Soles of gold

Abstract:

The competition between Nike and Reebok is heating up as the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta approach. The shoe giants are competing for Olympic advertising and Olympic athlete endorsements in an effort to dominate the $132-billion-a-year athletic shoe industry.

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THE GAME BEGINS IN earnest this week when Dallas Cowboys star Emmitt Smith launches an ad campaign to make American football an official Olympic sport. And before it’s over this summer, Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, American soccer star Michelle Akers and a band of international runners will be pitted against track superstars Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, tennis champions Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and Shaq’s Magic mate, Penny Hardaway. Which might lead one to ask: exactly what game is being played here?

The answer, of course, is no game at all. These athletes are foot soldiers in the global sneaker wars, a fierce engagement between Nike and Reebok over athletic shoes–a $13 billion-a-year business in the United States alone–and other sports apparel. In this rivalry, there is agreement on just one matter: the ’96 Olympics will be the ultimate battleground. “It’s got an aura around it unlike any other event,” says Reebok’s Liza O’Reilly. Adds Nike spokesman Tom Feuer: “There’s nothing bigger. It’s a Super Bowl every day.” Over the next three months, climaxing with the July 19-Aug. 4 Summer Games in Atlanta, these corporate giants will fight–in ads and on the field–for the hearts and soles of the world’s athletic wanna-bes.

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What is now a war was once only a sideline skirmish, at least at the Olympics. Then two seismic events occurred: the breakup of the Soviet Union and the creation of America’s Dream Team. One ended the us-vs.-them, freedom-vs.-godless-communism prism through which America had long viewed Olympic competition. The other offered a substitute when Nike’s highest-paid stars, led by Michael Jordan, balked at donning Reebok’s official jackets for the gold-medal ceremony. “Now everybody looks at the Olympics as Nike vs. Reebok,” says John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Intelligence. “The companies brag about who’s going to wear what when, and the networks go for it hook, line and sinker.”

The choice of non-Olympian Emmitt Smith, of all the athletes on Planet Reebok, as the linchpin of its Olympic ad campaign is unusual. It may reflect Reebok’s longing for an all-American athlete when so many of its goldmedal contenders in Atlanta will be foreigners (including the entire Russian Olympic team). Reebok may also be gun-shy after its 1992 “Dan and Dave” fiasco. That campaign was built around decathlon champion Dan O’Brien, who didn’t even qualify for the U.S. team. (Even worse, O’Brien bolted to Nike the following year.) Smith can’t fail in his Olympic quest because–despite Reebok’s insistence to the contrary–his NFL Dream Team is sheer fantasy. “Emmitt Smith is welcome to say whatever he wants,” says United States Olympic Committee spokesman Mike Moran, “but to us football is in the same category as Frisbee.”

Nike, meanwhile, is trying to plant its swoosh on everything in sight. Reebok is a poor runner-up to Nike in any chutzpah competition. It was Nike that raised shoe ties to the point where they’re discussed alongside national loyalties. First its Dream Teamers perpetrated the tacky logo cover-up on the medal stand in Barcelona. Then Nike chairman Phil Knight upped the embarrassment quotient by admitting he was rooting for the Nike-backed Brazilians over the Adidas-clad United States (on the Fourth of July, no less) in the 1994 World Cup. And even when Nike goes patriotic, it can still go wrong. As official outfitter of the U.S. track-and-field team, Nike designed a track suit with swooshes instead of stars on the American flag. That design, crass even by Olympic commercialization standards, violated rules limiting logo count.

But that may have been the whole point. Nike never looks back and never apologizes–and, with its extraordinary roster of Olympic athletes, usually gets away with it. In track and field, which even Reebok concedes is the one Olympic competition where the shoe companies “really make their statement,” Nike boasts a veritable who’s who of stars. It also boasts that its athletes don’t concern themselves with their rivals or their shoes. “Do you think the Chicago Bulls worry about every team on their schedule?” says Nike’s Feuer. “They don’t worry because they’re the best.” Reebok VP Scott Helbing is less convincing when he says that Reebok doesn’t worry about winning. “We define winning as personal achievement, not necessarily winning the race,” he says.

Nike won’t reveal details of its Olympic ad campaign, which starts in June, except that it’ll be centered on the new Zoom Air and Max Air training shoes. Once the Games begin, Reebok does have a TV edge. It has purchased exclusive rights to advertise athletic footwear on NBC Olympic broadcasts. Nike has to buy its air time on local affiliates throughout the country.

