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Women’s Sports Apparel

A Niche of Their Own: Touch by Alyssa Milano Is Catalyst For Fast-Growing Off-field Licensed Women’s Sportswear

Women represent the most dynamic seg- ment of the off-field sports apparel market. Women make up nearly half of all self-identified MLB fans and 44% of NFL TV viewers. More women watch the Super Bowl than the Oscars. Not surprisingly, women’s interest in sports is translating into growing sales of licensed women’s sports apparel. Today:

  • Women are the single fastest growing segment of the market for NFL licensed prod- ucts, having increased by double digits in the last five years, according to the League.
  • Women account for more than 20% of NASCAR apparel sales, as compared to less than 10% a decade ago, according to a league source.
  • Sales of NCAA licensed products to women have increased 148% in the past five years and 53% in the last three years, reports IMG College, whose CLC division represents schools and events account- ing for about 75% of the collegiate market.
  • Women account for approximately 20% of G-III’s licensed off-field sports apparel market, as opposed to 5% in 2006, says the company’s Kyle Sanborn. G-III is apparel licensee for Touch by Alyssa Milano, the primary off- field women’s sports apparel brand.

Still more changes are in store. In 2015, Touch will expand its store-in-store and dedi- cated women’s shops at venues, and will launch its first lines of maternity and plus-size products. And the company is considering expanding its sports apparel line to the under- served girls and youth market (G-III does not currently have those rights).

Milano: ‘I Am The Market’

At the center of the growth in licensed women’s sports apparel is TV and film actress Alyssa Milano.

A decade ago, the leagues and their marketing people regarded fan dress-up as pretty much a guy thing. Ninety-five percent of officially licensed team apparel produced was for men, leaving the female fan with a choice between oversized men’s regulation jerseys that fit like a tent or the pale pink female tee that looked like something from a Pepto-Bismol bottle.

Alyssa Milano was among the frustrated and underserved female sports fans. Best known for her TV roles in Who’s the Boss and Charmed, Milano recognized that women like sports and want to buy fan apparel; but they wanted more options than pink it or shrink it. “Just because it’s pink doesn’t make it women’s,” she famously said.

“I was the market,” Milano tells TLL, “and nothing in the marketplace met my needs as a fan, as a woman, as a fashion-conscious shopper.”

The Launch & Growth of Touch

In 2007, Milano hired a fashion illustrator to design sports apparel with silhouettes, colors, themes and shapes that would appeal to a female buyer. She took the concept to MLB. “I was sitting in a room with all these men from MLB Properties and they said, ‘There’s no pink,’” she recalls. “At first they didn’t get it. I explained it’s about the team colors, and they started to see the point.” MLB introduced her to the G-III Apparel Group. And so Touch by Alyssa Milano, the first sports-licensed apparel brand targeted exclusively to women, was born.

“The first year I went to every stadium for sales meetings, because they couldn’t wrap their hands around the concept. . . .And I could represent the female sports fan. Halfway through the second year, the players would ask me why they didn’t think of it!”

The initial deal was a one-year exclusive with MLB that didn’t include sales in lucrative stadium shops. (Arena and stadium sales today account for 30% of G-III’s brick & mortar sports apparel business, notes Sanborn.) The first line was sold online in 2008 under the motto “Where the game meets the after party;” it sold out in five weeks. The success caught just about everyone off guard.

It also validated Milano’s theory and established Touch’s credibility. After her exclusive with MLB ended, Touch inked deals with the NFL, NHL, NBA and some colleges. NASCAR, MLS and Minor League Baseball followed. Result: Touch is now the only women’s brand to secure licensing agreements with all of the major U.S. sports leagues. “This is a 100% fashion brand—we don’t do on-field. So we can coexist with the Nikes and Reeboks,” says Sanborn.

Today, you can buy Touch products online, as well as in sporting goods stores like Dick’s, Modell’s and Sports Authority, and department stores like Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and Dillard’s. Fanatics, which runs most team websites across many of the major leagues, as well as its own cross- team sites, accounts for 90% of G-III’s online sales of Touch.

Through Fanatics’s vertical retail group, G-III is bringing Touch onto college campuses, as well, with 11 schools so far. Overall, bricks and mortar accounts for about 80% of sales, and online for 20%—a higher percentage than for licensed goods overall. Touch also has made contracts to sell merchandise in the stadium stores of a handful of teams, including the NY Mets, NY Jets, NY Giants, KC Chiefs, Atlanta Braves and Boston Bruins.

Catalyst & Ignitor of Change

Touch’s success has been both a mirror and catalyst for change in the growing off-field licensed sports apparel market for women. According to Sanborn, “The women’s apparel market really took off in 2010 when the NFL launched its ‘I don’t need you anymore’ TV ad campaign.” The ads depicted women throwing their boyfriend’s NFL jerseys into their beau’s faces and donning more stylish, female-friendly versions of the same garment—to the strains of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” in the background. Notably, the last woman in the ad to assert her NFL jersey gender independence is Alyssa Milano.

The influence of Touch extends not just to the products but to the shopping experience. “We want to make the Touch story part of the sporting event,” explains Sanborn. For example, in 2015, a Touch booth at a Super Bowl fan fest will feature not just Touch products but a Milano autograph signing. Milano was instrumental in persuading NASCAR to move away from the trailers that drivers have traditionally used to sell their goods trackside.

Starting in 2015, NASCAR will sell Touch and other licensed products from tents. “It’s a key move,” explains NASCAR official Paul Sparrow, “because we rely more heavily on event sales than do the other leagues.” It’s also a move influenced by Milano and the female buyer. “Trailers didn’t work for us because women like to handle the merchandise before buying clothes,” explains Sanborn.

Milano is excited about the prospect of more stadium shops, and of a specific stadium series of apparel and acces- sories that is “more about basics and t-shirts.” She says that cold weather accessories are in development. She’d “love to do handbags,” and she hopes to expand to reach kids, being the mother of two young children herself now.

“The kids’ market has been novelty onesies,” Milano says. “It should be high quality and on-trend. And for girls 4-10, whether it’s Disney Princess or Hello Kitty or sports, what makes it work is graphics on cute clothes.”

Keeping It Pink-Less

Asked how involved she is in Touch, Milano laughs, “More involved than anyone would probably like me to be.” She credits G-III designer Marta Brandysiewicz for sharing and implementing her vision. “Marta is absolutely wonderful, and gets it.”

Licensed women’s sports apparel has come a long way since 2007. Alyssa Milano didn’t create the changes; but she saw them coming before anybody else did. Not just a prophetess, Milano was a pioneer who created the products the leagues needed to satisfy the new demands the changes generated.

At the same time, Alyssa Milano and the Touch brand she created have themselves evolved. But through it all, they have remained faithful to their principles. To this day, you won’t find anything pink under the Touch brand. “We produce clothing in the colors of the team since that’s what the real fan wants,” Sanborn says, echoing Milano’s mantra.

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