Sports, Fashion and Society: A sociological approach
Sport is as old as humanity. Cave paintings have been found in the Lascaux caves in France that have been suggested to depict sprinting and wrestling in the Upper Paleolithic around 15,300 years ago. Later on, it was predictably in Greece that sports were first instituted formally, with the first Olympic Games recorded in 776 BCE in Olympia (History of Sport – Wikipedia).
At the end of the XVIIIth century, the industrial revolution and mass-production increased the practice of leisure activities. The evolution of leisure lead to the possibility to cover other needs apart from the physiological ones (see Maslow´s Pyramid in relation to fashion retail). Workers could spend their time doing sport or watching sports as spectators. Socialism contributed to increase workers’ quality of life (e.g. Saturdays afternoons off in UK in the XIXth century and then, going from 7 working days to 5 working days a week) and encouraged the democratization of Sport. Some would agree that football, as other sports, is the biggest form of entertainment, and sometimes has been historically used by the elite (like the soothing drug called “Soma” in Brave New World, A. Huxley), as a distraction and a concession to the working class. This, among others, contributed to the popularisation of sports.
Metropolis (Fritz Lang – 1927)
In 2026, Metropolis is a city where wealthy industrialists reign from high-rise tower complexes, practice sport to stay healthy, beautiful and thin, while underground-dwelling workers toil to operate the underground machines that power the city and have no leisure, no life. The film illustrates the eternal social dichothomy of white versus black, that has driven the society to so many outrages, racism and conflicts. But it´s also a metaphore that shows how aesthetic and body cult is part of our DNA.
Sport is an activity that finds its meaning in social and psychological factors. According to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu “We know that the probability of practising a sport beyond adolescence declines markedly as one moves down the social hierarchy whereas the probability of watching one of the reputedly most popular sporting spectacles, such as football or rugby, on television (stadium attendance as a spectator obeys more complex laws) declines markedly as one rises in the social hierarchy” (How can one be a sports fan, Bourdieu, 1978).
According to him, “gymnastics may be asked to produce either a strong body, bearing the outward signs of strength – this is the working-class demand, which is satisfied by body-building – or a healthy body – this is the bourgeois demand, which is satisfied by gymnastics or other sports whose function is essentially hygienic”.
“Class habitus defines the meaning conferred on sporting activity, the profits expected from it… In short, to the ‘intrinsic’ profits (real or imaginary, it makes little difference) which are expected from sport for the body itself, one must add the social profits, those accruing from any distinctive practice, which are very unequally perceived and appreciated by the different classes for whom they are, of course, very unequally accessible” (How can one be a sports fan, Bourdieu, 1978).
Bourdieu couldn´t analyze in 1978 how globalization would change sports heritage and the evolution of the influence of multinational companies and their logos (e.g. The Nike Swoosh) in sports hierarchy. In spite of that, sport still expresses a social status and fashion is there to help individuals to express their identity, syle and attitude. With the emergence of extreme sports, adrenaline is the new Karma, nothing is impossible and there are no limits. It´s also important to emphasize the emergence of women in sport and its impact in the industry.
The IRONMAN era
History is cyclic and the fixation with the human body by the Ancient Greece is taken up again in the early XXIst century, where wealthness and wellness are linked to aesthetic and selfies boost narcissism. But it´s not only an aesthetic movement, an ephemeral body worship trend, and the type of sport has a symbolic status connotation too. Modern colonialism (especially the British Empire) spread western sports across the globe (e.g. rugby, football, tennis, cricket, golf) and technological progress and globalization, fostered by mass-usage, defined the current sport industry. The latest phenomenon of sports are extreme sports, fitness (e.g. TRX, Cross Fit, Zumba), outdoor sports (e.g. trail, hiking) and the result is a mix of everything: long-distance competition (e.g. marathons, ultra-trail running, ultra-distance cycling, ironman).
The Sports Industry
Objectively, the sport industry or ecosystem is a market, regulated by offer and demand. On the one hand, sports supply offer is compound by public or private sports associations (e.g. UEFA, IOC, WTA), producers and vendors of goods (e.g. Apparel companies like Nike or Adidas) and services (journalist, media, sports platforms, trainers). On the other hand, demand which is influenced by age, gender, social class, culture, trends, amongst others.
Going beyond offer and demand, XXth century saw the rise of sport seen as a product at the same time that sportsmen were adored as Gods. Muhhamad Ali, Michael Jordan, David Beckham, Usain Bolt and Roger Federer are some examples of Gods. Brands are the new religions and athletes are their profets. At the end of the value chain, we find loyal believers that follow their brands with passion. These brands-religions get the big piece of the pie and concentrate most of the market share after spending a huge amount on marketing (According to their Annual Report, Nike spent more than $3,2 billion on marketing in 2015).
