NEW YORK — With elite athletes from 17 sports and pioneers in the field on hand, Monday’s Women’s Sports Foundation annual awards dinner was a fitting place to have them size up the $13.2 billion activewear industry.
In recent years, athletic companies have pledged their support for women’s sports, but their follow-through has earned mixed reviews. For the most part, attendees rattled off suggestions ranging from improving the commercial side, with concepts such as better window displays, to more social aspects, such as funding high school sports.
Despite their calls for change, several commented on the progress that had been made. Tennis legend Billie Jean King noted that Ryka and other brands have developed products exclusively for women.
“We’re going in the right direction,” King said.
Moving Comfort, which was sold to Russell Athletic last year, earned praise from attendees for being a title sponsor of the event for the first time. Other brands could stand to follow that lead by offering more than lip service and girlie- colored products, attendees said.
Donna Lopiano, chief executive officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said athletic firms are missing the boat with women’s sports, citing Nike’s $90 million endorsement deal with the NBA’s LeBron James as a case in point.
“There isn’t any question that the huge investment of sponsors and TV [coverage] is sucking up money that could be used to develop women’s sports,” Lopiano said. “Companies are paying exorbitant rights fees and are then struggling to recoup their investment. They’re just not making a dent in women’s sports. Female athletes are prettier, more affordable and they work like dogs for the companies. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be doing endorsement deals.”
Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes will take over as WSF president next year, but she’s already working on some ideas.
“Companies need to focus on sport and not gender to see things through,” Dawes said. “We’re not so into what’s pretty or what will make us look slim and trim. We want to know what will work for us in our sport. It’s not what it looks like, but what it does.”Born in China, Olympic springboard diver Min Gao was this year’s contemporary inductee to the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. In 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics, she overcame back and shoulder injuries to win gold. Gao now coaches diving in Canada, but has a good sense of what’s going on in the U.S.
“Women’s sports could use some more attention,” she said. “The American market is too focused on traditional men’s sports like basketball. In China, my sport is a national sport.”
The six-time world record holder for free diving, Tanya Streeter has sustained a 525-foot dive. She’s held her breath during a dive for six minutes and 16 seconds, but she’s more relaxed about fashion. In addition to diving, Streeter spends three hours each day working out in the gym. Not surprisingly, activewear is an important part of her uniform.
“They need the right blend of comfort and performance,” she said. “Sometimes there is too much of an emphasis on fashion. I can say that because I’m wearing ridiculously high heels.”
Aside from offering her take on design, Streeter has been busy promoting her sport on late-night talk shows. Training in Austin, Texas, in contrast to the Cayman Islands where she grew up, has made her more accessible to the media.
“I’m trying to get more active in promoting my sport,” she said. “When you look at some of the sports that have become Olympic sports, it’s the athletes who were at the beginning [of the movement].”
Streeter is also having some laughs along the way. “I got some digs in on Letterman because that’s just me,” she said. “I got Conan O’Brien to take his shirt off, but I didn’t realize his belly is so hairy.”
Two-time gold medalist Lisa Fernandez takes issue with activewear’s sizing. Noting that the average American woman wears a size 14 and that most athletes are not known to be petite, the former softball player said manufacturers need to acknowledge that athletes come in a wide range of sizes. She often winds up buying extra large sizes or men’s activewear, even though she typically wears a size 14.“Their clothing seems to be fitted for the prototypical woman,” Fernandez said.
Considering activewear is often used for athletics and not just as casualwear, companies should do a better job of building comfort and durability into their clothes, she said.
“That doesn’t mean changing the colors to pink and purple or putting flowers on it suffices for women,” she added.
Apparel companies would be wise to use athletes as models, said Fernandez, adding that women who are “too skinny or modelish” can turn some people away from buying a product.
“Why not use any of the women in this room to model [for a runway show or an ad]?” asked Fernandez, gesturing toward the well-toned athletic crowd. “Companies need to realize that we may be athletic, but that’s not always someone who is 110 pounds and 5-foot, 9-inches.”
Nautica-sponsored volleyball player Misty May said getting athletes more involved with wear-testing would be a plus. Prior to the Olympics in Sydney, for example, Nike gave May and other players “tester suits” to get some feedback from them, she said. Without enough of that, companies can be misguided.
She stretched her brief New York visit like a native. With only an hour to spare between a hairstyling appointment and the WSF cocktail party, she ducked out and spent at least $500 at Saks Fifth Avenue, Banana Republic and Kenneth Cole. The last stop was for shoes “for tonight, in case we go out later,” she said.
WNBA player and Nike-sponsored athlete Lisa Leslie, this year’s Team Sportswoman of the Year, said, “When the product reaches the store, why not do a better job of matching up the shoes and the clothes in the store windows?”
Like most college students, Natalie Coughlin spends a lot of time in sweats. But unlike her peers, she is not solely focused on the comfort factor. Coughlin, a collegiate swimmer and Olympic hopeful, won this year’s Best Sportswoman of the Year award.
“They could make more flattering workout clothes,” she said. “I like to wear workout clothes all day, but I’m still in college.”Dressed in a glittery Cache gown, WNBA star Swin Cash said fitness enthusiasts aren’t about to sacrifice style for athleticism.
“A lot of women are working out nowadays,” the Nike-sponsored athlete said. “They want to be comfortable, but they also want to look sexy.”
On hand to present an award, actress Michael Michele said, “I was an athlete long before I was an actress. With the exception of what my parents taught me, what sports has given to me — confidence, camaraderie and self-esteem — far exceeds anything I could have gotten anywhere else.”
“We need to see more advertising not only in commercials and magazines,” Michele said. “We need to support these types of foundations and we need to give young women the opportunity to play sports.”
Seventeen-year-old track and field star Allyson Felix, who picked up an Adidas endorsement deal last month, agreed. “There need to be more programs for younger people coming up in sports. Companies need to be more involved with the schools, even by sponsoring high school teams.”
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