Keeping pace: A timeline of two years in athletics retail

From major executive departures to innovative store concepts and corporate culture incidents, here are a few of the biggest, recent industry events.
Photo illustration by Danielle Ternes/Retail Dive, photo by Juanmonino via Getty

A rollercoaster year in athletics retail was capped off this fall with the departures of Nike CEO Mark Parker and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank. Paired with another executive change at Adidas as Eric Liedtke, head of global brands, stepped down, the moves amount to “seismic changes” in the category, according to NPD Vice President and Senior Industry Advisor of Sports Matt Powell.

All three announced their departures over a two-day span in October.

The announcements were defining moments for athletics retail in 2019, but the past two years have also scripted a longer story based on a few key themes. One can be found lurking in ad campaigns and between the lines of a few lower-profile executive departures.

“You have, for lack of a better definition, macho brands and macho sports marketing and this macho element that’s clashing with the #MeToo civil rights awareness element of this,” Greg Portell, a partner at Kearney, said in an interview. As a result, culture change is going to be increasingly important for brands in 2020, both on the corporate side of things and through their branding.

“These are not brands that were built on social awareness,” Portell added, “and now they have to become that — and that’s a huge shift. It’ll be interesting because so much of the awareness of the category has been driven by men’s basketball and American football, which are undergoing a similar awakening.”

Corporate leadership and culture are increasingly entwined. During a record year of CEO departures, culture issues rose to the forefront for many companies. As of November 2019, Challenger, Gray & Christmas had recorded 14 departures due to professional misconduct that year.

While the number of departures signifies that executives are becoming wise to consumer concerns about culture, there’s still a gap between what shoppers expect from brands and what brands think they can get away with.

An October 2019 study from First Insight highlighted that 92% of senior retail executives thought consumers would continue to buy from them “even if they created and offered a controversial and offensive product, if they pulled it from the shelves quickly and issued a public apology.” Only 27% of consumers agreed.

Around half of each group agreed having women and minorities in senior leadership positions was important, but the vast majority (75%) of executives did not plan to hire a chief diversity officer. While diversity is not a problem that’s unique to athletics retail, or even retail more broadly, the sector is still plagued by a lack of women in leadership positions, even as they champion themselves as supporters of the demographic.

That conversation likely isn’t going away in 2020, Powell says, and that means we’ll continue to see “stumbles” from brands in the space.

“Culture is really hard,” Powell said. “It’s not like you send a memo out and everybody changes their attitudes or you have a couple of seminars and everybody’s on board. It takes working at it hard every single day.”

As many issues as athletics brands have had in the past few years, though, there have also been notable successes. New store concepts have launched, innovative products and designs have been released and priorities have shifted to try and better align with consumer interest. Below is a compilation of some of the more noteworthy events from the past two years, which help paint a picture of the incredible highs and lows sports retail has been through.

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