Top sportswear companies by revenues – 2016 (not including online)
It´s not only that the increasing practice of sports motivated the appearance of brands such as Adidas (1949) or Nike (1984), but some companies have also facilitated the practice of sports to a wider range of people. The chart above also shows retailers like Foot Locker or conglomerates such as VF (Brand portfolio: Eastpak, JanSport, Kipling Europe, Napapijri, The North Face, Reef, Vans, Timberland, others). Departments stores have developed their own private labels but, most of the times, their quality-perception is much lower than international brands (see below: National Brands vs Private labels).
Positioning levers of National/ International Brands versus Private Labels
Decathlon is an example of a company that facilitates low-middle class to acquire opening price point materials under its different private labels in a wide range of sports. The company invests considerably in innovation and their many different private labels (Kalenji for running, BTwin for cycling, Quechua for hiking…) are offering a good quality/price balance, giving the possibility to enjoy sports regardless of user age or ability.
Decathlon Business Model
According to Forbes, Sport Industry is expected to reach $73.5 billion by 2019 in the US and the practice of sport is increasing. “Body cult” is dominating the modern society and the industry of leisure is continuously evolving and still growing: new sports such as extreme activities, tourism of sport (people traveling to enjoy cycling, skiing, trail running), diet (e.g. 226ers), wearables (e.g. Suunto, Garmin, Polar), tracking Apps (e.g. Movescount, Strava), Fitness Apps, devices (Go Pro, Airdog, Hexo+ sports drones) personal trainers, sport components (e.g. Shimano, Mavic), niche brands (e.g. Rapha), sport medicine, fitness centers (e.g. 24 Hour Fitness) and so on. In summary, more products and services around the Galaxy of Sport.
Nowadays, it´s usual to see more and more people wearing high-thech sport watches on a daily basis. Even some business executives are wearing a Suunto watch (for example) instead of a Rolex. We can deduce that a person wearing this type of watches is more than a beginner and if some top executives are wearing them, we can conclude that it´s cool, a symbol of status.
Long-distance races have become the new addiction in western societies and amongts white collars in the early 21st century. The passion for triathlons starts with a sprint triathlon, that follows with a second one, a third one… then a half marathon, and then, a marathon. After increasing training, you try an ironman 70.3 and finally, the summit of the pyramid: an IRONMAN (3,86 km Swim, 180 km Ride, 42 km Run).
Afterwards, you feel the need to repeat it, in a different location maybe (e.g. Ironman in Santa Cruz, Lanzarote, Zurich, Noosa…and Kona), and improve your time (e.g. 11h30 the first ironman, 11h00 the second one, …). In the end, your calendar is full of races in order to power up your performance and to boost your self esteem. The ironman era creates a vicious circle to triathlon fans, accelerated by hardworking, self-improvement and satisfaction, a melting-pot to stimulate dopamine, serotonin and endorphins.
The result is a continuous need of powering performance up, improving the last activity time, losing weight and gaining muscle fibers, training 3 hours a day (Monday to Friday) starting at 6 am… If you are not able to train, you feel bad and will “need” to make up for the lost time. Your new language includes wording such as watts/kg, RPM, drag, BPM, MPG, power/HR Ratio… The goal is never totally achieved because it´s about continous improvement. According to Greg LeMond, the road racing cyclist legend, “it doesn´t get any easier, you just get faster”. You want more and more… More races, more distance, more training; better material and equipment; more refined food and specific diet; and so on.
The chart below shows the huge increase in marathon partipants in Spanish main cities, but the trend applies to other western countries too. According to ironman´s site, Barcelona´s ironman participation went from 2.048 athletes in 2014 to 2.836 (+14%) in 2016. Inscriptions for the next ironman in Barcelona (2017) were already sold out a few months ago.
Evolution of Marathon´s participation in Spanish largest cities
Chart above: It´s arguable that the Spanish crisis encouraged people to look for cheaper activities or hobbies and running is one of them. This could explain the rise in marathon´s participation. But, the trend is global, or let´s say that it belongs to the western societies.
The cost of participation in this kind of races, in different locations (trip, hotel…), adding the cost of equipment makes this “hobbie” something quite exclusive. The most expensive material or equipment is the one used for cycling. Amateurs can spend more than €10.000 on a bike and more than €2.000 in materials and components like a jersey, helmet, pants, sunglasses, gloves, shoes and so on. Then you will need to train in a fitness center, begin a training program that includes diet and a physiotherapist, and of course, TIME. As an “ironman athlete” you turn into an expert of the industry, understood by your community but being a stranger for the outsiders.
