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.