Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Female athletes may have come a long way in the sports world, but activewear makers still have to meet the challenge of designing and marketing for women.
Encouraged that companies like Nike and Reebok have made a renewed commitment to women’s sports, nine elite female athletes gave some expert advice on what’s working and what’s lacking with women’s activewear market, while in town for Monday’s Women’s Sports Foundation annual awards dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
With the Sydney Games having showcased five new Olympic sports for women and marking a century of women’s participation in the Games, the crowd of 1,300 celebrated a new era for style-conscious champions. The event even served up a little bit of Hollywood, with award presenters Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Holly Hunter and Ron Silver. Hunter and Silver are starring in a new movie about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs legendary showdown on the tennis court.
While distance swimmer Diana Nyad, the event’s emcee, wore a full-length bodysuit and gold medalist swimmer BJ Bedford sported a rainbow-colored bob with a purple dress, others took the black tie dress code more seriously.
Decked out in a navel-baring floor-length Valentino gown provided by the designer for Grammys parties she never made it to, Serena Williams praised athletic companies for creating more activewear designed for a women’s body.
“I remember playing a girl who’s dress was wrinkled and I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I’m going to let her beat me,”‘ Williams said.
Williams, who declined to identify her rumpled opponent, prevailed and continues to believe, “When you go out there and you know you look nice, you feel better about yourself and you play better.”
Williams, a student at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, said she aims to design her own line of eveningwear and bridalwear. But, she said she won’t be trading in her tennis racquet for scissors any time soon.
Williams and older sister Venus won the Sportswoman of the Year team award for their doubles prowess, but Venus missed the event due to an overseas tournament. For their acceptance speech, the younger Williams played the role of ventriloquist, sharing the stage with a Barbie-size Venus Williams tennis doll, often succumbing to fits of laughter.
Swimming sensation Jenny Thompson, winner of the Sportswoman of the Year individual award, also turned out for the event in a designer evening gown — a raisin-colored matte jersey dress with leather shoulder straps and a plunging back, compliments of Calvin Klein. Despite the sophisticated attire, Thompson recalled growing up as an athlete and wearing mostly unisex activewear.
“Now women’s activewear seems sort of trendy almost,” she said. “You can go into stores like Mervyn’s and see Mia Hamm shirts.”
Mervyn’s is the WSF’s national corporate partner.
Thompson, the most decorated female American athlete ever with 10 Olympic medals, and also a Speedo-sponsored athlete, said more commercials and billboards featuring women playing sports are needed to boost participation in women’s sports.
“The more visible women’s sports are, the more women’s apparel will be sold,” she said.
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova, the winner of the Wilma Rudolph Courage award, criticized athletic companies for not giving the same level of commitment to women’s products as they do to men’s, for “talking down” to women in their marketing and for not integrating more women at senior levels of managements.
She said she was “astonished” that Nike’s Scream commercial, a spot banned by NBC of Olympic runner Suzy Hamilton running from a chainsaw murderer, was approved by the various levels of command at Nike.
In general, activewear makers still “don’t get it,” Navratilova said.
“They should stop being so condescending. They should aim their advertising at all consumers and not just women,” she said. “That starts at the corporate headquarters.”
Athletic companies also need to stop using men’s lasts to make women’s shoes and abolish the popular practice of producing limited-run sneakers, Navratilova said.
“They turn over shoes so quickly now. When you do finally find one you like, they lose it,” she said. “Change the colors and the logo, but keep the shoe the same.”
Soccer star Julie Foudy, who is also president-elect of the Women’s Sports Foundation, remembered how she had to play in men’s products for so many years. Pleased with the “great start companies have made to gearing product for women,” she said there are “still some steps to be taken.”
“You can have great fabric, but if the fit is four sizes too big, what good is it?” she asked.
WSF founder Billie Jean King, who is coach of DuPont-sponsored World Team Tennis, agreed that designing stylish high-performance garments is key. DuPont continues to work with Penn State University to try to develop good-looking compression shorts that will help reduce fatigue for tennis players and basketball players.
“High-performance products are important to top-flight athletes or the weekend warrior. It’s probably needed more by the weekend warrior,” King said. “There’s no reason recreational athletes can’t have those same benefits.”
Design is also important, she said.
“Venus and Serena go to a fashion institute because it’s very important to them,” King said. “How they look and what they’re wearing are huge to them.”
Olympic swimmer and sports commentator Donna de Varona praised manufacturers for exploring ways to improve athletes’ performance as seen with full-length bodysuits.
Well aware that a few female athletes have inquired about how much they will be paid to attend an event to pick up their awards, de Varona advised makers to encourage their sponsored athletes to “give back” by providing information via the Internet, holding clinics and supporting such groups as the WSF.
Willye White, the only female track athlete to compete in five consecutive Olympics, said activewear companies should try to set up programs to assure the athletes who endorse their brand project a positive image on and off the playing fields.
“If you’re spending that kind of money for an athlete, you should have them go through some type of program,” he said. “Image is everything.”
White said she was disappointed with the poor sportsmanship exhibited by the U.S. men’s 4X100m relay team at the Summer Games, who taunted and sauntered with their medals to much criticism.
“In Sydney, you could see their negative behavior rubbing off on other people. Other athletes mimicked their walk and facial expressions,” she said. “One of the reasons our children are so violent is because they see what superstars do and think that’s acceptable.”
Activewear makers earned points from Olympic gold medal softball pitcher Lisa Fernandez for expanding their customer base beyond their target market of males between the ages of 15 and 25. Highlighting the potential of the women’s business, she noted that female consumers tend to be more loyal than their male counterparts and often control their household’s shopping.
To better serve those customers, they should check out what kind of equipment female athletes need, Fernandez said.
“It’s not only about comfort. It has to be appealing to the female athlete and they have to do better with sizing,” she said. “There are not a lot of female athletes — other than gymnasts — who weigh 90 pounds.”
Gold medalist weightlifter Tara Nott said she was glad to see Adidas, Reebok and Nike putting women in the forefront of their marketing.
“Once that begins to happen,” she said, “the public begins to accept female athletes as role models and that helps to promote women in every sport.”