Sport performance becomes an obsession and races an addiction. The battle against performance time requires a diet, a special training, hardworking and better equipment and materials. Here is where fashion and sport industry appear. Thanks to the Internet, customers are savvy, technical experts. They know more about materials, equipments and components than most of the shop assistants. Customers are expecting a different approach from brands. This is why many brands have evolved into lifestyle brands offering services and not only products (e.g. Rapha´s Cycling Club).
The race to perform sport results carries the need of investing more and more money on better equipment. Sport brands have structured their products according to different levels of quality and customers acquire their material progressively, step by step, till reaching the best materials. An example would be the case of Japanese brand Shimano and its road bike groupsets hierarchy. From lower quality to highest: Claris, Sora, Tiagra, 105, Ultegra and Dura-Ace. The last one is the lightest component, obviously more expensive but capable of letting the users to improve their results thanks to a more accurate gear shifts and better brake feel.
SWIM, BIKE, RUN (including components, equipment and sportswear):
- Cycling brands: HED, Kask, Gobik, BMC, Colnago, Canyon, Cannondale, Inverse, Basso, De Rosa, Quintana Roo, Passoni, Cipollini, Bianchi, Orbea, Gore Bike Wear, La Passione, Cafe du Cycliste
- Running brands: Saucony, Hoka, La Sportiva, On, Pearl Izumi, Skins, Asics, Mizuno, Newton
- Triathlon brands: Viator, Zoot, 2XU, Taymori, Tyr
A selection of Triathlon Brands
Sportswear fashion pyramid responds to the same criteria than luxury fashion. There are many positioning levers starting from functional attributes (e.g. elasticity, breathability) to intangible or aspirational ones (elegance, status).
Some brands, like in the fashion industry, offer product lines with different price point levels in order to attract a wider group of customers. In the case of sports industry, price and quality are a matter of fabrics, materials and technology. Some of the best fabrics are cotton, gore-tex, nylon, polypropylene, polyester, wool, tencel, bamboo…the customer is mainly looking for comfortability, softness, breathability and durability. Sustainability and transparency are trends that sportswear brands are embracing too.
Patagonia is a brand born with the aim of respecting the environment and from its early ages, the company applied circular economy, transparency of their supply chain and a close collaboration to “heavy users” in order to innovate and perform their products.
Adventure and outdoor sports brand Patagonia key success factors
The sport industry and technological innovation are continuously releasing new materials that not only improve the latest version of the product or fabric, but also the practice of the sport. If we compare a bike, a tennis racket or skis from 20 years ago to current materials we will see an astonishing difference in terms of shape, weight, style, size…and this impacts directly in the practice of the sport itself.
A way of life, an attitude
We are living the emergence or adaptation of sports, consequence of technological evolution that is feeding a growing new industry: the extreme sports industry, including street sports. Sport not only understood as a leisure but as a way of life, an attitude. New generations values are important too and Millennials are spending more in transformational experiences than in material or tangible goods. And being a finisher of an Ironman, a triathlon, a trail running race… is a goal, but also a way of life.
Ironman races accross the globe
Risking our lives is cool and events like the X Games, technological devices such as Go Pro (hands-free, easy to use) or sport drones, and platforms like YouTube, foster extreme sport addicts to get closer to human limits. The craziest sportsmen that break worldwide records are considered heros and brands have seen the trend and are betting for this new customer segment. Niche sports, most of them extreme sports or “whiz sports”, have grown thanks to Gen X and Millennials, powered by social media.
Sportsmen heros like Kilian Jornet (trail runner and ski mountaineer) are niche influencers that encourage amateurs, but also beginners, to practice these adventure sports with the aim of having an adrenaline rush experience. Some notable ironman “heros” are Craig Alexander, Mark Allen or Chrissie Wellington. Their fans can follow them on social media, see their performance tracking on Strava or watch their videos on YouTube. These heros influence the practice of sport and the continuous innovation of materials (Patagonia uses athletes, called Ambassadors to test their clothing and improve them).
What industries or types of retailers are betting for Sport?
