The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Women are one of the sporting-goods industry’s biggest-growing markets — and one of its most ignored

Inside a Dick’s Sporting Goods in New York. (Craig Warga/Bloomberg News)

When 12-year-old McKenna Peterson opened her new Dick’s Sporting Goods basketball catalogue recently, the Arizona basketball player and superfan was frustrated to find a glaring misstep: The only girl in the catalogue’s pages wasn’t actually playing basketball — she was sitting in the stands.

So McKenna began to type the company a fiery letter, not just praising her favorite female “dunking machines” but also tearing into the annoying imbalance the boy-heavy mailer seemed to represent. “It’s hard enough for girls to break through in this sport as it is,” she wrote, “without you guys excluding us from your catalog.”

McKenna’s letter didn’t just spark a public outcry and lead the corporate giant’s chief to apologize — it highlighted an unavoidable tension of the sporting-goods industry: Girls and young women are one of its fastest-growing markets, and one of its most ignored.

“That they’re never represented athletically means we don’t value them as athletes, and maybe, in the case of this catalogue, don’t value them as customers,” said Janet Fink, a professor in sports management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The business case behind appealing to women couldn’t be more obvious: Women account for the vast majority of purchase decisions,

, and American girls’ participation in sports has been on a growth streak for years. Retailers that have devoted floor space, time and creativity to women’s apparel have profited in return.

Yet analysts said the sporting-goods world remains chiefly concentrated on and controlled by men, an outgrowth of a decades-long lack of focus on female athletes and the broader gender gap that still haunts modern sports. About 40 percent of American athletes are female, yet only 4 percent of media coverage goes to female sports, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

Women have “been vastly underserved by the industry. Sporting goods is a guy industry, and men dominate the executive ranks,” said Matt Powell, an analyst with industry researcher SportsOneSource. “Even today we don’t see brands making a ton of women’s sporting apparel. With footwear, for example, they still tend to be female versions of a man’s shoe.”

One guiding strategy for apparel for women and girls remains what is known as the “shrink it and pink it” approach, in which the only options for women brought to market are smaller, more colorful versions of men’s clothes, analysts said. And though some retailers have begun designing sportswear for women, the broader marketing and media appearances of female athletes have often lagged behind.

“Girls, when they are portrayed, their athleticism is secondary. They’re usually sexy, pretty, feminine. The role of the female is secondary to being an athletic female,” said Nicole LaVoi, an associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “That’s if they’re portrayed at all. In the catalogue McKenna saw, there was one girl, she was a fan, she was a bystander. That’s, sadly, a common theme.”

Women’s inclusion in sports has often proven more the exception than the rule. A 2010 study of ESPN’s SportsCenter and three network affiliates in Los Angeles found that only 1.5 percent of national and local airtime was devoted to covering women’s sports, the lowest in two decades of research. That led University of Southern California professor Michael Messner to tell The Nation: “It seems that they just don’t know how to talk about women and women sports at all.”

More than 19 million girls played basketball, soccer and volleyball last year, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, and girls’ participation in sports has grown an average of 50 percent a year over the last half-decade. Young female athletes are not without role models: Mo’ne Davis, 13, was celebrated on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August when she became the first girl to pitch a shutout game in Little League World Series history.

But the odds can also appear stacked against female athletes. McKenna’s mother, Donna Peterson, told The Washington Post there has been a lack of leagues for McKenna to play in, and that at the elementary- and middle-school level it can be hard to find coaches to lead the teams. The choices don’t get any better when they look on clothing racks, she added, because the choices are hugely limited for girls’ basketball jerseys, shorts and shoes.

Some companies are pushing hard to win women’s spending. At Under Armour, the Baltimore-based retailer that got its start with men’s football gear, nearly a third of its $3 billion in annual sales come from women, and founder and chief executive Kevin Plank has said he expects, under the company’s new strategic “womanifesto,” business from women will “equal or surpass our men’s business in the future.”

Led by its youth and women’s divisions, Under Armour sales grew 24 percent last year, and Euromonitor International analysts wrote the brand’s success among young athletes “bodes strongly for its future.”

Doubling down on its women’s outreach, the company just launched its first worldwide ad campaign dedicated to women, tapping elite female athletes as head sponsors, including ballerina Misty Copeland, Olympian soccer gold-medalist Kelley O’Hara and pro surfer Brianna Cope. In one commercial, supermodel Gisele Bündchen spars with a punching bag as negative quotes pulled from the Web, like “Stick to modeling, sweetie,” appear on the walls.

Foot Locker chief executive Kenneth C. Hicks has called women’s sports apparel the company’s “biggest opportunity,” and the company has begun a dramatic remodeling of its growing Lady Foot Locker brand. Some companies’ bets on women’s running shoes, tank tops, yoga wear and other gear have paid off handsomely: Sports giant Nike has so far this year seen sales of its women’s sports apparel grow nearly 30 percent over last year.

“Big companies are seeing that the public is ready, more than ready, for clothing that’s not just pink and purple and tight or short, but is functional and appropriate for athletes and girls of all shapes and sizes,” said Judy Vredenburgh, the president and chief executive of Girls Inc., a girls’ advocacy nonprofit. “But change is hard. There’s a lot of reinforcement around what has traditionally sold.”

Before the catalogue shipped, Dick’s was among that core of sports retailers hoping to win over a growing market for girls. At an earnings call in August, Dick’s chief executive Edward W. Stack said the company had in recent months taken space away from golf equipment, the shrinking market that once made up a fifth of its business, to add much more women’s and youth apparel, one of the company’s strongest-growing markets.

Dick’s did not respond to messages from The Washington Post, but Stack responded Saturday to McKenna with a tweeted letter of apology, saying “we clearly messed up” and guaranteeing that next year’s catalogue would feature more female athletes. In the days since, most of the company’s tweets to its nearly 300,000 followers have included pictures of young female shoppers and athletes, as well as links to buy women’s leggings, running shoes and sports bras.

Market watchers say better offerings for girls and young women may get their biggest jump-start from girls like McKenna, who are vocal sports fans and unafraid to call out retailers.

“We have 30-plus years of sport media research that document exactly what she pointed out. We’ve been sounding this bell for years. It still hasn’t permeated the consciousness of some of these sporting-goods companies,” LaVoi said. “Why is the voice of one girl so powerful?”