Serena Williams celebrated her comeback victory over Li Na at the WTA Championships in Istanbul on Wednesday by hugging a fan who had shown his support waving a “Serena is my hero” sign throughout the match. The semifinals start on Saturday, but Serena has already emerged as a winner in the style department, with State-side fans embracing her Nike apparel.
“Nike is getting a lot of exposure now with the WTA Championships going on and people really like Serena’s outfits,” says Arlet Allahverdian, apparel buyer for Tennis Express in Houston. “Serena has been winning a lot this year and her matches are almost always on TV, so people see Serena in the apparel. She looks great in the clothes and the product seems to be catching on with customers.”
The year-end championships can be a global showcase for brands as the round-robin format guarantees players—and their apparel—multiple matches. Competition can create commerce as it did again on Wednesday, when Maria Sharapova’s three-hour and 12-minute victory over Agnieszka Radwanska provided plenty of air time to the Nike Winter Maria Back Court Tank Top Sharapova wore during the match. That level visibility can compel some recreational players to hit the Internet in search of the styles they see the stars wearing.
“Across the entire industry, players wearing or using gear is a driver [for sales],” says Sol Schwartz, retail manager and buyer for Holabird Sports in Baltimore, MD. “That’s particularly true when people are shopping online. If they see a player wearing a style they like, they’re more likely to search out that brand. When they walk into our store, the silhouette or color of the apparel often attracts people and they gravitate toward it regardless of brand name.”
Serena, Sharapova, and fellow Nike endorsers Li, Victoria Azarenka, Sara Errani, and Petra Kvitova make the Swoosh the dominant apparel brand in Istanbul. Angelique Kerber is clad in adidas, Radwanska wears Lotto, and Samantha Stosur, who replaced Kvitova in the field, is an Asics player. Retailers say brand/player recognition and color/cut can attract attention, but caution that a skirt which fits the 6’2” Sharapova flawlessly may not work for all body types.
“I think an issue with this season’s Nike skirts is a lot of the skirts are shorter,” Schwartz says. “The skirts you see Sharapova and Azarenka wearing are 11 ¾ inches [long], which can be a bit too short for some recreational players, particularly if they’re older. I think one of the biggest things you’ll see in women’s apparel in 2013 is Nike and adidas playing with the skirt length more. Skirts have been shorter, but now they’ll be more length options. From a dealer standpoint, that can be tough because now you could end up carrying more skews. But from a customer standpoint, I think it’s a real positive. Women who may not be able to wear a real short skirt like a Sharapova or an Azarenka will be able to wear the Sharapova style in a skirt length that’s better suited for their body types.”
A 17-year-old Williams won her first major at the 1999 U.S. Open clad in a canary-colored Puma dress. Since then, the fashionista has worn everything from Cameroon’s soccer team colors to a skin-diver tight black cat suit to a distressed denim skirt with biker boots and a black sports bra in Grand Slam appearances. The 31-year-old, who has appeared on Home Shopping Network promoting her Signature Statement Collection, now sports styles more accessible to a greater variety of women.
“When you look at Serena and Rafael Nadal, it’s a little bit like Andre Agassi’s apparel evolution—they started out wearing clothes that were bolder and brighter, cut for the athletic body in styles that were a little bit more out there, but you’ve seen their styles evolve over the years,” Schwartz says. “Nadal isn’t wearing tight sleeveless shirts anymore or the Capri shorts, and his shorts will be even shorter in 2013. Serena’s Nike Thunder Statement skirts are 13 inches long and the styles she’s wearing now are a bit more traditional and appeal to a wider range of women—more women feel comfortable wearing the apparel and that’s obviously better for Nike’s bottom line, too.”
While brand recognition can be a strong selling point, some retailers say oversaturation can compel women too consider other brands.
“I think women, more so than men, have had it with looking like everyone else—unless they’re on a team in which case you want to match,” says TENNIS racquet advisor Bruce Levine, General Manager of Courtside Racquet Club in Lebanon, N.J. “We do some team uniform sales and it definitely drives business. The Nike Border Skirt, they made it in about 15 different colors, and that’s all anyone wore for a while, so women come to our pro shop wanting something different. I think the boutique pieces and brands like Bolle, and lululemon do well—even though they’re not brands you see on TV—because they’re quality brands, the pricing is good and some women get tired of the big brands because everyone’s wearing the same stuff.”
Apparel buyers urge recreational players to broaden their brand search to find the styles that best suit them.
“When it comes to advice for recreational players, I say don’t limit yourself to only the brands you see on TV,” Schwartz says. “There are so many great brands out there that don’t have millions of dollars to spend in player endorsements and advertising, but they make great clothes. Brands like Bolle, Tail, and Pure Lime truly do make some of the best products on the market, their size scale is a good fit for everyone and the prices are attractive too.”