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Christmas Gift Guide
Tech Industry

Sporting goods sites tackle niche markets

As the all-important holiday shopping season gets underway, retailers looking to fill a niche still have a sporting chance on the Web.

Small retailers looking to fill a niche still have a sporting chance on the Web.

Unlike other online retail industries that are dominated by one or two players, the online sporting goods business is notable for its parity. As a result, even small e-tailers still have window of opportunity to identify a niche and to set up an e-commerce site that has a chance of succeeding.

Well aware of the opportunity, there is no shortage of companies staking out their turf as the all-important holiday shopping season gets underway.

CNET TV: Sports Rivals
CNET TV: Sports Rivals
"It's definitely an ever-crowding space," Yankee Group e-commerce analyst Melissa Bane said. But she noted that in order to standout, "You've got to have something different to offer."

SportsLine USA, for example, is not a small retailer, but even it is playing up niche partnerships to capture consumer attention. CBS-backed SportsLine, publisher of expansive online sports news, yesterday unveiled a redesigned sporting goods store, which now offers some 89,000 different products. And CBS's $6 billion deal with the National Collegiate Athletic Association yesterday could be a windfall for its online partner through lucrative e-commerce deals.

The 11-year deal gives CBS exclusive rights to broadcast the hugely popular NCAA college basketball championship tournament, including online rights related to e-commerce.

SportsLine and others are fighting for a piece of an estimated $77 billion market, according to 1998 figures from the Sports Business Research Network. Forrester Research projects that roughly 8 percent of sporting good sales will be made online by 2004.

On Tuesday, Lucy.com tapped into a lucrative segment of online sports by launching a sports apparel store for women. The site offers sports bras, tennis skirts and other athletic wear for women.

Kate Delhagen, vice president of business development for Lucy.com, said the company doesn't have any direct competitors online or offline.

"We're psyched," Delhagen said. "We're out there first and our challenge now really is to execute."

Delhagen said the company's closest competitor is Lady Footlocker. But the offline retailer is focused more on shoes than on apparel, and doesn't offer the same selection that Lucy.com will offer, she said.

Gear.com, in which Amazon bought a 49 percent stake in July, focuses on closeout sports merchandise. The Seattle-based retailer, which launched its Web store last year, offers products from previous seasons or discontinued items at an average of 45 percent off the original retail price.

Sporting goods superstore Fogdog Sports, which filed for its initial public offering in September, offers a wide range of specialty shops for the sports' enthusiast. Fogdog also sells its own line of sporting goods, capitalizing on its growing name-brand recognition. The company is expected to sell its first shares to the public next month.

Despite the need to differentiate their stores in an increasingly crowded market, the niche sports stores run the risk of disappointing consumers. Online customers who are used to visiting stores such as Amazon.com--which offers nearly every book available--could be disappointed to find sporting goods sites with limited products.

Old-school retail giants such as Footlocker, Wal-Mart and Kmart, aim to sell a comprehensive set of sporting goods on the Web. Mega-manufacturers Reebok and Nike, like their offline stores, also offer expansive product lines through the Internet. Onsale and ESPN.com have jumped into the sporting goods fray as well.

Leslie McCall, equity analyst for New York-based Brown Brothers Harriman, says that niche sporting goods sites, as well as Internet upstarts, could come up against a wall online.

"The stores that have a large physical presence and identifiable brand name will be tough to compete with," McCall said.