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NIKE, Inc. (NKE): The Battle for Female Athletes

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It may seem like Americans have always exercised in the same way that they do now, but you might be surprised how new many of our pastimes are. Jogging, for example, wasn’t a thing until NIKE, Inc. (NYSE:NKE) co-founder Bill Bowerman visited New Zealand in the early 60s, and saw the locals running around in packs. Now, you can’t push a pram on a nice day without running over an aspiring marathon runner.

Nike Inc (NYSE:NKE)In a similarly quick-paced transition, women athletes went from representing 7.4% of high school athletes in the mid-70s to over 40% today. With the institution of Title IX in 1972, the size of the female athlete population has boomed at both the amateur and professional levels. Now, athletes and sponsors are free to focus less on getting women involved, and more on how to increase the fan base and drive income from the boost in popularity.

Pushing for more
Under Armour Inc (NYSE:UA)
has been particularly vocal about evening out its gendered income, with a goal of getting to a more even spilt in the coming years. The company now earns 44% of its revenue from men’s apparel, and 23% from women’s. Its three-year plan is to cut men’s slice of the pie down to 39%, while slightly increasing women’s sales to account for 24% of total revenue by 2016.

While that may not seem like a big deal, it represents a 95% increase in women’s revenue, while men’s is only planned to grow 56% over the same period. Part of the reason for the rapid growth in the post-2000 era can be attributed to Lululemon Athletica inc. (NASDAQ:LULU)‘s influence on the segment.

Lululemon Athletica inc. (NASDAQ:LULU) did almost precisely what NIKE, Inc. (NYSE:NKE) did years ago by making a novelty — pants for Lululemon, fancy shoes for Nike — seem like a requirement. Estimates of the yoga market now put total revenue at more than $25 billion annually in the U.S., and almost 75% of participants are women. That’s helped Lululemon leverage stretchy, thin pants — sometimes too thin — into a $1.4 billion business.

The field narrows
The massive market for yogawear and other women’s apparel has spurred a race to the top. NIKE, Inc. (NYSE:NKE) launched a campaign last year set to coincide with, and celebrate, the 40th anniversary of Title IX. Later in 2012, Under Armour Inc (NYSE:UA) kicked off its biggest ever advertising push aimed at female athletes.

Even with all the growth, there’s still a long way to go, and companies investing in women’s sports are doing so with the hope that there is even more growth to come. In 2011, a Bloomberg study found that every single women’s college basketball program actually lost money, due largely to the high cost of coaching. While that’s all too common — accounting for male sports, only 23 of the 228 NCAA athletic departments are self-funding — it still points to a problem for future growth.

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