1966 Velosolex. I do fly to the States several times a year for meetings or for an important tournament. Mario runs the office, inventory and shipping in Miami and knows probably more about today’s pétanque scene in the USA than anyone.

Mario Teaches new players how to play

He talks to potential players and loves to share his experience. I think our customer ratings in Yahoo prove it: the word that sticks out the most is “customer service”. He also happens to be a very good player and goes to tournaments when time permits.

The fact that one of us lives in France, Provence to boot, has a lot of advantages:
One day I met Marco Foyot in Marseille at La Marseillaise, we became friends and he agreed twice to come to Miami with me for demonstrations.

Philippe Boets With Marco and Benjamin Foyot in Marseille

Sometimes I go to the World Championships, like Brussels this year, to meet and cheer on the US team and keep in touch with friends such as Jac Verheul of the Dutch pétanque league. He is a walking pétanque encyclopedia!
Last month I met Martine Pilate, a charming lady and the grandniece of Ernest Pitiot. She just published a book about the history of pétanque. She showed me the very ‘boules cloutées’ (nail-studded boules) her granduncle played with in 1910!

Jac Verheul, Philippe Boets and Martine Pilate

Every spring and fall year I teach hundreds of American tourists how to play at several hotels in the area. Many of them see pétanque played while here, but they seldom get a chance to give it a shot themselves. So I show up around “apéro” time, late afternoon, with lots of boules, explain the history of the game, go over the rules with actual examples and within a matter of minutes we start an informal tournament. The atmosphere is always great. There have been occasions where the maitre d’ got upset because dinner was ready, but the guests insisted on finishing their game first! Moreover, I have met wonderful people in these groups.

I can go to the World Championships, like Brussels this year.
Last but not least I can be at the Obut factory in less than three hours if need be.
Still, thanks to Internet (and phone calls getting cheaper), I stay in close touch with the office, with players, customers and sponsors in the US. Some even come to visit us here.

Boules ready for UPS

What is the US boules market like today?
Like everywhere else, ‘generic’ boules sets are now available at many stores and online. We love competition (we wouldn’t be pétanque players if we didn’t), and the more boules are sold, the more people play, the better for the game. But it is sad to note that most stores in the US sell them at highly inflated prices, sometimes $ 50 and up. They're taking advantage of the fact that the game isn't well known.
In Europe, where consumers do know the difference, those same sets sell at stores like Aldi or Carrefour for less than 10 Euro!

Recently in a large department store in Miami, I saw a beautifully packaged, reasonably priced 8-boules set. I actually bought one because the box was so pretty. But guess what: the aim ball was way too big, made of gold colored steel, and the playing instructions inside the box were for ‘bocce’, the Italian game, not for pétanque.
So for the beginning player, it can be very confusing.
In our particular case, sales go up slowly - slower than I had expected in 1991 - but steadily every year. All we need is for the US dollar to gain some strength so we can start thinking about making a profit!

What are the challenges of your business, in general and specifically in the US?
There are several:

(a) The notion that pétanque is only for older men.
It’s normal: many Americans first saw pétanque played on a visit to France, and yes, often by older people, and yes, mostly men! Young people play a lot in France too, but during the week they are either in school or at work, so there are fewer opportunities to see them in action. That’s one reason why we like to do pétanque demonstrations in schools.

(b) Many people think that bocce and pétanque are identical. Bocce has been popular for a very long time, originally among Italian immigrants, and is widely known in the US. But anyone who has played both knows how substantially different they are. Sometimes we go as far as to liken it to the difference between tennis and badminton, to make the point. On the other hand, the fastest way to describe pétanque to someone who has no idea about pétanque, is: “French bocce”. A term I have used more than once at US Customs when arriving at the airport with boules!

(c) It can be tough at times to convince our French counterparts that overseas markets, though still small today, are important. In general, I would love to see more English used at international competitions.

(d) Something inherent to the boules business: the vast range of weights, diameters, patterns, and alloys. We usually have around 500 triplets in stock but not always what clients specifically request. Yet we have some combinations sitting on a shelf for 5 years! All boule distributors are familiar with that problem. Luckily most of our clients understand it and settle for a close subsitute.

From the store

(e) The most recent challenge is that importing any product into the US has become very unpredictable. Of course we understand that inspections have to be more thorough than in the past, but when you have a shipment of boules stuck at the Port of Miami for over a month, as happened to us last November, while Christmas orders were coming in, there are times you want to throw in the towel. Or ‘kiss Fanny’, to use our lingo!

Besides all those hurdles, are there any rewards?
Oh, yes – if not I would have given up a long time ago.
For example, when we organized the first Pétanque America Open, in 2003, we said let’s get on the phone and call some people out of the blue who bought boules from us. Many were surprised: we were not trying to sell them anything, we just wanted to find out how they were getting on with the game, and if they would be interested in coming to Miami. No one hung up on us. The response was great. As a matter of fact a couple from El Paso, Texas, booked their flight that same night, participated in the tournament, and won $ 200! They had a blast and thanked us a thousand times.
They didn’t even cash the check.

We got a call from folks in Alabama who used to play horseshoes on weekends, and have recently switched to pétanque. Same place, same friends, but they say they’re now having more fun!
We have customers who live in RV’s and promote the game at every campground they’re staying at. Their orders always have a different ZIP code!Others ask us for advice on building a court at their summer home and invite us to stop by anytime.

In July, for the fourth time, Smith Street in Brooklyn, NY was converted into 24 pétanque courts, for the Bastille Day tournament. Every year, more teams show up! Sonoma, CA has a weekly radio show with call-ins about pétanque.

The enthusiasm we encounter is what keeps us going. American players who get hooked on the game are the best ambassadors for pétanque. They want to meet other players, they want to teach beginners, they really want us to succeed.

That’s why we are doing the Open Tournament in Miami Beach again this year in November. Players will fly in from different cities in the US and Canada. We really hope that players from other countries will join as well, to experience “pétanque in America” firsthand. I am convinced they will not regret it. They will encounter an incredibly heterogeneous bunch of open, friendly, jovial people.
They may also get their butt kicked!

Mario and Marco in Florida

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