ACTIVEWEAR’S NEW GAME: LICENSES

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Score one for the licensees.
As women’s participation and interest in sports on recreational and professional levels continues to increase, a wave of licensed apparel and sponsorship opportunities has emerged, bringing with it the potential for big business.
From apparel maker Starter to Lifetime Television, a diverse range of players is getting into the licensing game with their first activewear lines. Meanwhile, big brands like Nike and Reebok are focusing on such new opportunities as women’s professional basketball and women’s soccer.
Not to be forgotten, the four largest professional men’s leagues — baseball, football, basketball and hockey — are also taking a closer look at women. Featuring women more prominently in advertising is one of their strategies. Executives at each of the four major leagues said they were considering ways to develop their licensed business with women.
In June, Reebok International plans to test licensed National Football League activewear. The fall collection features fleece coverups and replica stadium jackets carrying the logos of the Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints. Reebok provides sideline apparel for players and coaches of those six teams. A national rollout is planned for 1998, provided the test is successful.
Reebok is a founding sponsor of the American Basketball League, the first professional basketball association for women, which wrapped up its debut season this year. Reebok produces and markets ABL activewear and features ABL players in its ads.
On another front, Nike has set up a marketing partnership with the Women’s National Basketball Association, which gets going June 21. Under the agreement, Nike has the rights to use the WNBA logo for advertising and marketing.
Champion will provide on-court apparel for the league and has the option of producing licensed WNBA apparel for women, men and children.
Through licensing agreements with 14 women’s collegiate basketball programs, Nike is making potential WNBA players more familiar with the brand. In addition, Nike offers women’s licensed basketball wear carrying the insignias of the University of Virginia, University of North Carolina and Penn State.
As the sponsor of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, Nike is serving up the first international soccer competition for women. Called the “Nike Victory Tour,” the six-city event kicks off Friday. Nike plans to sell T-shirts and other memorabilia at each of the stadiums involved with the tour.
Sears, Roebuck has also gotten into the activewear licensing game, with its sponsorship of the WNBA. When the season starts, Sears will offer licensed WNBA apparel from Champion, Spalding and Lee Jeans. WNBA merchandise will be available on a year-round basis at the 129 Sears stores in the league’s eight markets — Los Angeles, New York, Charlotte, Houston, Cleveland, Phoenix, Sacramento and Salt Lake City.
Lady Foot Locker, another founding sponsor of the ABL, expects to complete a deal with the WNBA before the end of the month.
Advancements in other women’s sports is leading to additional licensing deals.
In the next two months, Women’s World Cup Soccer, which will be held at various stadiums throughout the U.S. in 1999, expects to sign a deal with a major licensing agent. The agency is negotiating with six prospects, according to Marla Messing, president.
When the Men’s World Cup was staged in the U.S. in 1994, $30 million worth of licensed products were sold, she said.
The women’s event — the first of its kind — is expected to be a big hit not only with women, but with younger fans. The sport is especially popular with teen and preteen girls.
“The assortment of women’s sports apparel is relatively thin. We think this is something women and girls are going to rally around,” Messing said.
Starter, the New Haven, Conn., manufacturer whose licensed business is rooted in professional and college sports, is reaching out to women.
Through a licensing deal with Fleet Street, Starter is introducing its first women’s line at retail at the end of this month. With wholesale prices ranging from $8.50 for a cotton T-shirt to $50 for a polyester-filled jacket, the 35-piece line features bra tops, bike shorts, warmups and jackets. In the next 12 months, wholesale volume should top $10 million, according to Ray Haber, vice president of Fleet Street.
Starter decided to pursue the business, since women contribute 30 percent — or $60 million — to Starter’s annual outerwear business, according to Frank Lipiro, senior vice president of merchandising and licensing.
“Women are looking for authenticity — not some kind of inner-city-driven fashion,” Lipiro said. “They want something functional.”
To heighten the authenticity factor, Fleet Street aims to sign an endorsement deal with a professional athlete to endorse Starter’s women’s line. Starter also plans a licensing agreement for a collection of girls’ activewear by the end of this month.
“We want to develop a brand for girls because there’s weakness in that market,” Lipiro said. “Major brands are not concentrating on that business.”
George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer of Active Apparel Group, the maker of licensed Converse, Everlast for Women and MTV’s “The Grind” lines, said he is approached with a licensing deal at least once a week. Licensed activewear has gone so mainstream that some cable TV talk personalities are angling for their own licensed products, he added.
But AAG is not interested in adding to its labels, he said.
“We don’t want to dilute our attention,” Horowitz said. “We think of ourselves as less of a licensee and more as part of the brand. We’re brand builders. That’s why we don’t want to take on any more.”
Pleased with the initial reaction to its Grind line, which premiered this spring, Horowitz said sales for the new label should be a major contributor to the company’s planned double-digit growth for 1997. Having seen strong selling for Grind at Bloomingdale’s, Galyan’s and Canal Jeans, Horowitz said he aims to have the line in “a few thousand doors” by the end of this year.
In July, Lifetime Television plans to unveil a women’s activewear collection, which will be sold through a mail-order catalog as well as on the company’s site on the World Wide Web.
Some of the items in the 12-piece line will bear the team names or numbers of women’s sports stars aired on Lifetime.
The network also plans to use its existing agreements with the Colorado Silver Bullets, the only women’s professional baseball team in the U.S.; players in the WNBA, and NASCAR racer Lyn St. James to advertise the new activewear.
About three million households tune into Lifetime, said Brian Donlon, vice president of sports, news media and public affairs.
Lifetime’s introduction of “Breaking Through,” which features stories about female athletes who have broken the glass ceiling in sports, is expected to attract more female fans, he added.

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