By Mary Giorgio
Since it first came to market in the 1960s, Gatorade has held fast to its position as the #1 selling sports drink in America. Invented at the University of Florida and named for its winning Gators football team, few people know that Indiana company Stokely Van Camp played a tremendous role in the product’s early development.
It all started at the University of Florida in the mid-1960s. The Gators football team faced a big problem: the summer of 1965 had been perilously hot and humid, with over 24 freshman players hospitalized for dehydration. The team had to practice daily and could not afford losing more players.
A team of university researchers, led by Dr. Robert Cade, began a quest to create a sports drink for the team. The resulting product, Gatorade, reportedly hydrated players faster than water. More focused on the marketability of the product than its scientific validity, the inventors called it “Gatorade” (instead the more scientific-sounding “Gator-Aid”).
Researchers knew that their product had a remarkable potential on the market. However, they had little time or knowledge of the commercialization process.
In 1967, one of the researchers on the project moved to Indiana to take a job at Indiana University. There, he met the president of Stokely Van Camp, Inc. Alfred Stokely. Already in search of a fresh product to market, Stokely immediately recognized the drink’s market potential (his company’s signature product, Van Camp’s Beans, had been on the market since the 1930s).
Stokely immediately purchased the rights to Gatorade. The drink was sold in cans, but the company switched to glass bottles due to leakage from the beverage’s high salt content. A powdered formula was later added for team convenience. Gatorade was marketed primarily to athletic teams. Almost immediately, Stokely was able to sign on as the National Football League’s official sports drink.
Gatorade wasn’t the first sports beverage of its kind to be developed, but its iconic success resulted from successful marketing and ordinary luck. The Gators were a winning team, and the drink’s commercial launch coincided with a winning season. The team went on to win the 1969 Orange Bowl, bringing further fame to the product.
Known for its unique branding, sports teams across the country could be seen hauling orange and white coolers and green paper cups with the Gatorade logo onto the field. The drink even gained a fan club among celebrities. Elvis Presley was known to gulp Gatorade during concerts.
Seeking to capitalize on Gatorade’s success, other companies attempted to bring similar products to market, but nothing could outpace Gatorade’s lead in the industry. Coca-Cola finally achieved success with its Poweraid drink, but has never unseated Gatorade as the #1 seller.
In 1983, Quaker Oats purchased Stokely Van Camp for a whopping $220 million. The deal primarily sought to obtain the coveted Gatorade brand. Under the Quaker Oats umbrella, Gatorade grew substantially. In 1991, they signed Michael Jordan as the spokesperson for the iconic drink.
Today, Gatorade is owned by PepsiCo and continues to be the top seller in the sports drink industry (the original lemon-lime continues to be Gatorade’s top flavor). Although the brand has changed hands several times, Gatorade continues to be a Hoosier product. The drink is still produced in Indianapolis at the Ameriplex Business Park.