We have seen how Decathlon is democratizing sport and how niche brands are covering amateur and athletes special needs. But sportswear brands are not the only ones to bet for this new business cake. Red Bull is the biggest marketing investor of extreme sports and sponsorizes almost every single niche sport, from popular Formula1 to Cliff Diving (even space jumping, when Felix Baumgartner made record 700 mph jump from the edge of space). Red Bull has succeeded in creating a relevance that goes far beyond its core product, an energetic drink with Red Bull Media House, a multi-platform media company with a focus on sports, culture, and lifestyle. According to Forbes, Red Bull is #70 in the World´s Most Valuable Brands index 2017.
Mass-market brands. Other companies that are positioning in the sportswear segment are mainstream fashion retailers. Inditex (e.g. Zara Gymwear), Mango, H&M (e.g. H&M sportswear) and Uniqlo (e.g. Uniqlo Sport) are some of the mass-market companies that have developed new clothing lines specializing in fitness.
Sportswear brands. Sportswear brands like Nike or Adidas had to continuously reinvent themselves investing in new fabrics (3D Printing), new business models (customization), technology (Nike +) and fashion design (capsule collections) amongst others. A clear example is Nike´s HyperAdapt 1.0, the $720 self-lacing sneakers, a mix of modern design and innovation to push Nike to a more premium segment, the luxury one. Adidas is betting for key collaborations, capsules, like the one with Pharrell Williams that was launched during US Open 2017 or the latest cycling collection designed by Alexander Wang. Another example is The North Face collaboration with Sacai. The North Face, a brand specializing in outdoor sports and technical fabrics, enters to a more high fashion and urban range. Those brands have converted into lifestyle brands, a mix of sport style and luxury brands. Here we can include Patagonia, seen above, and the sustainability and transparency trend.
Adidas by Alexander Wang – Cycling collection
Luxury Brands or conglomerates. Sport goes beyond a physiological activity, as I said before, and every brand has its value proposition and positioning in the pyramid of sportswear brands to respond to customer´s aspirational needs. I was not surprised to see Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) riding a Passoni bike (around $8.000) in Billions tv show. Cycling is a sport where equipment and material can be expensive and this is where luxury brands want to be. This explains why L Catterton Europe, investment arm of LVMH, acquired a majority stake in Italian bicycle maker Pinarello. This is a clear example on how luxury conglomerates or mainstream dinosaurs are investing on niche sport brands from the fashion retail long tail. In 2007, PPR, today Kering, anticipated the trend and acquired Puma, a brand that delivered a different value proposition within the sportswear industry, merging fashion and sports with collaborations like Jil Sander´s one in 1998. After a decade of disappointing results the brand grew a +10% in sales in 2016.
Rapha Clubhouses (source: Rapha.com)
From product to experience: the retail revolution. Recently, Walmart´s founder grandsons acquired Rapha, the cycling lifestyle brand. Rapha is a sportswear long tailer that was founded in 2004 in London. Rapha started selling its product B2C from their online store. Today, it´s s more than just a clothing company and sells roadwear, accessories and publications, luxury travel, and has a cycling club with more than 7.000 members across the globe. Rapha´s retail approach is driven thru owned flagship stores, pop-up clubhouses and mobile clubhouses. Some of its milestones is their flagship store, a capsule collection with Paul Smith or being a sponsor of the cycling World Tour Team Sky. It´s a lifestyle brand that understood the niche market, saw the opportunity to cover a need and created a fashion brand from online. It´s easy to recognize a Rapha jersey, it´s one of the most elegant cycling garment you can see in a market where elegance was missing.
A similar brand or experience is the one brought by Café du Cycliste, or La Fabrica, in Girona (Spain). After completing his last Tour de France, the Canadian Christian Meier opened La Fabrica and Espresso Mafia, a coffee shop with a cyclist design touch and a coffee outlet respectively. Recently, Meier opened The Service Course, a shop that sells cycling clothing, but also organises cycling trips, cycling services, bike rental, amongst others. Girona is one of the bike sector’s world capitals and the prestigious Sea Otter Classic show, launched in California in 1991, is organized in Girona, as the European capital for cycling, since 2017 (Sea Otter Europe, Costa Brava, Girona). Meanwhile, other sportswear retailers are betting for technology: smart fitting rooms, virtual reality, digital customization…
The Service Course – Girona, Costa Brava
Fashion and Sports are evolving at the pace of innovation, technology and customer trends. The ironman era is just the consequence of an hyper-competitive society where aesthetics is the basis of the brand identity (self-identity is designed as a brand on the internet), social media is the thermometer of success and sport is a way to disconnect from this liquid society.
The ironman is a goal. A finish line that never ends, an eternal obession. The impact on the sports industry is huge and has no boundaries. Long tailers, the glocal pure players specializing in niches, are already leading the revolution that disrupts the Sport ecosystem.