By  on March 7, 2007

WASHINGTON — Demand for high-tech performance apparel, from weekend warriors and world-class athletes alike, helped drive up sales and average prices of sports apparel last year.

Wholesale sales of sports apparel increased 8.2 percent, to $28.8 billion last year, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association's 2007 State of the Industry report, released at the trade group's Industry Leaders Summit here.

The association predicts a sales increase of 6.5 percent this year.

Higher prices seem to be helping that rise along, as consumers last year paid 5 percent more for sports apparel than they did in 2004, according to an NPD Group consumer survey cited in the report.

Thomas Cove, president and chief executive officer of the Washington-based sporting goods association, attributed the pricing power to performance products that deliver more than is traditionally expected of fashion, such as moisture management or temperature control.

Still, fashion and lifestyle play a big part. NPD research shows that only about 30 percent of the money spent on sports apparel is for clothing that will actually be worn for exercise.

"There's no question that just the pure appeal of sports apparel is strong now and that the idea of a healthy lifestyle and active lifestyle; that look, that culture," said Cove.

The styling and technology will continue to merge, he noted. "The pace of technological change is escalating dramatically and I don't have any great idea where the limit is," said Cove. "Clearly, we see some point where people say you don't have to have exactly every single technological advantage. Let's pull back on that and let's go back. Let's make something that looks good and feels good and is pretty darn functional."

Brands striving to combine form with athletic function recently have attracted attention from deep-pocketed investors such as Iconix Brand Group Inc., which bought Danskin last month, and Liz Claiborne Inc., which snatched up Prana in 2005.

"There may be a limit to how much technology you can incorporate into a piece of apparel," said Cove. "What may be the differentiator, especially for the broader audience, is the fashion."

Apparel makes up the lion's share of the $66.4 billion sporting goods wholesale market, which expanded by 7.6 percent in 2006 and is projected to grow by 5.9 percent this year.The industry faces some challenges, however. Participation in most forms of sports and outdoor activities is stagnant or waning. Much of that decline, though, is among casual participants.

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