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.