CATCHING ATHLETES ON THE WEB

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — With nearly $2 million in backing, VenusSports.com is the latest e-commerce venture setting its sites on athletic women.
Despite the continued interest and participation in women’s sports, these are not the easiest times for sports-oriented Internet startups. In recent weeks, venture capital firms have been backing away from e-commerce companies in favor of business-to-business operations, executives said. On top of that, last week the much-hyped Boo.com said it was liquidating.
However, there’s still plenty to choose from within the genre. Womenoutdoors.com, Geargoddess.com and Lucy.com have launched in the past seven months. Last week, Thefemaleathlete.com, a site geared for tweens and teens, relaunched, joining newcomers such as the Adidas-funded Trainingforsport.com and Theathletesvillage.com, which focus on training and nutrition tips.
Vendors like Nike and Puma have been pouring money into their sites, and e-tailers such as Fogdogsports, which plans to unveil a women’s store in the next three months, are stepping up their online efforts. In addition, major sporting goods stores like The Sports Authority, Sportchalet and Dick’s have finetuned their sites to make them more appealing to women.
There are already too many players vying for the same market, according to Heather Dougherty, retail analyst for Jupiter Communications.
“There’s definitely room for a player or two. Targeting women athletes is viable, but what they need to do is differentiate themselves,” she said. “They need to do that with service, convenience, customization or partnering with a diet or fitness site to allow women to track their goals.”
“It absolutely is a highly competitive time, and there will be some shakeout,” said Sue Levin, cofounder and chief executive officer of Lucy.com. “Everyone out here is trying to attract an audience and be cash-positive, or increase their funding. Wall Street investors are looking for profitability. Not everyone is going to the next level.”
More than 80 percent of the shoppers at Lucy.com are women, as opposed to online sporting goods stores, where about 35 percent are women, Levin said. She also noted Lucy.com should be profitable from its first quarter.
When it bows with a soft launch next month, Venus Sports, a site that will offer at least 35 labels, has a “recommengine” area that offers shopping tips based on an individual’s needs. The company plans to track sales and make buying decisions to support those trends.
There will also be columns written by Olympic rower Silken Laumann and other elite athletes, lifestyle features, training guides, athlete profiles and fitness tips.
This summer, Venus Sports expects to attract tens of thousands of visitors. Projected wholesale volume for the first six months is at least $3 million, according to Kayla Bakshi, co-founder and chief executive officer.
Meanwhile, Pupele Sports, an e-commerce business that launched in March, already plans to call it quits.
Despite an initial investment of $1 million from, and the endorsement of, Billie Jean King, a key proponent of Title IX (1972 legislation that guaranteed equal opportunity for federally funded athletic programs), Pupele Sports has faded to black due to limited financing, said Laura Jarrell, co-founder and ceo of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company. With venture capitalists eyeing business-to-business ventures and Boo.com liquidating, finding backers is difficult, she said.
“On top of that, male-dominated companies find it hard to believe that women’s sports is a business opportunity. They still don’t see it as ready to happen,” she said. “The sense that one, two or three [women’s sports] sites saturate a market is ridiculous. We’ve found that women’s sports is considered such a niche market because sports is still a male-dominated business.”
But Jarrell said she hasn’t ruled out getting the business back on line down the road.
Well aware that some sites are dropping off the map, Mary Tenety, cofounder and president of Thefemaleathlete.com, said the site has staying power since it focuses on Generation Y.
The company built a base by selling via a consumer catalog before setting up a Web site in October 1998, Tenety said. About 14 percent of The Female Athlete’s sales are generated from Web sales, compared to 12 percent a year ago.
The revamped site has such features as advice for coaches and parents, polls, athlete profiles, a video stream, message boards for athletes, and Web sites for teams.
Snowball.com, a network that caters to hip young women, is considering incorporating sports-related merchandise when it expands its e-commerce business this summer, a company spokeswoman said. Linking up with existing e-tailers will be the focus.
More free to chase trends than inventory-burdened chains, e-tailers offer customers a wide range of products — dwarfing what traditional retailers display on their sales floors. In recent months, that has caused some stores to upgrade their display fixtures and merchandise beyond the basics.
“There’s true interest in the women’s business, but I don’t know how many of these sites can survive. If you’re a real solid retail partner like The Sports Authority that does a site as an embellishment, you can really win,” said George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer of Active Apparel Group, the maker of licensed Everlast apparel. “I don’t think Boo going down has to be the obituary for the industry. If things are done properly, they can be successful.”
Darren Ross, Puma’s 25-year-old head of global interactive marketing and business, noted that some startups get so swept up in the branding of their sites that they overextend themselves financially.
“A lot of people forget that they’re not doing something that hasn’t been done before. The end goal is to sell a product,” he said. “There’s a lot of what I call ‘stunting’ going on. They’re doing publicity stunts instead of finding something that’s really different.”
“You have to get the site up and running before you overdevelop the brand. Right now a lot of people are trying to do everything for everyone. That will play itself out to be a focused few.”
David Kahn, vice president of apparel for Fila, isn’t as opposed to such overt publicity. He praised Lucy.com, a site that lists Fila among its vendors, for advertising at tennis tournaments through its sponsorship of the Women’s Tennis Association’s tour.
“They’re trying to appear bigger than they are,” Kahn said.
Fila is being “somewhat tentative” with e-tailers, preferring to work online with key retail partners like The Sports Authority, he added.
With plans to unveil its women’s store in July or August, Fogdog Sports sees the influx of online players as encouraging. The fact that women account for about 70 percent of online shoppers is another plus, according to Sarah Rafanelli, business development manager for the women’s site.
“We think there is enough interest. We have a growing market,” she said. “With all the sites launching we hope to be successful. It validates the market.”