LABELS TRY THE TRAINING GAME

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Move over coach, here come the brands.
In a not-so-subtle pitch, sports-oriented labels like Puma, Burton and Vans are getting more aggressive about teaching girls and women how to play sports. Through camps, clinics and tournaments, activewear makers are trying to make Generations X and Y familiar with their brands.
The concept isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but more companies, including nonathletic ones, are getting into women’s sports with greater gusto. Era, for example, has signed on to back the WUSA, the new women’s soccer league, and Gatorade is going after more women in its advertising.
Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women’s Sports Foundation, said: “There isn’t any question that more companies are trying to remove themselves from the clutter and expose their brands to kids at an earlier age.”
The arrival of women’s sports gives sponsors the chance to reach out to a family audience without the heavy investments required for a men’s program. But the commercialization of women’s sports even at a grassroots level is a slippery slope, according to Mary Jo Kane, executive director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research for Girls and Women in Sports.
“My sense is the corporatization of women’s sports can be positive and negative. On the plus side, companies certainly feel there is a market for it, interest in it and growing consciousness,” she said. “They’re not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. It’s a growth industry and that’s a pretty good bellwether of the progress.”
But Kane said her only concern is that women’s sports do not sell out to corporate America.
“What is being asked in return? I would hope it’s a no-strings approach by corporations, but I don’t know that,” she said.
Vans teaches girls and women on a variety of levels. The brand offers free lessons at its six skateboard parks, runs weeklong snowboarding camps at Oregon’s Mt. Hood and will offer an instructional video about skateboarding as a gift-with-purchase for the first time this fall. The company will open two new parks in Colorado and New Jersey later this year, said Tracy Sherman, marketing manager.
Vans is working to add new events and features for women to its Triple Crown Series, a major sporting event that will be televised for the first time later this year, and the Vans Warped Tour, a music and athletic event, she added.
“It’s a chance for us not only to build our brand, but also to build the sports,” Sherman said. “We give recognition to athletes who don’t normally get it.”
The “sole reason” for Burton’s Learn to Ride program and its Women’s Demo Tour is to “get more girls and women of all ages out on the mountain snowboarding and having fun,” said Amy Barrett, global communications manager. Another aim is to show them how easy it is to learn the sport. Learn to Ride equipment, geared for beginners, is the fastest-growing category for the brand.
This Saturday’s demo tour stop at Hunter Mountain in New York is expected to attract the largest crowd. Five hundred women are expected to try out Burton’s most advanced equipment, which will not be shipped to stores until late summer.
Girls appreciate that elite Burton-sponsored snowboarders turn out to teach them how to ride or tune their bindings. The brand also works with some resorts to offer girls and women discounted lift tickets and lessons.
For the first time, the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation is trying to iron out a national recruiting trip with Adidas and its other sponsors. Skeleton involves lying face down on a luge-type sled and racing up to 80 m.p.h.
The Lake Placid, N.Y.-based group plans to measure the strength of 1,000 prospective athletes between the ages of 16 and 25 in five cities, said Dmitry Feld, marketing director for the USBSF and a former elite luger. One hundred finalists will be invited to Lake Placid to try the sports in September and some will be selected to train for the 2006 Winter Olympic team.
In May, members of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association will lobby federal legislators to support P.E. for Life, a program that would require physical education to be taught in all public schools, according to George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer of Everlast, who will make the trip along with Jim Baugh, ceo of Wilson Sporting Goods.
On another front, Everlast plans to stage more instructional events like the one it held at MacySport last week. Elite boxers offered training tips, showed off their moves and even Horowitz stepped in the boxing ring. A similar event is expected to be held at Gart Sports stores in June.
“Everything we do is to expose the brand, but we also do it to promote the industry,” Horowitz said.
While checking out the MacySport’s boxing, Alison Toogood, a 29-year-old marketing and public relations specialist who recently relocated to New York from Northern Ireland, described the event as “a great thing” that she would never see at home.
While Toogood was intrigued, she was not about to buy the brand even though she was in the store looking for activewear.
For the first time, Puma will offer running clinics in the U.S. for girls this summer. Similar programs have been popular in Kenya and Jamaica, a company spokeswoman said.
“In Europe, running is a top sport that is televised and well attended, behind Formula One and soccer. But it’s not a premiere sport here except around the Olympics,” she said. “Even so, if people saw Marion Jones on the street today, they might not recognize her.”
Puma will give away T-shirts, shoes and water bottles at the clinics to try to build brand awareness and help establish the label in running, the spokeswoman added.
New Balance is also going after budding runners, through Girls on the Run, a national nonprofit organization that teaches athletic skills and empowerment to elementary school girls in 30 cities. As the national sponsor, the brand offers merchandise to girls and coaches in the 12-week program, which culminates with a 5K race. In the past year, participation has doubled to 10,000.
Katherine Petrecca, marketing promotions associate for New Balance, said: “Girls on the Run parallels our ideals. The way physical exercise relates to the development of an entire person is crucial for kids. This is not a competitive program by any means, but it promotes a healthy lifestyle.”
Also, Girls on the Run examines topics such as how advertising makes impressions on girls and how they deal with peer pressure. Having seen participation double to 10,000 in the past year, New Balance expects Girls on the Run to be a widely recognized event in the next five to 10 years, Petrecca said.
Similarly, Capezio has updated its “Why Can’t I Go on My Toes?” brochure, which spells out why young girls must wait until their bodies mature to go on point. About 12,000 pamphlets will be distributed to girls.
The brand also has an unofficial donation program where they give away more than $20,000 worth of merchandise to select programs like the Dance Theatre of Harlem.