Sports Apparel Sales Show Women Are in a League of Their Own

by Robert McAllister, Technology Editor
February 08, 2008

 
The licensed-apparel business is no longer a man’s world when it comes to team-sports gear.

Women are among the fastest-growing segment of the customer base, and it showed during the recent Super Bowl, where women made up 20 percent of all sales of jerseys,T-shirts, bags and other items. According to the National Football League, about $125 million in merchandisewill change hands before all the post-game purchases are made, which is on track to break a 10-year-old record. Women’s NFL merchandise has been growing at double-digit percentages for the past five years, according to the league.

One of the strongest points of sale has been the Internet, where companies such as Los Angeles–based Shopzilla (www.shopzilla.com) are among the leaders. According to New York– based Scarborough Research, sports-logo apparel shopped for by women on the Internet grew from 42 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2007. The female fan base has doubled over the past five years in metropolitan markets such as Boston, according to Scarborough.

Manish Chandra, founder of Sunnyvale, Calif.–based Kaboodle (www.kaboodle.com) has seen more referals for such products appear on his shopping networking site.

And it’s not just the Super Bowl they are interested in. Women also are taking a bigger stake in products from Major League Baseball, the NBA and NASCAR. Marketers point to the fact that more females are participating in sports as a key reason for the growing fan base. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, the number of girls participating in varsity sports in high school has grown by 60 percent over the past 16 years.

Canton, Mass.–based Reebok International Ltd. helped push the category a couple of years ago by designing NFL jerseys for women in pink and baby blue and feminine cuts. For the first time in history, women’s NFL jerseys were ranking among the top five NFL merchandise items.

Women have sought to fill the void for years. In the past they were forced to buy boys’ sizes of NFL jerseys and sometimes crop and shape them to make them more feminine.

Pasadena, Calif.–based designer Betsy Hoyt Stevens saw it coming a few years ago. Being a Los Angeles Lakers season ticket holder, she couldn’t find much femalefriendly Lakers merchandise, so she designed a purple Lakers belt embellished with Swarovski crystals. After wearing it to some games, she was bombarded with inquiries. Even competing teams such as the Phoenix Suns and L.A. Clippers were interested in them for players’ and owners’ wives, so Stevens made some more and eventually launched her company, B...for Betsy, featuring headbands, bags, shirts, scarves and other items bearing the emblems of pro sports teams.

“If you ask retailers like JCPenney and Sears what their fastest-growing categories are, they will say it’s pro-sports logoed apparel. It’s been growing every year for 10 years, with not one down year in that time,” she said.

Stevens sells her products through her Web site (www.bforbetsy.com), her Pasadena store and direct to stadiums and sports shops. She hasn’t even begun marketing to ready-to-wear boutiques.

“The NFL products are doing real well. We’ve only started Major League Baseball and expect some big business out of that, too,” she said.

Stevens sells cashmere scarves for about $75 on her e-commerce site and logo belts for $60. Among the most popular items are rhinestone headbands for $20.

Actress Alyssa Milano got started in a similar way. She is a longtime L.A. Dodgers fan and couldn’t find “cute” items at the ball park, so she eventually produced her own designs for New York–based G-III Apparel, featuring baseball jerseys for women.

Another growing area is auto racing. Anita Corter of Orange County, Calif., launched Behind The Wall Racing Apparel (www.btwracingapparel.com), a shirt company catering to NASCAR’s female fans.

“I didn’t like the shirts at the races. They were like concert crew T-shirts, built for men with straight bodies. I have curves,” she said. She and her husband launched the company in 2006, featuring baby-doll tees, tanks and hoodies with racing-related slogans. She plans to expand into other race categories such as CART and NHRA.

Los Angeles–based JH Design has been among the leading suppliers of NASCAR jackets for women.

Breaking into the team-sports area is not simple, Stevens said. Suppliers are required to negotiate with the leagues, which share royalties.

“Every deal is different,” she said. “I got in at the right time.”

Market leaders such as Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Majestic Apparel have locks on the large contracts with the leagues, but there is a lot of periphery business to be had, she added.