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It’s on the streets of Atlanta, though, that the one-upmanship is reaching new heights. Or at least trying to. The city vetoed Reebok’s plan to paint an 80- by 60-foot Shaq on the side of a downtown historic building. (A mural, Reebok said; an advertisement, the city concluded.) But Olympic venues, where ads are banned, will be about the only swoosh-free places in Atlanta. Nike will have 16 downtown billboards and 10 painted buses, as well as an additional 136 posters in the rapid-transit system. Nike Park, built just for the Olympics, will welcome the public to its retail store, basketball court, soccer field, video theater–and best of all, air conditioning.

Though Reebok and Nike will be shoeing or outfitting some 4,000 Olympic athletes, Mizuno, Adidas and other companies will also get their feet onto the award podiums. Mizuno, in fact, claims to have won more medals in Barcelona than any other shoe company, although its competitors snipe that not all medals are created equal. Like judo medals, for example. To Mizuno’s Pat Devaney, the potshots are part of the fun. He says fans have come to enjoy the corporate rivalries reflected in the advertising, marketing and promotional ploys. “It’s in the spirit of the competitive environment,” he says. And maybe by the year 2000 in Sydney, the Olympics can rid itself of all those chauvinistic flags and anthems that just interfere with the logos and their message.

>>> View more: When cool goes cold

When cool goes cold

Abstract:

Nike Inc is facing difficult times. Its stock prices have declined from the $70s to the $40s as the company’s labor policies in Asia have attracted widespread criticism. Furthermore, Asia’s economic crisis has reduced sales by 17%, and Nike’s image as the maker of the coolest athletic shoes is beginning to erode.

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Nike was marketing MVP. But with its image, brand and business under fire, a company and a CEO with a sense of mission are suddenly reeling.

Phil Knight doesn’t speak in public very often. And when you hear from him these days, he doesn’t sound happy. Talking to Wall Street analysts from his Oregon headquarters last week, the founder and head of Nike Inc. didn’t mince words: “This is a dark day around these halls.”

Knight’s problems would worry any CEO: a stock price that has slid to the $40s from the $70s, a plunge in profits and warehouses full of shoes that aren’t selling. Nike’s two-year-long battle with critics of its labor policies in Asia is heating up again: filmmaker Michael Moore features Nike in his new movie (sidebar) and, in an event stage-managed by Nike but sure to generate some unwelcome imagery, the company’s pre-eminent spokesman, Michael Jordan, plans to visit Far East factories this spring. The region is the source of more woe: Asia’s economic slump has cut sales by 17 percent in recent months. But most critical is a price war that has sliced U.S. sales and is a sign that Nike’s lock as the champion of “cool” may be weakening. Although Nike prides itself on technical innovation, losing its cool would be tantamount to losing the game.

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Last week was particularly glum at Nike’s headquarters in suburban Portland. Managers had warned of layoffs but hadn’t revealed any names. On Wednesday, 250 employees were told to pack up their desks, while stunned colleagues looked on.

At most corporate offices, that scene, though painful, wouldn’t be cataclysmic. But for Knight and his employees, even a sethack bears the agony of defeat. After stumbling badly against Reebok in the ’80s, Nike rose about as high and fast in the ’90s as any company can. It took on a new religion of brand consciousness and broke advertising sound barriers with its indelible Swoosh, “Just Do It” slogan and deified sports figures. Nike managed the deftest of marketing tricks: to be both anti-establishment and mass market, to the tune of $9.2 trillion in sales last year.

But Nike sees itself as part of a grander mission. Knight, 60, wouldn’t be interviewed for this story. But he has often talked of sports as a force for good, and of Nike–named for a Greek goddess–as a force behind that good. “`Swooshification of the world’ should [really be] `Sportsification of the world’,” he said last year. “We will mature with the inexorable penetration of sports into the global psyche.”

The sense of destiny is manifest on Nike’s campus. Built in 1990, it combines Northwest utopiana (a wetland, complete with great blue herons) with the manic, rah-rah flavor of a Big Ten school on Homecoming Day. Employees in sweats chugging Powerade are everywhere on the bark-chip running trail, in sports-bar-style eateries and in buildings named for stars (the “McEnroe,” the “Benoit”). Bronze busts, posters and videos of sports heroes are everywhere. So is the real thing. Olympic skier Picabo Street did most of the rehab work on her knee at “Bo,” the campus fitness center, and the day after handicapped golfer Casey Martin won his court victory, he rode down the Walk-of Fame past crowds of cheering employees. Nike staffers see themselves as “protagonists for the human spirit overcoming adversity,” says a former executive.

