WOMEN’S SPORTS: AN OPEN FIELD

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Ask enough experts what they feel the next big women’s sport will be, and one thing becomes crystal clear: the choices are wider than ever.
An informal spot check of 15 men and women in the field — including manufacturers, retailers, an academic and a TV executive — turned up a variety of answers that reflect just how broad the opportunities are these days.
From road-biking and running to soccer and snowboarding, the games women play and the physical activities in which they participate are varied and often vigorous. While no one sport dominated the answers, it was apparent that basketball — yessss! — has grown tremendously in popularity, especially among high school and college students.
The reasons for the heightened interest include the formation of two women’s professional leagues — the American Basketball League, which got under way last month, and the Women’s National Basketball Association, which bows next summer — and the gold-medal performance of the U.S. women’s Olympic team in Atlanta last summer.
Other activities continue to be popular, especially fitness walking and stationary cycling, with 10.5 million and 6 million participants respectively in 1995, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Despite those numbers, though, Danskin and Moving Comfort are the only two companies that plan to focus on those businesses.
Here is how executives who were surveyed plan to translate some of the key trends they see.
George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer of Active Apparel Group, makers of Everlast and Converse activewear: “Basketball is going to be big — from young girls to the college level.”
With solid corporate and media support behind the ABL and the WNBA, he said, interest in women’s basketball will increase. In addition, according to the National Basketball Association, women’s TV viewership of games for the 1995-96 season increased by about 40 percent compared to last year.
Active Apparel plans to incorporate more basketball-inspired looks for fall 1997. Tank tops, jackets and pants reminiscent of college uniforms in traditional basketball fabrics like nylon, polyester and double-mesh should be important.
The company is considering sponsoring professional and college female basketball players in 1997.
Gary Schoenfeld, president and chief operating officer of Vans: “Clearly, snowboarding is growing with young women. Girls like it because it’s a lot of fun, it’s easier to learn than skiing and girls like what guys are into.”
Having unveiled its first two styles of women’s snowboard boots this fall, Vans plans to introduce a five-piece unisex snowboard collection for fall 1997. Professional snowboarders who endorse Vans provide critical advice about product development and marketing. Vans executives routinely follow its snowboarding team’s recommendations about which charitable events to sponsor to appeal to teenagers, such as a fund-raiser for breast cancer research.
Through focus groups, high school and college students — especially those in art schools — provide information about emerging fashion trends. To get a better sense of what women want, the company plans to increase the size and frequency of its 25-member monthly focus groups for women.
Mary Ann Domuracki, president and chief operating officer of Danskin: “Walking has a huge level of staying power. It’s easy to do, there’s no cost involved and it can be done alone or with groups.”
For 1997, the company plans to expand its 12-piece walking line, which should help double its sales to $6 million, Domuracki said.
Last month, Danskin signed a licensing agreement with fitness experts Sally Edwards and Rhonda Gates, who offer seminars about health and exercise. During in-store events, the experts will offer walking tips and lead shoppers on a walk of the area. Special promotions will also be offered to shoppers, Domuracki said.
Jim Hill, president of SportHill: “Running is going to be strong. It’s the quickest and most inexpensive way to get in shape. There’s no equipment involved except for running shoes. You can run just about anywhere, and it’s not that time-consuming.”
To keep track of women’s fitness habits, SportHill surveys 2,000 female customers annually. For fall 1997, the company’s 40-page catalog will feature new products for runners — DryCore fitness shorts wholesaling at $15, a DryCore bra top at $10 and a Supplex wind jacket with a CoolMax liner at $95.
Next fall, for the first time, SportHill plans to devote half its catalog, which is distributed to 1,000 retailers, to women’s apparel. Most of the 30 styles of women’s apparel are suitable for running but can be worn for other activities.
Sue Levin, director of women’s sports marketing for Nike: “Basketball is increasing in terms of the number of participants and fans, but soccer’s growth curve is so steep, we think both sports are equally important.”
Unlike two years ago, when the idea of introducing women’s licensed activewear at retail would have caused some people to laugh, now it’s a viable business, said Levin.
For spring, Nike plans to unveil its licensed replicas of women’s basketball uniforms from the University of Georgia, University of Virginia, Penn State and the University of North Carolina.
Ron Semiao, director of programming for ESPN2 and founder of the X-Games: “Snowboarding keeps growing. It’s become more popular within the last year, and we should see continued growth for the next year. Everyone knows about the boom in basketball and soccer. There’s increased interest among women in alternative sports. It’s more about individual expression and less about physical labor. As society becomes more automated, everyone is looking for new ways to exert themselves.”
