There is exciting action on the snow and ice at the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, but there are equally interesting stories playing out on the apparel that protects the U.S. athletes from the snow and ice. In watching the Games in Sochi, there is also back story on what the athletes are wearing.
National Governing Body rules allow any manufacturer to provide competitive equipment on the field of play, as long as the equipment meets the requirements of the IOC and the international federation for that sport. To put the athletes in the best position for success, this “technical equipment” is becoming more and more high tech (at least in some sports).
So, how does this translate to opportunity for apparel manufacturers?
With Nike as the official partner of the U.S. Olympic Committee on performance apparel (ex. podium wear) and Ralph Lauren the official lifestyle apparel (ex. Opening & Closing Ceremonies) other companies must find a way to outfit teams or athletes to get in the Olympic apparel game. The IOC also blocks these other non-Olympic sponsor companies from marketing during the Games, so they have to promote in the lead-up and then let the athlete performances and social media speak for them.
The key for these companies is to stay within strict logo size restrictions, yet still convey their brand through design and/or technology. Below are several companies trying to reach for apparel gold in Sochi with varying degrees of success:
Snowboard giant Burton is the clear winner so far as the apparel provider for the U.S. snowboard team. The design of the snowboard team apparel is part Americana and part quilt, and truly fitting for the culture of snowboard. It is a unique enough of a design that screams louder than the IOC-issued bibs the riders wear and is all within the rules. Burton’s advantage is that it can focus on style as the snowboarder’s coat is less dependent on technology as some of other sports. They have the perfect blend of high-profile sport and low(er) tech apparel needed.
The North Face
The North Face is taking a similar tact as the snowboard team with the high-flying U.S. slopestyle team, which is a new addition to the Olympic program. But the designs are tame by comparison to Burton and they aren’t standing out as much in my opinion. However the U.S. slopestyle team going 1-2-3 and sweeping the podium in The North Face doesn’t hurt.
The biggest uniform story of the Games in Sochi so far is focused on Under Armour and the U.S. Speedskating team. Under Armour and Lockheed Martin designed what was thought to be one of the most high-tech suits of the Games. But the speedskating team has been shut out of medals the first week of the Games (as of this writing) and is now making a mid-Games switch to the old Under Armour uniforms. There are hundreds of factors that impact athlete performance, but Under Armour is being hung out in the court of public opinion as a scapegoat. Under Armour gets another shot with bobsled, and has a silver-medal performance in skeleton so far.
Related to this, speedskating is in a tricky position. In swimming for example, each athlete chooses his/her own swimsuit no matter which company sponsors the NGB. As long as the suit is FINA approved, the athlete may wear it in competition. That is why you will see athletes wearing Arena, Speedo, TYR, etc., in the Olympic Games.
The U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association has further divvied up the pie and Columbia is outfitting the freestyle skiing team, which consists of moguls and aerials. We have seen the moguls uniforms and aerials is still to come.
The sport with no logos is figure skating and they are often the most-talked about costumes in the Games in arguably the highest profile sport. Maybe there is an opportunity for Vera Wang, Michael Kors and Versace.
Yes, I enjoy watching the Olympic Games for the athlete performance, but I also keep an eye on the apparel logos.