Employees are recruited to share that mission. They work and play hard, leaving a sizable population of “Nike widows” and, presumably, widowers. Some young sales people initiate themselves with Swoosh tattoos. And besides the ubiquitous sports metaphors, Nike people talk about the “heart” and “soul” of Nike. “You didn’t even talk about the stock price inside those halls,” says a former employee. “That’s not why you were there.”

For such believers, the harsh criticism of Nike’s labor practices has been a shock. When activists spurred new interest in foreign labor conditions in 1996, Nike was the perfect foil. Critics such as author Alice Walker attacked with the no-mercy language of polities. Leftist commentator Jim Hightower talked about “Swooshtikas,” and ads for political magazine Counter-Punch, citing 12-year-old laborers, blared, Meet Phil Knight: Child Abuser. (Nike denies employing anyone under 16.)

Nike employees were stunned to find themselves vilified in the press and quizzed in local bars. Nike has set up a Web site on worker issues, held brown-bag lunches and invited heavyweights onto campus to explain global economics. But Knight the visionary may have a blind spot here. “I’m … personally tired of the overblown and ill-used comparison between the salaries of factory workers and Michael Jordan,” he told employees in an e-mail last spring. A few months ago, Knight still seemed “confused” by the criticism, says Earl Blumenauer, a friend and Portland congressman.

Nike’s bigger problem is a 1990s marketing conundrum: can you be big and cool? When Teenage Research Unlimited did its latest survey, 40 percent of kids named Nike as one of the “coolest” brands, down from 52 percent just six months ago. Kim Hastreiter of Paper, a New York magazine, says that the coolest things around now are brilliantly colored suede sneakers by New Balance. Even Adidas, torpedoed by Nike and Reebok in the ’80s, is staging a comeback; for young kids, it’s “new.” Nike rivals, of course, are trying to make Nike look, like, so five-minutes-ago. Candie’s, a small maker of women’s shoes, is running ads featuring former MTV star Jenny McCarthy with the slogan “Just Screw It.”

Knight acknowledges the challenge. “We have to be beautiful as well as big,” he said last week. It’s no mean feat, says Starbucks brandmeister Scott Bedbury, former global ad chief for Nike. But, he adds, “people said no way [Nike] would be cool at $1 billion, and they said no way we’d be cool at $3 billion.” The “worst-ease scenario would be to become Microsoft,” says Kevin Keller, a marketing professor at Duke. Best ease: be like Coca-Cola. “They’re everywhere, but no one seems to resent them for it.”

One answer is to play down the Swoosh, and some Nike watchers say it will do just that. (One of Nike’s hottest sellers, the new Jordan line, has no Swoosh.) Nike is marketing new products, including its ACG (All Condition Gear) line that capitalizes–a little late in the game–on the “brown shoe” craze for hiking and outdoor styles like Timberland’s. Nike’s new baseball bat, part of a growing line of sports equipment, just hit stores, although its high-tech baseball glove has been indefinitely delayed.

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Nike’s genius has been its “strong, intuitive sense” of the brand, says Keller. But with the loss of some of Nike’s top marketers in the last few years, he wonders if the newer people can “tap into” that understanding, “almost a genetic code.”

Nike’s ace in the hole is Knight himself. Charismatic and down to earth, Knight still lives in the house he bought 25 years ago. “He’s the kind of guy who leans in when you talk,” says Blumenauer. Knight’s deep passion for Nike means he will fight hard for it. “I’ve always thought that Phil has three children–two sons and a brand,” says Bedbury. “Never underestimate a father’s love of a child.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Nike Ups and Downs

Nike’s third-quarter results show that earnings are losing their bounce, and its swooshing stock has gone into a swoon.

>>> Click here: Does he know Bo? David Robinson sell shoes – and himself

Does he know Bo? David Robinson sell shoes – and himself

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The commercial is for basketball shoes, but one of the men on the TV screen is neither tall nor athletically inclined. He is 79-year-old Rudolf Firkusny, a Czechoslovakian-born concern pianist. In the 30-second spot, he masterfully outplays a self-taught pianist named David Robinson in a piano duel over Chopin’s Heroique polonaise. Humiliated, the seven-foot, one-inch Robinson, who happens to be a centre with the San Antonio Spurs of the National Basketball Association (NBA), exacts revenge on the basketball court, drubbing the frail, white-haired Firkusny in a lopsided game of one-on-one. Satisfied, the handsome Robinson looks into the camera and, in a parody of the children’s TV program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, says: “Geez, Mr. Firkusny’s a better piano player than Mr. Robinson, but Mr. Robinson can really cream him at basketball.”

