There was once a time when sport brands consisted of just your conventional running shoes and t-shirt. These days, the picture couldn’t be more different. Sportswear is becoming ever-more innovative, totally changing how everyone from world-class athletes to ordinary enthusiasts go about participating in sport.
Currently at the forefront of the sporting tech movement is US giant Nike, launching innovations with an impressive regularity, all of which are seemingly conceived to make athletes run faster and jump higher. One of the brand’s latest offerings is the Nike+ FuelBand – a new addition to the well-established Nike+ family of products. Not only does the contraption ooze technological prowess, it could also help Nike regain its position as a good corporate citizen as the invention inspires higher levels of activity by tracking every movement of the wearer. It has the potential to help combat the worrying ‘globesity’ epidemic, increasingly evident in America’s population.
“The Nike+ FuelBand is a way for Nike to further evolve the exciting possibilities of merging the physical and digital worlds. Nike has always been about inspiring athletes, and the Nike+ FuelBand will help motivate them in a simple, fun and intuitive way.” said Nike president and CEO Mark Parker at the Nike+ FuelBand launch event in New York in 2011.
Continuing to raise the standards of their athletes, Nike has also come up with a high-tech sensory training programme in collaboration with the scoring system SPARQ, an SAT equivalent for athletes. The result of years of research is Nike SPARQ – a performance-boosting training programme that is designed to seek out and improve any shortcomings an athlete may have. To establish vulnerable points, sportsmen are initially put through visual and sensory tests carried out inside a giant touch-screen booth, in which the individual’s every ability is monitored and tested, ranging from simple hand-eye coordination down to the time taken to make split-second decisions and react accordingly.
Using the information gathered, athletes and trainers use the data to format a specific programme. To make the training system as challenging as possible, Nike has recently added a type of lens, the ‘Nike Vapor Strobe eyewear’, which features liquid-crystal display lenses designed to cloud the vision of the wearer in order to force him or her to heighten their focus while training against specific SPARQ weaknesses. The glasses alone cost a pricey $300 but despite the hefty price tag, the system has been adopted by prestigious colleges and top sports teams, while it also extends to private athletes trying to hone their skills at home.
Another buzzed-about Nike launch is the Nike Pro Combat concept, which has been developed for the Oregon Ducks American football team. The invention has been described as the most advanced American football uniform system ever created, and features enhanced thermoregulation and a high level of durability as it has been reinforced with Nike Chainmail Mesh – a lightweight and ultra-breathable material. The uniform has been developed in collaboration with the University of Oregon, the Ducks institution and the university for which Nike founder Bill Bowerman served as head track coach from 1948.
“Nike’s relationship with the University of Oregon represents a forward-thinking approach to innovation and design. Our goal is to help build better athletes by providing them with state-of-the-art-innovation combined with a deep knowledge and understanding of their heritage” says Todd Van Horne, Nike’s creative director for American football.
Nike may have achieved a march on its rivals, but Adidas is not lagging far behind. Feather light and weighing in at just 150 grams, the German brand’s latest football boot, the F50 adiZero, has been described by Adidas as: “prime football boots offering the pinnacle of speed, agility and stability”. However, the boot is billed as the world’s first “intelligent boot” as it is equipped with Adidas’s breakthrough ‘MiCoach’ technology. A small microchip is contained within the heel of the boot, which can be linked wirelessly to a computer or smartphone, to monitor almost everything a player does on the pitch; from the distance run to how fast a player travelled. The results can then be uploaded and analysed by coaches, team mates or even opponents.
Equally, Reebok constantly seeks to up its game in the technological stakes. The trend for footwear that tones muscles has reached fever pitch and Reebok’s ‘Easy Tone’ trainer is one popular variant of several different models which have been launched. The model features built-in balance pods with “ Moving Air Technology” which transfers air in response to the wearer’s stride to create micro-instability necessary to gently exercise muscles in the leg.
Grain of the game
So what do sports companies such Nike and Adidas gain from their inexhaustible drive to introduce state∞of∞the∞art technological products, even across product ranges that target non-athletes who are not likely to ever enter a professional football pitch or Olympic arena?
“The sports sector as a whole aims to offer sportsmen better results with the help of new innovative product ranges and materials, and these important elements seep into the consumer side of the business as well. In essence, the high tech advances offer a way to break into new markets and to create a new selling advantage,” says trend consultant Henrik Mattson. “High tech sports products represent the antithesis of second-hand and retro – it’s a way to bring the segment forward. While new inventions can help to make the product more affordable, price is rarely an issue. People buy high tech sports goods because of their added benefits, akin to the consumer trend of the car industry. The great selling points are the technological advantages and the points of difference that set the product apart from the rest. The movement is only set to become more pronounced and we’ll see an explosion of new technology in the future as its very premise is to solve problems and make the product performance better.”
