Wearables Business

Athleticwear, team wear, a hot product niche

Athleticwear, team wear, a hot product niche

Byline: Eric Peterson

A flat economy might have put the kibosh on corporate spending in recent years, but the sports market never hit a comparable speed bump. It follows that more and more promotional product distributors have looked for growth in athleticwear – workout apparel and sports uniforms – and outfitted teams, promotional giveaways, and team-building events in the process. Suppliers – many of them new to ASI – have done their part, fueling the trend with more and better product.

“The sports market is being reached out to by all sorts of distributors,” says Nancy Wood, account executive for Medford, Mass.-based Charles River Apparel in the mid-Atlantic region. As the advertising industry’s fortunes slipped in recent years, “ASI distributors had to shift gears. It’s not just sporting goods stores and embroiderers going into high schools – [ASI distributors] are very, very rapidly moving into that market.”

But Wood says price, not brand recognition, is king in the corporate athleticwear market: End users “want a quality product, but they don’t want an Adidas price or a Nike price.”

Of Charles River’s new-for-2004 products, Wood highlights the Traveler Bag/Blanket, a water-resistant blanket that folds into a bag with straps as an excellent fit for athletic-oriented giveaways, fund-raisers, or events, with a first-column price of $19.95 per unit. Also new is the Pack-N-Go Pullover, also made of Softex II polyester and convertible. (It packs into its front pouch.)

“It’s a fantastic price point,” says Wood, citing a starting net price of $14.55 per unit.

Wick(ed) performance is key

Another guiding athleticwear trend is the boom in performance fabrics. Sparked by the retail explosion of such brands as Under Armour and Nike Dri-FIT, perspiration-wicking polyesters and blends are becoming more and more commonplace in the promotional wearables marketplace.

A Raleigh, N.C.-based blank apparel startup, WICKid Gear is one of the few ASI suppliers that focuses exclusively on performance athleticwear, with a catalog of long- and short-sleeved Active Shirts, polos, mock turtlenecks, and headwear.

“This is not just a regular cotton T-shirt that is a giveaway product,” says WICKid co-president Rich Nowalk.

“This is an upper-echelon wearable for all people that sweat. There are some features you can sell.”

Fabrics like 100% micro-fiber polyester (WICKid’s material of choice) “used to just be for professional athletes, and now it’s for everyday people that sweat,” he continues. “People ask us, ‘Who can we sell this to?’ We tell them, ‘Athletic teams, gyms, fitness centers. Then think about people who work outdoors: landscapers, delivery drivers, police departments. Anyone in an active job role is a candidate to wear this kind of product.”

WICKid’s (pronounced WICK-I.D.) 2004 catalog is more than double the size of its 2003 incarnation.

“The real innovative thing we’re really excited about: We came out with were a full-wicking microfiber hat and a microfiber visor,” says Nowalk. “The whole entire hat wicks moisture: the bill, the Velcro strap on the back, the sweatbands.”

WICKid’s mock turtlenecks are strong sellers, and part of an evolving product category.

“You can wear the mock turtleneck as a corporate-casual piece, you can wear it on the golf course, alone or underneath a sweater vest or a windshirt,” Nowalk notes. “It has a lot more functions than people even thought. On the golf course, Tiger Woods is pushing the envelope by wearing a mock turtleneck. In our catalog, we call them ‘multi-faceted’ and I think that’s right on the money.”

Nowalk adds that analysts who cover apparel expect performance wear to boom for several more years.

“The overall trend is that it’s going to get a lot more popular, and a lot more end users are going to ask for it,” he says.

Waking up windshirts

Weatherproof/MV Sport of Bay Shore, N.Y., is also on the leading edge of fabrics, specializing in outerwear. National Sales Manager John Meis says that microsuede “woke up” the windshirt category in the last year, and that the overshirt – which is “functionally a jacket, but one that looks like a shirt” – is a hot men’s style.

Meis says bonded polyester is “gaining popularity” at retail, leading Weatherproof to release “hip, urban” men’s and ladies’ jackets.

“No one else has been able to capture this trend and bring it to the corporate market as quickly as we have been able to do it,” he adds.

Weatherproof, it should be noted, has an edge on bringing the hot retail pieces to the corporate market: it is a hot retail supplier.

Beyond the athlete

“There’s a little more sophistication in the market,” notes David Stacks, marketing director for Augusta Sportswear in Augusta, Ga., and this sophistication is catalyzing demand for higher-end fabrics.

Athletic uniforms as fashion has also graduated from the retail market to the promotional. “Baseball jerseys are suitable as streetwear, and they’re very trendy,” says Stacks; the same goes for reversible basketball jerseys.

Augusta’s 2004 catalog has “moved forward on a number of fronts,” he adds; the company has expanded its offerings for baseball, cheerleading, soccer and performance outerwear. Performance fabrics and “Pro-Mesh” two-button baseball jerseys (with a first-column price of $10.25) are generating the most heat. The latter – along with outerwear – is a perfect fit for the uniform market, Stacks notes, for “everybody from the Girl Scouts to the guy who delivers your newspaper in the morning.”