The unusual mix of highbrow music and sports is helping to sell shoes for Nike Inc. The Beaverton, Ore.-based firm says that sales of its basketball shoes topped $549 million in 1990, far outstripping its competitors. Industry analysts say that the line of high-topped basketball footwear with air-cushion soles that the 25-year-old Robinson endorses has become the top-selling Nike shoe on the market. As a result, media analysts maintain that Robinson may emerge as a successor to Bo Jackson, a star of both baseball and football, as sports’ leading pitchman. Because Jackson suffered a serious hip injury in January, his sports career now is in doubt.

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Unlike Jackson, Robinson is a star in only one sport. During the 1989-1990 NBA season, his first as a pro basketball player, Robinson was chosen as the league’s rookie of the year. During the past season, Robinson’s 25.6-point-per-game scoring average led the Spurs to their second consecutive Midwest Division title before they were eliminated from the league playoffs in mid-May.

Still, Robinson’s image differs markedly from most athlete-spokesmen because advertisers, including Nike, have played up his off-the-court attributes. Those include Robinson’s passion for classical piano playing, his record of academic achievement and his clean-cut image. Said Melinda Gable, a Nike representative: “The ‘Mr. Robinson’ persona is perfect for him because he is such a nice guy off the court.”

One of prefessional basketball’s top centres, Robinson took a roundabout route to the NBA. A native of Washington, D.C., Robinson graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., in 1987 with a degree in mathematics. A star of the Navy basketball team at Annapolis, Robinson was the Spurs’ first-round draft choice that year. But he joined the club only after serving a two-year military commitment on a naval airbase in Georgia. Robinson still spends two weeks each summer in the naval reserve as a lieutenant (junior grade).

In San Antonio, Tex., where Robinson and his parents now live, the athlete has become involved in a local education project. Last January, he adopted the entire Grade 5 class at Gates Elementary School in San Antonio with a $124,000 donation to the I Have A Dream Foundation. The charity raises money to encourage underprivileged children to stay in school. Robinson’s donation, including earned interest, is expected to provide each of the 90 students in the class with a $2,300 scholarship to attend college or university. Said foundation chairman Marie Goforth: “Apart from the fact that he’s a tremendous basketball player, David Robinson is a tremendous human being.”

His success on and off the court has made Robinson rich already. With a $3.7-million salary from the Spurs, he also earns hundreds of thousands of dollars more annually in a variety of promotional fees. His agent, Jeff Austin of Advantage International Inc., a Washington-based sports representation and marketing company, said that Robinson currently has promotional contracts with Nike, Casio Inc., the New Jersey-based manufacturer of electronic products, and Massachusetts-based Franklin Sports Industries.

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Robinson’s most valuable contract so far is the five-year deal that he signed with Nike in 1988, which industry experts estimate to be worth about $1 million over the life of the contract. Nike has several other basketball stars under contract, including Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls forward who is among the game’s top players. Nike’s “Mr. Robinson” campaign has drawn praise for its creators, Wieden & Kennedy, a Portland, Ore.-based advertising agency, and for Robinson. Mary Crozier, an account manager with Toronto’s Harrison Young Pesonen & Newell media-buying agency, said: “They are terrific commercials.”

Glenn Wakefield, national advertising manager for Toronto-based Nike Canada, said that sales of multipurpose running shoes, known as “cross-trainers,” were slow until Nike’s successful “Bo knows” commercials, featuring Bo Jackson, began in 1989. Since then, the $139 cross-trainers have become the company’s top-selling shoe in Canada. Said Wakefield: “The effect these athletes have on sales is phenomenal.” Now, the quirky “Mr. Robinson” campaign shows signs of making the talented Robinson as valuable a property on TV screens as he is on the basketball court.

>>> View more: Longtime makers of sporting goods consider the possibility that their game has passed them by

Longtime makers of sporting goods consider the possibility that their game has passed them by

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WHEN the golf star Tiger Woods turned professional last year, the sports world was stunned by the estimated $60 million in endorsement contracts he secured from Nike and the Titleist unit of American Brands.

Almost unnoticed was the more than $2 million he received from Time Warner for a book deal with Warner Books.

