Build Your Business:

The Gameplan for Athletic Wear

This category continues to be dominated by customization, aided by a particularly trending decoration process.

By Hilary Daninhirsch, Contributing Writer

July 21, 2020

If there’s a buzzword that sums up the predominant 2020 trend in athletic wear, it’s “sublimation.” Though not a new technology, sublimation has been a game changer for decorators who embellish athletic wear due to its ease of use on most fabrics, general affordability and turnaround time.

Need another buzzword for this niche in 2020? Try customization, which actually is a holdover trend from 2019 that industry experts say will extend its popularity. It’s no surprise that these two trends are prevalent, as they work in tandem to be powerful sources of influence for today’s consumers.

Sublimation and Customization
Sublimation is a digital-decorating process in which special inks become a gas and bond to the polymers in certain fabrics, resulting in designs that never crack, peel or fade. The process currently is being touted because decorators can use it to give athletes more input regarding how they want their uniforms to look on the court or field of play.

“Sublimation will continue to drive the [athletic wear] business forward, as it allows more customization options for the customer and it gives athletes the ability to be more creative in choosing uniforms for their sport,” says Kris Carlson, vice president of product development — Team, Founder Sport Group.

Kelly Thompson, senior director of merchandising, Augusta Sportswear Brands, echoes this. “Customization will continue to be a big trend in 2020 and beyond,” she says. “This trend in the team business is really driven by the growth in sublimation. [The process] allows total customization of a uniform — from design, to decoration, to adding the players’ name — in one process.”

Another advantage of sublimation, Carlson says, is reduced lead times. “Historically, sublimation would be [available to the customer in] up to 12 weeks; now it is down to five to seven weeks,” he says, adding that one to three weeks would be an optimal goal.

Sublimation’s affordability also is a factor in its appeal. “The cost of sublimation is very close to the cost of traditional decoration, so that is changing the marketplace as more teams can now afford sublimation,” Thompson says.

Customization vs. Stock
Team sports uniforms have an inherent affinity toward customization, particularly with team and player names and numbers. In line with sublimation’s growth comes an even greater demand for customization for everything from design to color and style.

Greg Vanover, senior sales director, A4, calls stock uniforms the industry’s “vanilla” option; regardless, they outsell everything else. Conversely, Carlson says stock uniforms have fallen flat in terms of sales and don’t constitute a huge growth area, but still are an important part of the team business.

However, don’t write off stock uniforms just yet, as Thompson agrees they still are important. “There are coaches and teams that prefer the traditional uniform and traditional decoration techniques, and do not see the need to move to sublimation; this will continue into 2020,” she says.

Trend Drivers
As fashion is aspirational, professional and collegiate sports teams are in the driver’s seat when it comes to trend setting, just as in previous years.

“If you are an aspiring basketball player, you watch the NBA to see how they play the game and how they look on the court; this goes for all sports,” Thompson says.

Though fashion is important, it will never take the place of performance. “The uniform has to perform for the athlete; that always has to be the most important part of any product we manufacture or offer,” Karlson says.

“Health is a lifestyle” is a phrase that echoes a trend that embraces healthy living in all aspects. “This trend is a natural for athletic wear, as people want apparel that allows them to be active and focused on their health,” Thompson says.

Styles and Fabrics
Expect to see more fitted team apparel this year. “A tighter fit in a football jersey, for instance, leaves less to grab on to for would-be tacklers,” Vanover says. “Another trend that we expect to continue on the men’s side is the move to shorter inseam lengths on shorts. A few years ago, 10-inch and 11-inch inseams were common, but those are giving way to 9-inch-and-below [inseams].”

Lightweight hooded tees are also having a moment in the sun. “[This trend] may be because athletes like LeBron and Steph Curry have been seen shooting around in these styles, but whatever the reason, at A4 we are seeing strong demand and expect it to continue,” Vanover adds.

As for fabrics, synthetics still rule. They have a tie-in with performance, as many experts agree their breathability positively impacts the ability of the athlete to perform. Fabric blends, including spandex combined with polyester, provide greater stretch and athletic mobility.

Other advantages offered by synthetics, Thompson says, include wicking, antimicrobial and cooling properties. She adds that tri-blends will become more popular, as they deliver a soft feel.

Environmentally conscious consumers are interested in sustainability in all aspects of their lives, and clothing is no exception. “This macro trend is everywhere and is now hitting athletic wear,” Thompson says. “There will be a push in 2020 for more sustainability options with synthetics as the eco trend continues to grow.”

Consumer Demographics
As with most areas of fashion, the younger generation generally sets trends. Carlson says Millennials and Gen-Z consumers have the most influence. While Gen Alpha — consumers born after 2011 — is not as influential, he says, they are savvy, and quick to understand and jump on trends.

“Kids want to look like their heroes,” Vanover says. “Fans and parents have expectations that are driven by what they see on TV. Plus, in some sports — like baseball, for instance — the MLB has licensing agreements to get uniforms into youth leagues, so there is even great continuity there.”

Vanover also says Millennials continue to drive purchasing decisions, as they are not only consumers, but also coaches, league officials and business owners. Look for the Gen Alpha demographic to play a larger role in this changing landscape in a few years.

Hilary Daninhirsch is an award-winning freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. Her work has been featured in a number of lifestyle and trade magazines. She can be reached at or

Preparing for Success

It’s only logical that athletes gravitate toward fabrics and styles that enhance, rather than impede, performance. After all, a runner wouldn’t wear casual shoes to compete in a marathon, as it would increase the potential for injury. When it comes to performance, most athletes look for freedom of movement and breathable fabrics.

According to Carlson and Thompson, performance probably is as important as fashion in athletic wear. However, Vanover says price can be the most significant factor, depending on the demographic. At the lower levels, such as youth recreation leagues, price is the most important factor.

“As the age and skill levels of the athletes [increase], performance becomes more important — even paramount at the highest levels,” Vanover says. “In between those two scenarios, you have the sweet spot where fashion can influence the decision as much as price and performance.”