Indeed, sportswear can appear advanced to such a degree that products are deemed “technological doping” in that they aid performance a little too much – an unfortunate fate swimwear manufacturer Speedo met in 2008, after its high tech LZR Racer swimsuits helped top swimmers break numerous world records. A study found that it made swimmers speed up in the water by as much as two percent. Following the eye-opening discovery, which also applied to the swimwear of other brands, new guidelines were introduced by the global swimming sports organisation Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA) in January 2010, which outlawed full-body polyurethane suits altogether.
As a result, Speedo and its fellow swimwear competitors had to establish new ways to heighten performance while staying within the parameters of the law. And so they did.
After four years of research, development and testing, Speedo launched a radical new system in time for the London Olympics that will allegedly help swimmers speed up faster than if wearing the piece deemed illegal by FINA. Aptly called ‘Fastskins3’, the wonder product consists of an impossibly advanced cap, a pair of goggles and a suit – all of which are designed to work in harmony with one another to offer ultimate power in the pool.
Poster children of the new innovation are 16-time Olympic medallist Michael Phelps and Rebecca Adlington. If Phelps and his competitors clad themselves in Speedos’ high-powered gear they will experience a catalogue of improvements to aid their race, including an 11 percent improvement in oxygen economy. “Core stability, swimming position and fatigue resistance are all optimised. From hair shaping to friction of seams and fabric finishes, our system takes a holistic approach to performance,” says Dr Tom Waller, the head of Speedo’s Aqualab development laboratory.
Aside from demonstrating their technical prowess across various product groups, sports brands also go about boosting their reputation and brand identities via alternative means. If applied strategically, sponsorship deals are surefire ways to increase brand awareness. A sportswear sponsors’ dream in recent history was the Beijing Olympics held in the summer of 2008. The Games proved a particular draw for obvious reasons – with a population of 1.3bn, many of whom approach shopping with a fervent passion, the Chinese consumer arena is not one to be sniffed at.
Both Adidas and Nike operate thousands of stores in China already, a staggering number which they hope will increase further in the coming years. It has been estimated that China’s sportswear market will potentially worth tens of billions of pounds over the next decade. Therefore, ahead of the Olympics, western brands descended on the event to try to establish a foothold in an untapped market potentially worth a fortune.
Adidas went on to spend around £50m to secure the covetable status as the main sponsor of the games, which involved outfitting all staff and volunteers with clothing and footwear featuring the famous three stripes. This was not the first time the company parted with significant sums to sponsor a high∞profile sporting event, but the Beijing Games deal was one of its most major transactions to date.
Prestigious events like the Olympics are high on the marketing agenda for companies, be they located in the prosperous land of China or elsewhere. Nike recently announced plans to continue its involvement in the Olympics, as supporter of the US team – a programme that was initiated in 2005. The deal includes providing footwear and kit for the US Olympic and Paralympic athletes, including the medal stand uniform that will be worn on the award podium and during medal ceremonies in London 2012 and Sochi 2014, as well as Rio later in the calendar.
“The Olympic Games represent Nike’s core DNA – to provide innovation and inspiration to athletes at the highest level,” said Elliott Hill, the general manager of Nike in North America. “We are proud to support our US athletes and are excited to continue Nike’s partnership with the US Olympic Committee (USOC).” In addition, Nike will also kit out the US Youth Olympic teams for the 2014 and 2016 games, as well as the Pan∞American and Parapan∞American teams set to compete in Toronto in 2015.
Aside from sponsoring major sporting events, it can be equally fruitful for a brand to tie up a highly regarded sporting virtuoso. Last year, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt extended his contract with Puma until 2013, and thus signed the biggest sponsorship deal in athletics history. World record-holder Bolt is expected to be one of the major attractions of the 2012 Olympics, which would serve the German brand extremely well. Leading tennis star Andy Murray, meanwhile, went on to sign a major sponsorship deal with Adidas that came into effect in 2010. By doing so, Murray ended his longstanding partnership with Fred Perry – the company that supported him from the very beginning of his budding tennis career. Let the best man win is an idiom that is as applicable to sportsmen as it is to their very own outfitters.