Beyond workwear and sports uniforms for company teams, “A creative ASI distributor can come up with 100 ways to use athleticwear,” notes Andy Lehrer, vice president of sales and marketing for San Marcos, Calif.-based Teamwork Athletic Apparel. “That whole idea in business of creating a team – what better way to do that than team uniforms.”

Lehrer says one Teamwork PPD customer sold 300 football jerseys to a large corporation for a team-building event.

“They had a number of different teams, 50 different groups of 6 people,” says Lehrer. “They ordered 50 different styles of football jerseys, and decorated them as a team would. Team uniforms can be a unique way to motivate and invigorate people in the business community.”

Another Teamwork distributor supplies the concessionaire’s employees at the New Orleans Arena with jerseys for the home team, the NBA’s Hornets. (“That’s a lot of garments,” says Lehrer.) A third customer sells striped referee’s shirts to a casino in Las Vegas; employees wear the black and white jerseys as uniforms to fit a sports theme.

For 2004, Teamwork has 60 new products, including a windshirt and new SKUs in women’s softball, cheerleading, hockey, and soccer, most with a wholesale price of $6 to $20 per unit. The company also has “a fair number” of products made of moisture-wicking cool mesh,” says Lehrer.

“You can sell fun with athletic uniforms,” he adds. “It just puts people in a different frame of mind.”

Banking on athleticwear

Bob Devine, national sales manager for Eldora, Iowa’s Dodger Industries, a domestic manufacturer of replica jerseys and athletic-oriented tops, shorts, and outerwear, paints a similar picture.

“Jerseys are coveted,” he explains, as the nation’s youth are wearing them as fashion garments.

Devine sees ladies’ athleticwear as another growth segment. “[Women] want their own product,” he says. “They’re looking for fashion.” Another trend: “The inseams of girls’ shorts are getting shorter and shorter and guys want them longer and baggier. You can take that to the bank.”

Keith Reed, president of PAW Distributors of Fairfield, N.J., says 2003 was a growth year for selling athleticwear into the corporate market.

“Other than for corporate softball teams, there seem to be two types of needs,” Reed explains. “One is for referee shirts, which largely go to sports bars or restaurants. The other is for touch football jerseys, which give an authentic athletic look, but are a good cut for streetwear. We’ve had occasional corporate orders for baseball shirts and hockey jerseys, but the lacrosse and football jerseys tend to be the ones they ask for.”

In response, PAW expanded its Coolerz line of lacrosse jerseys in late 2003, with a net price starting around $16, and also expanded its pro-mesh ballcap selection – “the type the pros wear in spring training,” says Reed.

Recession-proof athletics

A new entrant in the ASI athleticwear market – but one with a 30-year background in apparel manufacturing – is A4/Moshay Inc. of Vernon, Calif. A4’s (short for Authentic American Athletic Apparel) first market exposure will be the March ASI Show in Las Vegas.

“The key for us is [our customers] make a lot of money,” touts A4 VP of Sales Mike Owings. “We have the ability… to get people prices they’re not used to seeing anywhere.”

Owings says basketball jerseys represent a sizable segment of A4’s sales. With three manufacturing facilities in Los Angeles and a supplementary assembly operation in Mexico (bolstered by a team of five more workers in the sample room in Vernon), A4 is also capable of filling large custom orders; it recently made 6,000 reversible maroon-and-gold jerseys for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.

Philadelphia-based wholesaler Alpha Shirt Company has an exclusive license to sell sports stalwart Champion into the ASI market. New Champion products in Alpha’s 2004 catalog include a moisture-wicking Double Dry short-sleeved T-shirt, which Alpha Marketing Specialist Steve Clark sees as appropriate for uniforms in sports leagues of all kinds.

Also new for 2004 are five new Champion baseball jerseys “at the same price point as Badger and Augusta,” Clark says, and women’s fitness apparel: workout pants, sports bras, and a ribbed T.

“With athletics, it’s almost recession-proof,” Clark says. “There’s always opportunity there. You’re not limited to the annual golf outing that company XYZ does. You’re not limited to uniforms for a trade show. It’s something we really want to push this year.”

Eric Peterson is a contributing editor to Wearables Business , and a regular columnist, penning the monthly Profile feature.

Suppliers mentioned in this article:

A4/Moshay Inc.: 888-464-3824 or

Alpha Shirt Company: 800-523-4585 or

Augusta Sportswear: 800-237-6695 or

Charles River Apparel: 800-225-0550 or

Dodger Industries: 800-247-7879 or

PAW Distributors: 800-524-0664 or

Teamwork Athletic Apparel: 800-333-6063 or

Weatherproof/MV Sport: 800-367-7900 or

WICKid Gear: 866-856-9425 or

COPYRIGHT 2004 PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc. All rights reserved.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group