Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Women’s sports, now firmly entrenched as a vital part of the overall world of athletics, are moving into a new phase — and nowhere will that be as evident as it will in Atlanta beginning Friday.
That’s when thousands of executives of athletic companies and sporting goods stores will gather at the Georgia World Congress Center for the start of the four-day Super Show.
This year, more than any other, will spotlight women — in many cases as much as men. More buyer appointments for women’s merchandise, as well as more sports-specific women’s apparel, reflect the industry’s commitment to women.
Last summer’s gold medal Olympic performances by U.S. female athletes put a particularly luminous light on women’s athletics, industry executives said. Never before had the U.S. women’s teams taken top honors at the Olympics for soccer, softball, basketball and gymnastics.
The Atlanta Games marked the coming of age of Title IX, legislation passed in 1972 that guaranteed equal opportunity for females participating in federally funded athletic programs. Many of the female U.S. Olympians who competed in Atlanta were the first generation to benefit from Title IX.
Knowing that thousands of amateur athletes are taking their Olympic impressions to the playing fields, activewear makers have responded with more sports-specific apparel and performance-oriented marketing.
“The women’s business is certainly on everyone’s radar,” said Maria Stefan, executive director of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the show’s producer. “Standard sporting goods retailers seem to be taking the women’s market seriously. Manufacturers are also getting more aggressive with design.”
Hibbetts, a 90-unit chain based in Birmingham, Ala., is setting up women’s departments in its stores, and Louisville Slugger, the Louisville, Ky., sporting goods maker, is introducing hockey equipment and apparel for women.
With the first professional basketball league for women up and running and another in the works, the women’s movement in sports should continue to gain momentum. The American Basketball League, which bowed in October, and the Women’s National Basketball Association, which is scheduled to tip off in June, should continue to spark interest in women’s sports.
There are also ongoing discussions about setting up two more professional leagues for women — fast-pitch softball and soccer.
Here’s what top manufacturers and retailers have to say about how the women’s sports movement will affect this year’s Super Show.
Helen Rockey, president of Brooks Sports, Bothell, Wash.
“Women’s and men’s products are on equal footing. More manufacturers are offering the same number of styles and marketing dollars.”
Brooks, which has specialized in athletic footwear, will unveil its first women’s and men’s apparel collections at the show, during which it will start sales presentations to sporting goods stores with women’s products before showing its men’s line — a clear indication of how the industry has changed, Rockey said.
“Everyone has women’s lines now — including athletic footwear companies. It’s encouraging that the starting point is to look at athletes first and gender second. That’s a sign that we’ve really made it.”
Jack Smith, president and ceo of Sports Authority, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“I don’t think the growth in women’s sports is a short-term thing. We’ll see it continue to grow through the millennium,” Smith said. “Most retailers look to the women’s category as additional business.
“Men have always been the catalyst in the apparel business in sporting goods stores,” he said. “Now companies like Nike and Reebok are offering more for women. Our sales are definitely showing growth because of that.”
Sporting goods stores “absolutely won’t” scale back on men’s apparel offerings to allocate more space for women’s apparel.
“If women’s apparel is selling,” Smith said, “we’ll make the floors bigger.”
Enrico Frachey, president and ceo of Fila USA, Sparks, Md.
“The women’s athletic story is the biggest one being told this year. At Super Show, we will see the hottest looks in women’s activewear in the country — setting trends that will eventually be captured worldwide.”
Over the past few seasons, there have been signs of expansion of women’s specific product lines in footwear and activewear, he said.
“With the introduction of women’s professional sports leagues, the growth of the women’s market is becoming a reality. Today’s female athletes want true performance in a product, yet they do not want to forfeit style.”
Ralph Parks, president and ceo of FootAction USA, Dallas
“There’s no question, with the two new women’s pro basketball leagues and the marketing muscle of the NBA, Nike and Reebok, the visibility of women’s sports is at an all-time high. In the past, women have not been our core customer, but over the last six to eight months we’ve noticed a resurgence in our women’s business. We continue to look at and implement strategies that address that resurgence.
“As for The Super Show, we’ll be there looking for more opportunities to better serve our customers, including women.”
Doug Morton, president and ceo of Gart Sports, Denver
For 1996, sales of women’s apparel increased by about 40 percent at Gart. That figure outpaced growth in the men’s business “dramatically,” Morton said.
With manufacturers offering more sports-specific apparel, Gart should further increase sales in 1997. For fall, the retailer plans to offer 10 styles of Nike basketball wear for women — compared to two styles from that brand a year ago, he noted.
“The women’s business offers a significant growth opportunity for the entire sporting goods industry,” Morton said. “The demand has been there for years, especially for equipment.”
Tim Boyle, president of Columbia Sportswear, Portland, Ore.
“In the year 2006, if we look back on the progression of women’s sports, I feel comfortable in saying that Super Show ’97 will have been a crucial show. But no one will say it happened this year or that year. The industry has been building to this point for several years.”
Ellen Wessel, president and ceo of Moving Comfort, Chantilly, Va.
“The women’s business is taking a step up. In the past, there was a lot more talk than action. Stores and manufacturers dabbled in it. Now there isn’t anybody who isn’t taking it seriously.
“At this year’s show, there will be more female athletes in attendance, more booth space devoted to women’s products, more images of women competing instead of modeling. There will also be two major awards events recognizing women’s contributions to the sporting goods industry.”
Lee Smith, president of AirWalk, State College, Pa.
“Women are still not too involved with action sports, which is where we specialize. Snowboarding is the fastest-growing action sport for women. But even that still has a way to go. Skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing aren’t as accessible as basketball or volleyball. But women’s participation in action sports is increasing, due to more education and more women competing at higher levels each year.”
AirWalk plans to test the women’s apparel market in Japan with a seven-piece line of technical outerwear. The company decided to target the Japanese market where demand is greater than in the U.S. market.
Mary Ann Domuracki, president and ceo of Danskin, New York
“There should be a higher level of traffic for women’s businesses at the show. More folks will be paying more attention to the category.”
Danskin has booked 50 retail appointments — a 25 percent increase compared with last year, she said.
“Footwear companies are continuing to create a lot of hype and attention for the women’s market. We plan to have a few more athletes present at the show, which should mean incredible pull for our booth. People will be competing for attention more than ever before, because there is business to be done.”
Jim Hill, president of SportHill, Eugene, Ore.
“Women’s sports have not only arrived — they are the dominating force in our business. Our sales are almost 50-50, women’s to men’s. Two years ago, our women’s business made up about 30 percent of our overall business.
“Now when we come out with a new style, we offer it in women’s and men’s at the same time. In the past, we offered men’s styles first and sometimes followed up with women’s. As the company has grown, we’ve developed the resources to focus on gender-specific garments.
“It’s been amazing to see the changes in the business, since we got into the business 10 years ago. Manufacturers don’t expect women to buy a men’s small.”
George Horowitz, president and ceo of Active Apparel Group, New York-based maker of Everlast for Women, Converse and MTV’s “The Grind”
“This year the Super Show is not going to be a men’s show anymore — that’s for sure. We’re not even close to where it’s going to go. Stores are reorganizing their departments, adding women’s to their mix and even women’s specialty stores are looking to carry activewear.”
Retailers are feeling confident about the business due to increased sales for athletic footwear, he noted.
“Women’s sports have certainly gone further than ever before,” Horowitz said. “It’s evident in manufacturers’ advertising.”

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