Carol Barr, assistant professor, sports management department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst: “Crew is really catching on. Many schools see it as an easy way to comply with Title IX [legislation passed in 1972 that guaranteed equal opportunity for females participating in federally funded athletic programs]. With about 100 members on a team, crew can counterbalance men’s teams like football.
“I haven’t seen anyone jump on the sport and say, ‘Wow! Here’s a niche.’ With the number of new teams and female athletes participating, there might be an opportunity for sporting goods companies.”
Marilyn Oshman, chairman of the board of Oshman’s Sporting Goods: “From a business point of view, golf has been strong for the past year and should continue to be strong. Golf is one of the greatest sports because it’s a sport for life. People can play until they’re 80 years old. More women are realizing that a lot of business is done on golf courses.”
With sales of women’s golf clubs at its stores increasing by double-digit percentages, Oshman’s expects a surge in women’s golf apparel sales in the next 12 months. Liz Golf, the Liz Claiborne line of golfwear, bowed at Oshman’s this fall, and more labels will be introduced in 1997.
Ralph Parks, president and ceo of FootAction USA: “Volleyball looks like it will stay ahead of basketball. The local newspapers are highlighting who’s winning and what’s taking place in the sport.”
Although it’s a very popular sport in junior high schools and high schools, Parks said, FootAction does not plan to introduce more volleyball looks, since most uniforms and practice apparel for female players remain unchanged at individual schools. FootAction does plan to spotlight women’s products with special displays in the company’s 450 stores.
Ellen Wessel, president and founder of Moving Comfort: “Spinning classes are going to become more popular. They offer a demanding workout that can be done indoors.”
Spinning classes are stationary bicycle fitness classes that cause most participants to perspire excessively, Wessel pointed out. The activity lends itself to wearing only a bra top and fitness shorts made of high-tech fabrics that absorb perspiration.
For fall 1997, Moving Comfort plans to offer more apparel made of Intera, a polyester treated to wick moisture, and with CoolMax liners. New styles include a sport brief wholesaling at $6.50, a sport camisole for around $13, a bra top at $14.50 and a bra top for large-size women at $18.
Hangtags now feature more information about fabric benefits.
Kathy O’Connell, director of women’s sports marketing for Reebok: “With the new leagues, girls will see female stars on TV. The exposure of the game should be great for business.”
Reebok — a founding sponsor of the ABL — outfits four of its teams: Atlanta Glory, New England Blizzard, Colorado Xplosion and San Jose Lasers.
Reebok introduced ABL T-shirts and baseball caps in October, and replica jerseys are expected to debut next month with a retail tag of $45.
“Teenagers can now purchase logo jerseys with Jennifer Azzi’s name instead of Michael Jordan’s,” O’Connell said. “This presents a whole new business opportunity for us.”
Reebok plans to feature some of the 12 ABL players who endorse the company in TV and print ads, as well as on its Web site.
For fall 1997, Reebok will launch its first branded line of women’s basketball wear.
Hinda Miller, vice president of communications for Champion JogBra: “Girls between the ages of 12 and 17 are playing basketball — in all cultures. It helps them develop good health habits, learn team values and have the guidance of a coach.”
Teenagers — many of whom wear sports bras for non-fitness activities — are contributing to the company’s growth. To tune into the younger market’s needs, Champion JogBra will hold focus groups with teenagers in at least four cities in 1997.
Tim Boyle, president of Columbia Sportswear: “More women will be road biking in the next 18 months. It can be done in any environment, it doesn’t require other people and it offers a speed factor. The speed factor makes it fun. Even the fastest runners can’t go as fast as a mountain bike. People like speed.”
For fall, the company will expand its 15-piece activewear line, called GRT (Gear for Rugged Training) by at least a third. Columbia is not targeting cycling shops, since most female cyclists purchase apparel in outlets the company already serves — sporting goods stores, outdoor specialty stores, catalogs and some department stores.
Stephanie Falk, vice president of marketing for Lady Foot Locker: “We think basketball is here to stay. We’re supporting it with more sku’s. We’re also sponsoring more grass-roots events for girls, and we’re a sponsor for the ABL.”
Nike is the major resource for Lady Foot Locker’s basketball wear, which was introduced this fall. The retailer plans to offer Reebok’s licensed ABL apparel when it is unveiled next month.
Lady Foot Locker hopes to offer basketball footwear and apparel, which is currently available in stores from October through March, on a year-round basis. The Women’s National Basketball Association bows this summer and could fuel growth.
After the ABL season ends in March, Lady Foot Locker will review sales results to decide whether to offer the category year-round.
James Faltinek, president and ceo of the National Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association: “Softball should be the next big sport, due in part to the U.S. women’s Olympic team winning the gold in Atlanta.”
There’s a lot of potential in the women’s market, he said, pointing to the relative dearth of sporting goods firms turning out softball apparel and equipment for women.

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