By rights the hottest thing on display last Friday at the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association Super Show in Atlanta should have been Nike's new line of cold-weather gear or the updated version of Wilson's Profile racket. Instead it was Orel Hershiser. Wherever the baby-faced hero of the World Series went—Hillerich & Bradsby at 10 o'clock, Nardi/Fotoball at noon, Mitre Sports at two—the TV lights were the brightest and the lines of autograph hounds the longest. Among others competing for buyer attention the same day were Chris Evert (appearing for Wilson and Ellesse), Edwin Moses (Accusplit), Dwight Gooden, Dominique Wilkins and Julius Erving (Spalding), Jim Kelly (Converse) and Garfield the Cat (Swingster), but Hershiser (shown signing autographs at left) drew the biggest crowds, and that's exactly what he was hired for.
Genesco, for instance, the Nashville-based footwear giant, which sells $468 million worth of leather boots and shoes a year, is banking on Hershiser to smooth its way into the $6.2 billion athletic-shoe market. Having acquired North American marketing and licensing rights to Mitre, an English soccer-shoe firm, in 1981, Genesco is now getting ready to introduce a fixed-cleat promodel baseball shoe this June, and if all goes according to plan, Mitre will soon be a major player in the athletic-shoe game.
Gary Green is a middle-aged retailer from Melbourne, Fla., who doesn't even sell shoes. Still, he was last in the line that circled the Mitre booth in the Georgia World Congress Center waiting to get Hershiser's autograph on a poster he planned to hang on the wall of his shop. With 80 people in front of him, Green faced at least 45 minutes on his feet. Green happens to be a lifelong Dodger fan. "They'll always be in Brooklyn in my heart," he said. But this was not a labor of love; this was business. Green and his partner had driven to Atlanta and had gone straight to the Super Show without even checking into their hotel. As Green waited for Hershiser, his partner was across the hall in a somewhat shorter line waiting for Walter Payton to sign a poster at the Kangaroos USA booth. "This is the show for us," said Green.
The SGMA Super Show is the Super Bowl of sporting goods trade shows. It draws 80,000 buyers to Atlanta in the depths of winter to view the wares of more than 1,600 manufacturers, displayed in 4,750 booths, which are spread over one million square feet of color-coded carpet (Wedgwood blue for the fitness show, rust for footwear, lime for tennis, etc.) in the largest exhibition hall south of New York. In a city like Atlanta, which lives and dies with the convention trade, the Super Show is a prize. It fills every hotel in town to capacity and brings traffic on Peachtree Street to a standstill several times a day. The show is so important to the city that Mayor Andrew Young and a cavalcade of city pooh-bahs have promised the organizers construction of an additional 350,000 square feet at the World Congress Center and the use of a domed stadium as soon as he can get one built—by 1992, it is hoped. "You are three or four times as big as the Democratic Convention," Young told a breakfast audience on Day 1 of the show, which ran from Thursday to Sunday. "You will spend 10 times as much money, and you won't be one-tenth the trouble."
The Super Show, an amalgamation of 14 established trade shows, is in only its fourth year and already has a waiting list of new exhibitors who want in, plus another list of old-timers who want more space—at $10.10 a square foot. "I used to go to four shows a year," said Marty Liquori, the one-time Villanova miler who founded Athletic Attic, a chain of shoe stores. "Now all we have to do is come to this one."
Sporting apparel, shoes, equipment, gear and paraphernalia is a $40 billion-a-year business in the U.S. alone. No one has yet gotten a handle on how big the industry is worldwide. In fact, a statistics committee of the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry (WFSGI) held a meeting in Atlanta last week for the sole purpose of establishing a world-wide figure, but the woman manning the WFSGI desk at the Super Show held out little hope of a quick answer. "It's a void that needs to be filled," she said apologetically.
Although an estimated $1 billion worth of orders were placed in four days in Atlanta, many of the buyers came just to look. Grabbing their attention and holding it reportedly cost Nike $4 million. The Beaverton, Ore., company, a pioneer 17 years ago in running-shoe research and development, tripped on its laces when fickle fashion hit the running-shoe business. Soft-leather Reeboks replaced Nikes in the hearts and closets of style-conscious Yuppies, and more than 200 Nike employees had to be laid off.
That was two years ago. Nike fought back, developing a multipurpose cross-training shoe and air-cushion soles with windows, both hugely successful, and now the Nike name is back atop the athletic-shoe heap. To publicize its spectacular comeback and announce its newest lines, Nike took over 51,800 square feet at the Super Show, including the grand ballroom, and furnished the space with a specially designed multiple-level exhibition environment. The set required 21 semis to truck it across country from Oregon. Several times a day, bedazzled show-goers stopped talking shop for half an hour to watch Nike's fast-paced musical, which was more show biz than shoe biz. A cast of 12 dancers from Los Angeles, dressed toe to T-shirt in color-coordinated Nike gear, gyrated with carefully choreographed athletic abandon to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, and a gospel choir from Atlanta's Cascade United Methodist Church, wearing high-topped Nike cross-trainers under their long blue robes, sang an original hymn to commerce called Lift Me Up, Air Jordan.
Between shows, buyers who were milling about Air Square, the crossroads of the Nike retail exhibit, could watch a 120-screen video display. Its designer, Dennis Earl Moore, has produced giant-screen films for the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. For Nike, Moore stacked monitors in a dozen or so freestanding columns, finished them in "faux granite" and named the creation Videohenge.
Just for the fun of it, Nike also threw an after-working-hours party on Thursday for several thousand of its best customers in a hangar at the Fulton County Airport. Guests, who arrived in a convoy of chartered buses, were wined, dined and entertained by the Temptations and Martha Reeves, without the Vandellas.
