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.


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.



”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.”