When the traditional makers of athletic shoes, apparel and equipment that have long dominated the sporting goods business assess the competition these days, they are finding that the game has changed: The sporting goods industry has become a hot ticket for everything from major media conglomerates to the fashion czars on Seventh Avenue.

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And, as media groups increasingly buy professional teams, sporting goods companies will find it more difficult to sign endorsement deals with athletes, said Tom Wolzien, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Company. At the very least, he said, they will find it more expensive.

”With a media company owning a team, we may see the time when the athlete’s contract not only includes his work in the field of play, but also the licensing of his name and likeness,” Mr. Wolzien said. ”Certainly these companies have the resources to do it.”

Traditional leaders in the slow-moving sporting goods industry, meeting in Atlanta last week for their annual trade show, said they could respond to the challenge, but analysts warned that big moves from media companies would only increase competition and costs.

”Business is not good,” Jon Amsler, an analyst with Kurt Salmon Associates, said. ”Manufacturers are starting to consolidate. The lines are blurring across a number of industries. It’s not so much that sporting goods are hot, but it’s a big industry and there are some natural synergies for companies that are just entering the business.”

Overall sales of sporting goods — shoes, apparel and equipment — grew just 5.7 percent last year, to $44.1 billion, from $41.5 billion in 1995. And many big categories — running, basketball, tennis and the outdoor market — are expected to grow slowly, if at all, in the next few years, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

For the last few years, industry growth has largely resulted from sales in new markets like in-line skating and snowboarding. The meager growth has depended primarily on hot products endorsed by superstar athletes — a trend that has not escaped the notice of companies accustomed to dealing with entertainment superstars.

Last month, Time Warner signed Albert Belle, the baseball slugger now with the Chicago White Sox, for its sports licensing division, joining Andres Gallaraga of the Colorado Rockies, Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks basketball team and six other pro athletes.

Time Warner’s purchase last fall of Turner Broadcasting System also gave it ownership of the Atlanta Braves baseball and Atlanta Hawks basketball franchises.

The Walt Disney Company, which already owns the California Angels baseball team and Anaheim Mighty Ducks hockey team, is expanding its resort in Orlando, Fla., to include a sports complex that is to house the Braves’ spring training facilities starting in 1998.

The Comcast Corporation, the Philadelphia cable company, has a majority stake in a partnership that owns the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team, the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team, and two sports arenas. And Cablevision Systems and the ITT Corporation own the Knicks and the New York Rangers hockey franchise as well as Madison Square Garden, though the partners are squabbling.

Also getting into the game is Seventh Avenue. A recent report by Salomon Brothers predicts that fashion designers will own 7 percent of the $8.5 billion sports shoe business by 2000. Indeed, Donna Karan entered the athletic footwear market last fall, while Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger have signed licensing agreements for athletic shoe lines to appear within a year.

All this has not gone unnoticed by established sporting goods marketers: indeed, no one can accuse Nike of being unattuned to industry developments. Adding to its playbook, Nike already has a sports management unit that offers athletes marketing services to rival an agent’s.

”We’ve recognized for several years that sports is part of entertainment,” said Robert Meers, executive vice president of Reebok International, No. 2 behind Nike in sports shoes and apparel. ”The market now is really sports, fashion and music. We can’t ignore that reality and expect to survive.”

Reebok, which has seen its share of the athletic shoe business slide from 21.6 percent in 1994 to 15.9 percent last year, is urging athletic goods retailers to merge selling with entertainment, as Warner and Disney have done with their outlets, Mr. Meers said. ”If the retailers look around and see a sterile environment that just shows product, they should understand they will have to change their presentation,” he said.

Indeed, Mr. Meers said that the largest sporting goods makers were likely to begin sponsoring their own sports and entertainment events.

”Sporting goods has turned into an entertainment marketing industry,” said Jeffrey R. Bliss, who led 1996 Olympics marketing efforts for the Sara Lee Corporation. ”The industry is constantly watching for the next event, the next movie, the next star.

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”What you are seeing in sports in recent years is a shift in the flow of money, from the owners and managers, where it was for years, to the talent the public is paying to watch,” he said. ”The entertainment companies have seen that shift in their own business long ago. They understand the rules and it’s natural for them to compete very aggressively.”

For the moment, some traditional manufacturers hope their new rivals will enlarge the total market rather than simply stealing share. ”We don’t view this as a threat,” said John C. Adams, chairman and chief executive of the Russell Corporation of Alexander City, Ala.

Late last year, Russell, one of the world’s largest producers of fleece sports clothing, agreed to produce a line of licensed athletic apparel for Warner Brothers. ”They have marketing expertise and knowledge,” Mr. Adams said, ”that will benefit both of us.”

