Sporting firms work up sweat searching soles for new ideas

FIT TO BE TRIED

February 09, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

ATLANTA -- Somewhere in this 2 million square feet sea of Extenders, Air Carnivores and Stairmasters, far, far away from Magic Johnson, Mickey Mantle and Mega Man, overshadowed by hundreds of women dressed in the skimpiest, tightest and brightest leotards this side of "BodyShaping," there is this:

The Eggserciser.

Made of a polymer material, all but guaranteed to provide a sweat-free workout for nine of 13 hand and arm muscles, the Eggserciser has a suggested retail price of $7.95.

But Mark Davis can get it for you wholesale.

With a firm handshake and a smile, the one-time trainer of inspectors in the nuclear power industry is hustling his product, trying to gain a foothold in the sports equipment, apparel and footwear business.

And he's not alone.

"Entrepreneur is a phrase of the '80s," he said. "In here, we're all a bunch of innovator capitalists. We invent things, and we take chances. We're just small fish in a pond."

Welcome to the Super Show, where style and substance vie for floor space in a four-day carnival celebrating athletic excess.

The trade show, which ended yesterday, provides a chance for 90,000 movers, shakers and dreamers to come together and decide what's hot and what's not in the world of sporting goods.

Even in the midst of a recession, worldwide sales of sports equipment grew 5 percent to $32.6 billion last year, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Just take one company, and you can chart the explosive growth of sporting goods. Twenty years ago, Nike had $8,000 in sales. Now, Nike commands 30 percent of the U.S. footwear and apparel market and had sales volume of $3.3 billion last year.

No wonder the Super Show aisles are jammed.

"It's like you're in an airport, but you can't find your way out," said Pippa Corley, a sales representative for StarStyled, a leotard manufacturer. "A lot of people wander around aimlessly. But, eventually, you'll get the orders."

The show is massive, spilling across two convention centers and filling the Georgia Dome.

You've got gear ranging from Aqua Joggers to Zubaz pants. You've got hundreds of thousands of balls, bats, gloves, running shoes, golf clubs, tennis rackets, exercise machines, shorts, shirts and caps.

There is even the designer jock strap. In basic black.

"The athletic supporter is like a bra," said Cindy Raines, the new director of marketing for Bike Athletic Co. "You don't want to fool with the construction. So you change the color."

If a company doesn't have a gimmick to push, then it comes up with the next best thing . . . a superstar.

You've got celebrities such as Joe Montana and Nadia Comaneci fighting for floor space with television exercise stars such as Denise Austin and Carla Dunlap.

Magic showed up Friday to hawk his line of T-shirts and sign autographs, and the line was 500 deep.

All selling, all the time.

"Give me five minutes out on that floor, and I'd buy up everything," Dunlap said, between shifts of flexing her biceps for High Bar productions and climbing an indoor rock mountain for Danskin.

It takes days -- not just hours -- for the international buyers to pick over the merchandise.

Yet despite all the Lycra, luminous colors and lusty names, there is little new in the business this year.

"No innovation at all," said Eugenio DiMaria, European-based editor and publisher of an industry newsletter, Sporting Goods Intelligence. "We've hit a plateau."

Still, the companies spend millions and look for any edge to hype and move their products.

Enter the Nike pavilion, a $4 million, 60,000-square-foot exhibit.

Some 300 clients are seated on a revolving stage once used for a road production of "Les Miserables," bombarded by images from 116 projectors and entertained by 90 dancers and models.

The music throbs. A tape rolls. Images of weekend warriors and multimillionaire superstars flash by, all extolling the virtues of the world's No. 1 athletic shoe and apparel company.

There are Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Deion Sanders, John McEnroe and Jim Courier.

Finally, the stage swivels as the buyers browse through Nike's galaxy of fall gear. Male models pump iron, jog and shoot baskets. Females aerobicise and exercise. There are even a couple of kids who play hide-and-seek to a hip-hop version of the "Sesame Street" theme.

And, one by one, thirtysomething executives, dressed in European designer suits and sounding like New Age used-car salesmen, emerge from the choreographed commotion to deliver the message of Nike.

Tom holds up an Air Carnivore cross-training shoe and announces, "Vegetarians beware: This is not a tame shoe."

Sue proclaims: "The look these women want is something feminine, and layering, with something from someone else's closet."

Another Tom rounds up the rambunctious kids and tells the story of how children the world over wanted Superman to die because "he had lost touch with the world."

And who could replace the Man of Steel?

None other than Jordan, the Man of Nike.

OK, so what's hot?

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