While Nike was flaunting its riches, Ron Tannebaum, who sells sports memorabilia in Miami malls, was trying out a hydraulic stair-climbing machine in the New Products Show at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis Hotel five blocks away. A spin-off from the oversubscribed main event, the New Products Show is proof that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well.
"Gimmickry is what's selling," said Dal Swain, marketing manager for Fliteline Industries, Inc., who affects an Elvis Costello look. "Bells and whistles are in, but frankly, most of it doesn't work." The Fliteline II climbing machine, with a suggested retail price of $1,200, is intended for home use and is virtually gimmickless. It doesn't even require electricity.
Tannebaum, as it turned out, was a browser, not a buyer. He was attracted only momentarily to the Fliteline II, he said, because the gym he frequents went broke recently and he misses his stair-climbing workouts.
The New Products Show had something for everyone: Spazz Ball, for example, a rubber ball with hemispherical knobs to make it bounce unpredictably; Sweet Sweat, a skin cream to make exercisers sweat all over instead of just here and there; Crazy Leggs, lightweight aluminum stilts; Wheel Right, roller skates with three wheels. Not every product was new, however. Sherman Poppen of Muskegon, Mich., used the show to reintroduce the Snurfer, a low-tech snowboard he invented in 1965. Poppen is recognized, though not financially, as the founding father of the sport of snow-boarding. To decorate his booth, he brought along the original Snurfer, its yellow paint scarred from hard use on snow-covered Michigan dunes. Poppen was sitting on a folding chair waiting for customers the day the show opened, he said, when a female passerby shrieked, "That's my board!"
"She ran over, picked it up and hugged it," said Poppen, smiling a shy-but-pleased-inventor sort of smile.
Elmo Morales, too, found something to smile about at the Super Show. On Friday afternoon, as wave after wave of people surged through Exhibition Hall F at the World Commerce Center, Morales stood in a line of fans waiting to approach Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the L.A. Gear booth. Pookie and the Hot-shots were pitching the shoes and activewear in song, dance and pounding rock inside the booth. Outside, Abdul-Jabbar sat at a small desk, stern and splendid amid the foolishness, signing posters, rarely smiling, but looking each individual in the eye and nodding an acknowledgement.
Morales, a youthful 42, is a high school physical education teacher in Ann Arbor, Mich., but the business card he turned in his hand said: ELMO'S SUPER-SHIRTS, CUSTOM SCREEN PRINTING. On it he had written a personal note to Abdul-Jabbar. The T-shirt printing business is just a sideline, Morales said, "just a hole in the wall." Morales grew up in New York, where he and Kareem were junior high school friends. "He went to St. Jude's, and I went to P.S. 152," said Morales. "I lived on 182nd Street in Washington Heights, and he lived in the Dyckman projects. I was a runner, and he was a basketball player, but we were into jazz. We had a club called the Social Colleagues, about 18 of us. I think now it was a gang. We held dances at Africa House and charged 99 cents to get in. Kareem, he was Lew then, was sergeant at arms. He would collect the money at the door, and nobody would mess with him." The last time the two men had seen each other was in the spring of 1965, when Abdul-Jabbar paid a recruiting visit to the University of Michigan, where Morales was a freshman half-miler on a track scholarship.
The closer Morales got to the desk where Jabbar was sitting, the more nervous he became. "My heart was pumping," he said later. "I thought, What if he doesn't remember me? I told myself, I have to face this fear." When his turn came. Morales started to proffer the card, but before Abdul-Jabbar saw the card he saw the face and said, "Hi, Elmo." The old friends talked quietly for a few minutes while the people behind shifted their briefcases from one hand to the other.
"As soon as he said, 'Hi, Elmo,' I relaxed." said Morales. He was leaning against a wall, a little choked up still, but smiling.
The Super Show has everything a body could want except somewhere to sit. Seats are reserved for customers filling out order forms. Late in the day people wander like lost souls in a shopper's nightmare, senses dulled, curiosity sated, no end in sight. Acres of padded benches in the fitness equipment section look as inviting as feather beds.
If it hadn't been for late-afternoon exhaustion, nobody would ever have seen C.C. Alexander's Hoops Machine. Alexander was a late entry. He read about the Super Show in USA Today only a week before it opened, but somehow he pleaded his way in. He was too late to be included in the printed listing of exhibitors or in any of the show's promotional material, and he spent every dime he had in the world for what was possibly the worst location in the World Congress Center—the far end of the west wing, top floor, a spot a buyer wouldn't ordinarily find, even accidentally.
However, Alexander's spot was surrounded by upholstered seats, empty upholstered seats. Hearing the pong made by his coin-operated basketball machine—which has a nearly full-size backboard, net and ball—when an unerringly accurate Alexander put the ball through the hoop, a few people would look over in the direction of the sound. They would see those upholstered seats and some would make their way toward them, and before long, C.C. Alexander, 28, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., would have an audience.
To get its attention he would shoot a hundred baskets without a miss, then, with a promoter's fire in his eyes, he would talk expansively about his ideas for his Hoops Machine, which has a $4,995 price tag. "Put one in your shoe store so the kid who's trying on basketball shoes can do something more than walk back and forth in them," he says. "Put them in prisons, put them in hospitals where people need a little bit of physical activity."
The struggle for attention elsewhere at the Super Show was considerably more expensive. "It's the battle of the headliners here," said Mike Doherty, executive producer of the Nike extravaganza. Switching to the voice of an imaginary exhibitor. Doherty announced. "We've got George and Barbara Bush for our morning press conference and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the afternoon,"
At this year's Super Show, that's a joke. Next year, who knows?