Shaquille O'Neal swears by it. So does Formula One champ Rubens Barrichello. Soccer's Cristiano Ronaldo plays with one strapped on, as do a growing number of Major League Baseball (MLB) stars. World champion surfer Andy Irons won't compete without it it being the Power Balance bracelet. This particular kind of athletic supporter is supposed to optimize physical capacity and improve performance thanks to two embedded holograms whose internal frequencies, its makers claim, "react positively with your body's natural energy field." Whatever. "Is there a scientific reason for why that's happening, or is it psychosomatic?" asks Bruno Thiercelin, 50, a surfer from Anglet, France. "I'm betting it's the latter. But if wearing the thing makes you think you feel or perform better, who cares?"
That logic is a big reason that Power Balance and other players in the athletic- and health-enhancement sector are enjoying booming business despite the lack of scientific evidence that their products actually do anything. "Between 15% and 30% of any population or group will have what's known as high-range hypnotic susceptibility, which makes them inclined to look for outside answers, search for improvement assistance and be vulnerable to those giving them simple answers to what they're striving for," says Roland Carlstedt, a clinical researcher and the chairman of the American Board of Sport Psychology.
Susceptibility equals sales for Power Balance, which is based in Laguna Niguel, Calif., and which didn't exist three years ago. It has reportedly sold more than 2.5 million pendants and bracelets worldwide in the past 18 months. Italian retailers have sold more than half a million Power Balance items in recent months, at $30 to $50 a pop, while shops in France are chronically sold out.
Power Balance is the youngest of many companies supplying fans with the same products their pro heroes wear. Meanwhile, Phiten USA, the American affiliate of the Japanese firm of the same name, has a line of clothing and necklaces and other accessories all containing water-soluble titanium that are ubiquitous on pro playing fields. Use of specific treated metals in cloth bands and clothing, the company says, helps regulate the user's bioelectric body current and thereby improves performance and speeds up recuperation. Pitchers Tim Lincecum and Josh Beckett ply their trade toting Phiten gear, as does tennis star Lleyton Hewitt. High-profile use and endorsements of Phiten products by pro jocks have helped the company sell 1.4 million necklaces ($25 to $85 each) in three years, worth $38 million. Phiten USA projects sales surpassing $30 million this year.
The niche is part of a wider performance-improvement and well-being segment that Jack Plunkett, CEO of Texas-based market-research group Plunkett Research Ltd., values at $11 billion to $20 billion annually in the U.S. alone. "Their model is to get the product into the hands of star performers and thought leaders with the aim of it going viral and finding a mass market," he says.
Phiten USA says its business took off once its titanium necklaces became a must-have item among MLB players, a superstitious lot as far as athletes go.
Strangely enough, the bracelets might be a benefit for the pros. If an athlete thinks improvement is real, that placebo effect should be acknowledged, says Stuart Vyse, a psychology professor at Connecticut College and the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. "All superstition is about making a greater, deliberate effort of some kind in the hopes that it will increase your control of a situation you've got little power over. A lot of these products are a sort of merchandized superstition."
The merchandise doesn't seem to be helping Beckett, who's having a subpar season. Maybe his necklace ran out of energy.