In the Super Bowl of Sports Stuff, the Winning Score is $2 Billion

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With all the mystical assurance of an ancient seer reading entrails, Steve Mann planted his feet on an upper rim of Atlanta’s Georgia Dome last week, hefted a little metal toy truck and declared: “Baseball is dead.”

Mann, a lanky 31-year-old redhead with an all-American smile, is the sales manager for Ertl Collectibles of Dyersville, Iowa, where the movie “Field of Dreams” was shot. But Mann is a realist. The truck in his hand, modeled after a 1938 Chevy panel, bore the colors and logo of the Texas Rangers. It was not selling well at $14.99, said Mann, because collectors were turned off by “baseball strikes and $8 million players.”

On the other hand, the 1956 Ford pickup with Notre Dame colors and a piggy bank slot was doing well. People felt better about football and colleges.

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“This is a goofy, vicious, live-for-now, get-it-while-you-can business,” said Mann. “Sports collectibles may be a niche business, but it’s just like sports.”

Just like sports. From niche to Nike, the Super Show, advertised as the world’s largest sporting goods trade fair, offered 10,000 booths of hard-charging sales jocks with this season’s live-for-now products, from Grant Hill notebooks to Air Much Uptempo shoes. There were athletes to be sure — Frank Thomas for Reebok, Nadia Comaneci for Danskin, Marcus Allen for Logo Athletic among dozens — but they were peripheral to products.

Without the distractions of games, the marketing of athletic shoes, apparel, equipment and bric-a-brac becomes a vivid reflection of the flamboyant, winner-take-all world of sports. Or is sports a reflection of the life-or-death business world? The numbers on the Super Bowl scoreboard represent touchdowns and field goals, mere symbols for the numbers on the Super Show scoreboard representing dollars and market share.

Early in the four-day show, the president of Nike, Tom Clarke, talked about how “the power of sport” enabled the nation-state of swoosh to “crack $2 billion” in apparel growth in 1995. He said that the “inspiration of sports allows us to rebirth ourselves constantly.” If there was any doubt that he was talking new product, not New Age, another Nike executive, Steve Gomez, clarified the issue when he said that the juggernaut had entered the college football market with a “quest to own Saturdays.”

Bad-mouthing Nike’s muscling ways was a sideshow at the Super Show that rang hollow, especially from other powerhouses with prime locations at the Georgia World Congress Center, huge multimedia booths, dancing girls and access restricted to those with appointments. But over in the satellite location, the Georgia Dome, where the mom-and-pops and the licensang trickle-downs strutted their stuff, there was mostly admiration for Nike and hopes of something swooshing their way.

“We may get a shot silk-screening a little for Nike,” said the president of APSCO, Phil Livoti, one of two guys named Phil who own the Brooklyn apparel and embroidery firm. A third Phil, the Nike founder Phil Knight, could jump them into the big time. They have a line of Mickey Mantle shirts, licensed by the Manhattan restaurant. They still bask in the 1994 Stanley Cup playoffs when Dennis Ingberg, the marketing v.p., kept his finger on the factory’s red button through the sixth and seventh games so they could start rolling those Ranger shirts for Sears and J. C. Penney.

Sporting goods people seem to feel ennobled enough by the trademarked triumphs and tragedies of prime-time sports not to worry too much about the seamier doings on their own sidelines. The “sneakers-to-die-for” controversy of several years ago has faded; after all, went the spin, poor youngsters killed for certain brand-name sunglasses and winter jackets before they started killing for athletic shoes.

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And the recurring charge of slave labor by third world children making sneakers and active wear has been countered by those who claim that only by keeping an economic presence in a country, no matter how vile the conditions, can there be hope of reform. The sexier issues of bad behavior by the major league models who keep the mills grinding seem to obscure the real violence.

And then there was Howard Schwartz, president of the Sherwood Group of Rockville, Md., makers of flags and pennants, who was displaying an Orbs EcoSpun sweatshirt manufactured from six plastic liter bottles and an equal weight of mill end fabrics. It was a “responsible garment with a story,” but Schwartz had yet to find a responsible coach to outfit his varsity with such shirts and hats; it should be a winning coach with the kind of appeal that would allow him to choose saving the planet over Planet Reebok.

Which brought us to another moment when niche met Nike. “Imagine if Nike took this product on,” said Schwartz. “How many plastic bottles they’d need.”

Just recycle it.