WOMEN ATHLETES CONNECT ONLINE

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Sports fans can now go online instead of standing in line to greet their favorite female athletes.
Several activewear makers and e-tailers are turning to Olympians and pros to offer training tips, host online chats and help develop content for their Internet sites. Soccer standout Kristine Lilly, for example, was front and center Wednesday at the Adidas New York showroom for the launch of Trainingforsport.com, its site devoted to building skills and performance.
Aimed at high school athletes who play team sports, the site is loaded with information about enhancing performance. Users take four drill tests to evaluate their abilities and to pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses. They then use off-field workout tips provided by leading athletes, coaches and trainers to improve their on-field performance. The site has video footage of Lilly and other athletes demonstrating 250 skills, and there are more to come.
Adidas decided to pursue this online venture after high school focus groups repeatedly said, “Teach me something. Don’t try to sell me something,” said Lucy Reynolds, marketing communications manager.
The site does have a section that features a sampling of training-oriented products for consumers to buy. While e-commerce is not the focus, repeat visits are encouraged. Athletes are advised to periodically take the drill tests and post their results online for new recommendations. They will find updated information about nutrition and other areas on the site.
“As an athlete, you never really reach your goals because you can always get better,” Lilly said. “I’ve won a gold medal and two World Cups, but I’m not done.”
Trainingforsport.com’s advertising campaign, which premiered this week, does not feature elite athletes, but focuses on athletes in general.
“This site is perfect for all athletes,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female.”
An offshoot of the Web program is Training for Sport Centers, temporary sites that will give athletes a place to test their skills, bowing this week. This year, 11 will be set up in conjunction with major sporting events. The first will be held in Boston as a curtain raiser to the Boston Marathon, an Adidas-sponsored event.
Executives at Fila, New Balance, Active Apparel Group, Nordica, Prince, Killer Loop, Burton and Fusion.com, an e-tailer that caters to alternative sports enthusiasts, said they planned to feature female athletes more prominently online.
Through its new sponsorship deal with the Sanex Women’s Tennis Association tour, Lucy.com, an e-tailer based in Portland, Ore., plans to feature online chats with female pro tennis players. Lucy.com periodically hosts online chats with elite athletes such as former Olympic track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and women’s World Cup soccer player Carla Overbeck. The site’s shoppers receive e-mails about online chats, a company spokeswoman said.
“We use our chats as a content and community tool — not as a sales driver,” a company spokeswoman said. “These inspiring events help further our goal to make active women look better and feel better about themselves.”
While fashion is generally not the focus of the conversations, consumers routinely ask questions about products. “The chats don’t focus on our products,” she said. “However, we do gab about style and being fit, which is what Lucy.com is all about.”
E-mailing tennis star Serena Williams is one of the options at Puma’s Web site, which bowed last week. WNBA player Cynthia Cooper was one of the first athletes to have an online chat with Charles Barkley on the new site set up for him by Nike.
Athletesvillage.com, a Tempe, Ariz., company that is a content and community site with links to e-commerce partners, sponsors four female athletes. A journal written by marathoner Libby Hickman, a qualifier for this year’s Summer Olympics in Sydney, is currently posted on the site.
“What’s really nice is that she’s able to speak her mind without being interviewed,” said Dave Irish, marketing manager. “It’s a chance for people to hear from the athlete to find out who they really are.”
Pupelesports.com, VenusSports.com, Voxxy.com and Womenssportsnetwork.com are other sites courting female athletes, said Stephanie Tolleson, senior corporate vice president of IMG, a Cleveland sports management and marketing giant.
Asked if female athletes were concerned about selling out by teaming up with online ventures, she said, “There’s not a big concern about over-commercialization. Most sites have a news component. This is another way to promote women’s sports and reach their fan base.”
Sue Rodin, president of Stars & Strategies, a sports management company, said, “They want to align themselves with athletes for authenticity. The athletes also provide content and behind-the-scenes stuff.”
Two of Rodin’s clients, Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson and soccer player Julie Foudy, are on the athletes’ advisory board of Thefemaleathlete.com.
Lindsay Burns, an Olympic rower who is director of athlete partnerships for VenusSports.com, an e-commerce and content site that bows in June, has already lined up Olympians Kerri Strug, Bonnie Blair and Nancy Lieberman-Cline, as well as pro golfer Silken Laumann, for an advisory council.
“We’re not about fashion. We’re about performance sports apparel,” Burns said. “We’re using the expertise of athletes, including those in our office, to provide advice and some recommendations about apparel.”
Karen Smyers, a triathlete vying for this year’s Olympic team, has signed on with VenusSports.com. Her introductory article is on the site’s splash page, and she will occasionally do online chats.
With plans to focus more on female athletes and products, Fogdog Sports, an e-commerce site, tapped Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona for its board. She will help develop the company’s online women’s store, expected to bow this summer.
“We’re a retail site, not a content site,” a Fogdog Sports spokesman said. “We have not had as much demand for live interaction with athletes as people researching information about sports apparel and equipment.”

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