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Changing Tides in Athletic Wear

While customization in this category still is top of mind for customers, performance and comfort are increasingly in demand.

By Jennifer Morrell, Contributing Writer

May 7, 2018

Each year, a strong trend or two dominate the athletic wear and team uniform categories. Last year saw a significant fashion influence, along with customization. In 2018, customization will remain in strong demand, but performance also will take a front seat.

“Garments are being designed to outperform previous versions and allow for more creativity in their construction,” says Mark Mertens, owner, A4, adding that the ultimate expression of the customization trend is engineered knitting and personalized fitting.

“This includes giving the customer the ability to choose how the garment is built. Do you want raglan sleeves with that? Maybe add some birdseye mesh to the sides?”

The still-in-demand customized look can be achieved via sublimation, a decoration method that continues to grow as prices drop and lead times shorten, says Maria Brockhaus, general manager, sport uniforms, Augusta Sportswear. This month, the company kicked off a standard 15-day lead time for orders generated using its online builder and a 20-day lead time for custom art orders.

“Some of the growth in sublimation is coming from expansion into new sports,” Brockhaus says. “For example, baseball was historically a more traditional sport. Now, customers are gravitating toward sublimation as they recognize the benefits of more durable decoration and lightweight performance fabrics.”

Eye on Fashion
Fashion’s influence can’t be denied, and, in 2018, style and comfort have greatly impacted team sports.

“Vintage retro and varsity [styles] are influencing everything in the market,” says Marcus Davis, product development manager, Champion. “If it’s from the ’80s, it’s a driving influence on apparel trends right now.”

Just as fashion heavily influences sports, the reverse can be true, Mertens says. “It’s really been a two-way street for a while now,” he says. “Sports have had a tremendous influence on fashion, as evidenced by the growth in the athleisure market. People didn’t used to wear performance gear to the grocery store.”

More creativity and apparel choices have worked well for Millennials, a demographic that seems to value unique style, whether working or playing. And women continue to prefer garments constructed and cut for their body types instead of simply wearing a smaller men’s garment.

Youth sports continue to be driven by what collegiate and professional athletes wear. The influencers, says Mertens, are found among groups of elite players.

“Steph Curry wears leggings, and they have taken off in youth basketball,” he says. “Some programs, like Oregon and Maryland, continue to experiment and push the envelope with design. So their more aggressive designs, beyond solids or simple color blocking, gain in popularity.

“The Olympics, with its great variety of colors and designs, places even more emphasis on being unique and standing out,” he adds. “Combine this emphasis on creativity with the declining cost and increasing availability of sublimation, and you’ve got yourself a trend.”

Davis nods to retail trends, which include bold styles and colors. But team colors, he says, still matter, and texture is key, as
opposed to flat colors.

Stock Still Standing
The future of stock uniforms in a customized world remains bright.

“Stock uniforms are like vanilla ice cream,” Mertens says. “They may not be the sexiest, but they are still the most popular by a mile.”

He says the reasons for this are simple. Costs are lower, which still is a primary driver for many teams, schools and leagues. Also, major sports leagues have rules about uniforms that keep most of them fairly mainstream in appearance. Some popular programs (think Duke and Kentucky in college basketball, and Alabama, Michigan and USC in football) have longstanding uniform traditions with minimal changes to style.

Plus, when decorating a stock garment, you still can get a unique and attractive look.

Fabrics & Costs
Technically speaking, fabric is an important element of athletic wear, as it must hold ink well — which is of prime importance to decorators — and wick away moisture — which is of prime importance to the athlete. Other features tend to be sport specific, Mertens says. Extra fabric around the knees of a baseball uniform can offer protection during sliding, and a slim fit and skill-cut sleeves on a football jersey can make it harder to grasp.

Champion’s Davis says its hard to ignore the importance of ultraviolet protection, wicking and odor control. And, especially with Millennials, eco-conscious clothing is a growing market sector. This includes recycled, organic or otherwise eco-friendly fabrics.

Wearable technology and smart fabrics continue to dig their heels into athleticwear. Brockhaus says smart fabrics are increasingly valued in the market as they greatly contribute to an athlete’s comfort, as well as a uniform’s performance and durability.

“Most of our on-field products feature fabrics with our Dry-Excel technology, which wicks moisture away from the body,” she says. “We also offer products with anti-odor properties, and use stain-release fabrics in many of our baseball styles.”

Mertens says the fabric, construction and technology built into today’s uniforms make them far better than those of a generation ago. As a bonus, they also are less expensive.

“[The decreasing cost] is partly due to the advancement of technology, generally, but also to the flattening of the distribution chain,” he says. “More customers are buying direct, or closer to direct, than they ever have, and that has helped reduce prices even further.”

Brockhaus reiterates that competition in the sublimation market has reduced pricing, bringing custom sublimated uniform costs closer to that of stock uniforms.

Potential Growth Areas
The distribution and delivery of athletic apparel — particularly team uniforms — are undergoing a revolution, according to Mertens. Coaches have a huge array of stock uniforms or customized designs from which to choose, and they can set up online stores with a few clicks for parents to purchase directly.

Davis suggests the full spectrum of the athletic audience’s age be kept in mind. “While we tend to focus on younger audiences for teamwear and athleticwear, don’t forget the ageless athlete,” he says. “There’s a large audience of older consumers who have not aged out and still want to participate in team sports. This demographic will continue to grow.”

Female customers also will continue to drive trends by demanding team-sports products designed specifically for them. “Women increasingly are not satisfied wearing unisex uniforms, and strive to create a more feminine and customized look,” Brockhaus says, adding that Augusta is introducing new bags and hair accessories in team colors geared toward female athletes who want to complete their team’s unique look.

“Our All-Out Glitter backpack features two-side mesh water bottle/bat pockets, a laptop pocket and a hidden carabiner that she can use for her batting helmet or for securing the bag to a fence,” she says. “We are also launching a Glitter duffle bag to carry larger gear, and fun hair accessories in glitter sequin and grosgrain fabrics.”

Jennifer Morrell is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. To comment on this article, email Jennifer at