Our Sports Gear, Ourselves

Women entrepreneurs mined a niche the big boys ignored--until now

Gimmick peddler. That's what Ellen Wessel figures store owners considered her when she pulled up with a carload of women's running apparel in 1977--the year she launched Moving Comfort Inc. "I felt like I was selling snake oil," she says.

But two decades later, Wessel's sales have reached $12.5 million, and now she's not alone. There's former Yale University athlete Missy Park, whose $10-million-a year catalog business, Title Nine Sports, grew out of her frustration in trying to cope with men's sports gear that didn't fit right.

Wessel and Park are part of a savvy group of female entrepreneurs who are setting the pace in the fast-growing $21 billion women's sports equipment and apparel market by listening to their customers, hiring women athletes as advisers, and paying attention to female physiology. They're selling such woman-friendly gear as sleeping bags with extra insulation, sports bras that fit all shapes and sizes, and bike seats that don't chafe.

Their success has been due, in part, to past neglect by the Nikes and Champions of the world. "We might have had more insight into what women needed if we had [hired] more women in the past," concedes Marla Murray, general manager of women's footwear for Nike Inc.

Witnessing the popularity of women's pro sports and facing a mature men's market, Nike recently declared it plans to double its sales of women's gear, to $2 billion, in the next five years, and has hired a dozen women for its new women's sports marketing division. It even commissioned female basketball pro Sheryl Swoopes to help design "Air Swoopes."

PERIPHERAL VISION. In turn, entrepreneurs like Wessel are thinking about marketing strategies and trying everything from broadening product lines to finding new distribution channels. "Nike's eyes are a lot bigger than ours. They want to saturate global markets," says Wessel. "We want to be a niche player. But we still can't help but look over at them in the lane beside us."

One company that is looking over its shoulder is Terry Precision Bicycles Inc. Started in 1986 by Georgena Terry, a former mechanical engineer at Xerox Corp., the Macedon (N.Y.)-based company developed The Liberator cycling seat, which features a hollowed out oval in the nose to give women riders greater comfort. But larger foes such as Velo Manufacturing are knocking off her design, and Terry realized she needed to strengthen customer loyalty. So she started sending mail-order catalogs to her former customers, netting a 6% response with $70 average sales. Then she increased her customer base by renting lists from cycling magazines for 5 cents per name, from which she sees a 2% return and a $70 average sale.

WRONG FIT. When Park started her Title Nine catalog business in 1990, she was inspired by the civil-rights law that pried open the door to equality for women in school athletics and her own vivid memories of wearing ill-fitting men's basketball uniforms and tennis shoes. Only the kilt of her lacrosse outfit fit right.

To fulfill her long-held goal to become the "women's Nike," Park is revving up her catalog business and expanding into retail. In July, she opened a 3,900 square foot store in Berkeley, Calif., a mile away from Title Nine's warehouses. And this fall, she will launch a toll-free line for the catalog--the "price of admission" to play seriously in the mail-order market. She has also ramped up the catalog's private-label production of sports bras and tank tops and aims to expand such sales from 10% of catalog revenues to as much as 30%.

The catalog, launched in 1990, features products from other women much like Park--serious female athletes, including Wessel and Terry, who have turned into leading sports entrepreneurs for their gender. "We're selling information, not just products," Park says. In fact, every customer service rep at Title Nine competes athletically. One employee, she says, holds the women's record for swimming across the English Channel while another played on Britain's women's rugby team.

Superior customer service and attention to the smallest detail also help Moving Comfort keep its edge. Wessel draws upon the expertise of her female employees, including many athletes who test products out of the company's headquarters in Chantilly, Va. The approach has paid off: "Their sports bras fit the most women the best," says Lisa Voorhees, owner of Denver-based Sporting Woman, where Moving Comfort products outsell Champion Products Inc.'s Jogbras 3 to 1. Unlike most sports bras, many of Moving Comfort's are sized to a DD. (The average American woman wears a size 36C.)

But Wessel still worries that Nike will emulate her success, so she's broadening her appeal to nonrunners. Time-pressed women, she figures, want to dash into a store and buy garments they can use for many sports, not just running. So she took the running references off the tags on tank tops, shorts, and other items. That new strategy, says Wessel, is driving a 20% increase in sales this year.

Wessel's next step is to expand her retail presence. While she has focused on specialty stores, her new approach has led her to target larger, all-purpose sports chains such as Sports Authority. And as many chains begin devoting more floor space to women's products, Wessel is hopeful her company's past sales record will persuade retailers to give more of that space to her.

Sally McCoy, managing director of Sierra Designs, an outdoor company known for its sleeping bags, also plans to concentrate on retail distribution to stave off large rivals like North Face and Nike. It will publish a 70-page book this fall to train specialty retailers how to be more helpful and less intimidating to female customers.

Sierra Designs first focused on the women's market soon after McCoy arrived. She realized on a trip up Mt. Everest that females wouldn't fit right or stay warm enough in the company's sleeping bags. She encouraged product developers to begin stuffing 15% more insulation in the torso and feet areas, since women have slower metabolic rates than men. And she ordered narrower construction in the shoulders and more width in the hip area of women's bags and gave them tongue-in-cheek names like the Annie Oakley, the Thelma, and the Louise. Since first developing women's bags in 1995, sales have doubled, to 36,000 units a year.

With growth like that, these sports entrepreneurs have a good head start. But surviving a marathon with the likes of Nike will require some real stamina.

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