NEW YORK — Move over athletes and make way for everyone else.

That seems to be the unofficial mantra that activewear companies have adopted to try to revitalize the $16.6 billion business. While they haven’t abandoned tried-and-true gym-goers, they are turning their attention to stylish women, saucy teenagers and active moms in their ads and in-store displays.

The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association expects this year’s sales to finish only slightly ahead of last year. In these unsteady times, brands are playing up the practicality and affordability of their collections, especially versatile basics to attract new customers.

“People are buying what they need, as opposed to what they want,” said Fran Errico, national buyer of Equinox Energywear, a 17-store operation.

Tough times call for shrewd business decisions, which might explain why many firms have hired or promoted key executives to focus on their respective women’s divisions. In September, Pentland Brands recruited Maria Stefan, who was executive director and vice president of global business development of the SGMA to become president of its Ellesse USA division.

At Adidas America, Jolynn Ovington, a 12-year company veteran, has been promoted to lead its women’s business. She calls the shots for a cross-functional team to assure the brand has a more unified look in terms of apparel, footwear, communications and retail.

Adding 80 Adidas women’s concept shops in sporting goods stores, specialty stores and department stores such as Nordstrom is another priority. That represents a 150 percent increase, an Adidas spokeswoman said. Images of Adidas-sponsored athletes such as Laila Ali, Allyson Felix and Justine Henin-Hardenne will be featured in in-store signs and in the brand’s global advertising for next year.

At Reebok, former Nike staffer Lori Rose has joined the company as category business director for women’s apparel, heading up a five-person team.

“We have a dedicated women’s team and are putting people behind this corporate initiative even more so in 2004,” said Rose, noting that her team is working more closely with the footwear division to relay a “consistent brand image.” They are also doing the same with licensing, which no longer operates as a separate division.Burton is also focusing on hiring women in critical positions, such as Karly Dodson, who came on board recently as women’s director of product. The company is also looking for a director of women’s marketing, said Scott Struve, Burton’s director of brand marketing.

“We view women as a huge priority and have positioned them as one of the major initiatives,” he said.

To follow through, Burton, an estimated $300 million operation, is advertising in less predictable publications. Burton-sponsored Victoria Jealouse appears in an ad in this month’s issue of Jane magazine and Kjersti Buaas will appear in one in next month’s edition of Seventeen.

Meanwhile, founder Jake Burton and his family are on a 10-month snowboarding sojourn spanning six continents to try to get to know the customer better. They are also wear-testing prototypes.

For the first time, Russell set up a women’s division this spring. Cheryl Barre manages the 40-person division as president. Women’s apparel accounts for 13 percent of the brand’s apparel sales.

Russell projects net sales for the current year to be between $1.25 billion and $1.28 billion. For the first half of this year, net sales in the U.S. increased 4 percent, or $8.4 million, driven by Russell’s acquisitions of Spalding, Bike and Moving Comfort, plus higher retail sales of Russell Athletic, Mossy Oak and Jerzees branded products.

Executives at Fila’s owner, Sport Brands International, said they remain committed to the brand’s restructuring, despite this week’s departure of president and chief executive officer Jon Epstein. In September, Fila laid off 550 of its 1,900 employees, representing 29 percent of its workforce.

Prior to his departure, Epstein was busy beefing up Fila’s senior management team. Having sold its Enyce business to Liz Claiborne for $114 million last month, SBI aims to build Fila sales through more fashion-oriented athletic looks.

With Neil Barrett now on board as creative director and already designing a series of collections, Puma is another athletic company upping its designer ante. Barrett, whose résumé includes a five-year run at Gucci and a four-year stint at Prada, has a four-year deal with the company.Each season he will develop women’s and men’s technical and lifestyle apparel, accessories and footwear based around a specific sport that Puma sponsors. His first co-branded collection will bow in Milan in January during men’s fashion week and will hit stores in late March.

For the three months ended Aug. 31, Nike reported net earnings of $261.2 million, or 98 cents a diluted share, which easily eclipsed the Wall Street forecast by 10 cents. The industry leader continues to develop a specialized product.

The brand is beefing up its intimates collection called Nike One with a greater variety of fabrics, styles and price ranges to address a wider array of athletes’ needs.

Nike Pro Compression, moisture-wicking pieces that are supposed to help muscles recover faster from exercise, will debut at retail this summer. Nike Swift — highly technical activewear first worn by Marion Jones and other Olympians — is now available for the everyday athlete. Each item has strategic air vent panels for thermoregulation and an aerodynamic fit for reduced wind resistance. Swift will be offered in running and training pieces.

Everlast Worldwide’s upcoming initiatives appeal to fashion-minded shoppers. The brand has whittled down its production cycle for hot items to three months from six “to react quicker to trends and help retailers,” said Seth Horowitz, executive vice president.

The company also has a collection of retro T-shirts with graphics used by the company between 1910 and 1972. One shirt, for example, has an image from the Fifties of a woman with an Annette Funicello-type hairdo wearing a unitard and fishnets.

Everlast is teaming up with its casual shoe license to cross-promote the retro T-shirts and footwear through YM, Latina and other magazines that appeal to younger consumers.

FAL by Jef Grübb has hired two saleswomen to strengthen its $4.5 million women’s business. In February, the designer will team up with Equinox to stage a fashion show at the health club’s new blue chip unit in the Time Warner development at Columbus Circle. The company aims to include a magazine, major model agency and luxury stores.

Magic Johnson and some of his friends will hit the catwalk for a celebrity fashion show in Los Angeles in February to launch FAL “super-size” for NBA players. For a Henri Bendel Valentine’s day “sweat-heart” event, pop graffiti artist André Charles will airbrush FAL parachute silk jumpsuits and baby Ts in cashmere and techno-pima cotton. A the event, FAL will show off its men’s wear so female shoppers can show their guys the brand.Bumi Sirotka’s tennis line will be offered at 12 Bloomingdale’s stores this spring. Her collection will be housed on the second floor of the New York flagship.

“By adding more performance styles and streetwear, our target customer has evolved from just the country club set to a more metropolitan customer,” she said.

She has hired Emilia Fanjul Communications for public relations.

Women in Motion has started selling its performance-oriented activewear on Shop NBC. In total, Shop NBC is pitching eight pieces that each retail for less than $50.

“The styles are not only fitness, but they can also cross over to lifestyle, as well,” said president and owner Bess Hilpert. “It is also a wonderful venue to reach the kind of customer that we’re looking to reach. I think Shop NBC is an incredible shopping experience for all women.”

Women in Motion has also developed a 10-piece activewear line exclusively for Shop NBC’s “Motivating Bodies” to be launched this spring. This new line is Supplex-based and revolves around its patented internal shaper.

Women in Motion is also developing a co-branded activewear line for Virago, a Canadian distribution company.

Post Card, a brand known primarily for its sportswear, has several spring and summer styles that can be worn as golf looks.

Post Card has signed an endorsement deal with Italian pro golfer Giulia Sergas. With her cowboy hat and multiple ear piercings, “she represents a young, hip golfer, unlike many of the ladies golf pros you see on the circuit,” a company spokeswoman said.

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