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Trend Report: Athletic Wear is Back in the Game

In a year that’s expected to be marked by an emergence from the pandemic, customization still rules the team and athletic-wear market.

By Hilary Daninhirsch, Contributing Writer

April 22, 2021

While the country is slowly recovering from a devastating year that saw a global pandemic sink its teeth into our collective way of life, sports are increasingly becoming more of an outlet for those trying to weather the storm and maintain a bit of normalcy. Still, the fact remains that the athletic-wear sector was affected.

There was a palpable downward trend in demand for practically all of last year. Once sports shut down, manufacturing came to a grinding halt, affecting supply chains from yarn to fabric to stock inventory. Moreover, there was a direct relationship between schools being shut down and sportswear demand.

“Unfortunately, most sports start at the school level and without schools open, the demand has grown weak,” says Roget Chavez, vice president of domestic manufacturing and embellishment, GAME Sportswear.

Kris Carlson, vice president of product development, Founder Sport Group, agreed. “The supply chains almost went to zero; no one knew what was going to happen,” he recalls. “All the manufacturing was put on hold because we didn’t know what the next few months would look like.”

The good news: With vaccines being produced en masse, schools are reopening for face-to-face learning, and collegiate and professional sports are planning for full participation later this fall.

“As we move further and further into 2021 … we expect the rebound to be great,” Chavez says.

Even though most people would rather forget 2020 ever happened, many trends in athletic wear will be carried over into 2021.

Customization is Still King
Customization was a big trend in 2020, and 2021 is expected to bring more of the same. “Customization is the future,” Chavez says. “We saw and experienced huge demand before the pandemic hit, so as we get further and further away from the pandemic’s grasp, the demand should normalize.”

John Perez, marketing manager with Tri-Mountain, agrees. “There are plenty of customization options out there; if one is more popular than another, then lead times could reduce for the other less-popular options,” he says. “We could also see more discounts on other types of customizations. It’s a balancing act.”

Chris Guard, senior marketing manager, Champion Printwear, puts it succinctly: “For the most part, customization is the new normal. We don’t see that changing.”

Fabrics & Colors
Synthetic fabrics have become the popular standard for athletic wear, and for 2021, that won’t change. Carlson says synthetic combos, like Lycra and polyester blends, will be prevalent this year.

“You may also see tri-blends coming back, but that probably [will occur] more [with] activewear than uniforms,” he says. “[Regardless,] synthetics will continue to drive the business,” he said.

Guard agrees, with the reminder that 100% polyester isn’t the only fabrication formula that results in performance properties such as moisture wicking and odor control. As such, he says cotton/polyester blends and tri-blends will continue to be significant players in the athletic-wear category.

Still, other fabrics may be factors for consumers. “Due to the pandemic, we’re starting to see development of fabrics specifically made for the athlete with greater emphasis on bacterial control, breathability and a greater emphasis on clean cotton,” Chavez says. “While the pandemic has hurt a lot of businesses, it seems like it’s revived cotton production, specifically in the USA.”

Chavez says bright, high-visibility colors, combined with reflective accessories, is a popular trend.

Popular Styles
The pandemic has influenced clothing choices, with “comfort” and “casual” being buzzwords whose popularity has been influenced by the work-from-home phenomenon.

“I think as workplaces open up, the work-from-home style of attire we got used to in 2020 will carry over into the workplace for 2021,” Perez says. Guard agrees that comfort is key, pointing to the growing popularity of women’s sweat pants and leggings.

As a result of the comfort focus, Carlson says, team uniforms are getting lighter in weight and are worn closer to the body, while inseam lengths are decreasing — all factors that are driven by performance.

Chavez says there was an uptick in varsity award jackets even before the pandemic, and he expects that to continue this year. He says to look for chain stitching on jackets to be revived due to the “Sport Americana” look that will be popular this year.

Decorating Solutions
Sublimation, another carryover from last year, has been a game changer for the industry. The process is inextricably linked to customization, particularly as it becomes an easier application for team uniforms.

“The simpler sublimation gets to create and manufacture, I think it will continue to dominate,” says Carlson, touting the process because of the quality of the machinery, equipment, inks and fabrics involved. “As those continue to get better, sublimation has no real limit, in my opinion.”

Chavez agrees. “Industry-wide, most customers are chasing a unique look and sublimation, as well as other techniques, have provided the end user [with] a fast and cost-effective way to really enhance the look of athletic wear to meet the demand for striking design,” he says.

Perez says other decorating methods — embroidery, transfers, laser etching and screen printing — will gain popularity in 2021. Meanwhile, Carlson says stock uniforms will start to diminish in popularity as sublimation grows.

“I just think that there’s more opportunity for customization now that people are better at sublimation and the fabrics are better,” he says.

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

The DTG Decorating Option

Direct-to-garment (DTG) printing has grown immensely since its advent about 25 years ago. Kornit Digital recently introduced its NeoPoly technology for industrial polyester printing that prevents dye migration, an otherwise common limitation for DTG printing on today’s athletic garments, which increasingly contain synthetic fabrics.

That DTG printing now is showing signs of being compatible with polyester is a major development because of inherent roadblocks presented by other apparel-
decoration processes, says Sharon Donovich, senior customer marketing manager, Kornit Digital. For example, screen printing on polyester requires a labor-intensive process with multiple steps, and there can be design limitations. With DTG printing, the time to market is quick and it’s a sustainable process that doesn’t waste water and is low in power consumption, she says.

Another advantage is that this technology is compatible with not only polyester, but also fabric blends, knits and wovens. “It meets the sports industry’s highest requirements, such as … [enabling] flexible prints for maximum fabric elongation and preservation of fabric properties,” Donovich says.