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The athletic footwear giants are readying for an assault from a new pack of cutthroat rivals hoping to cash in on the sports trend-upscale fashion marketers Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan.

But while category leaders Nike and Reebok International are expected to successfully defend their turf, No. 3 Fila USA is in danger of being trampled.

Fila, a hot brand that has seen rapid growth in revenue and market share, said it is hoping to position itself in between the warring factions.

"We're going to continue to push further in our ads and products the fusion of fashion and performance," said Peter DePasquale, senior VP-group management director at Foote, Cone & Belding, New York, Fila's agency. "In fact, we believe the emergence of the [fashion designers] into this business will have a centering effect for our brand that we never had before."


Salomon Bros. predicts in a new report that by 2000, six designer brands will account for 7% of an $8.5 billion athletic footwear industry. Lauren's Polo Sport and Tommy Hilfiger are among the projected winners.

"We expect Fila to be the most negatively affected due to its fashion orientation and low level of athletic authenticity," the Salomon report reads.

Sales in the athletic footwear industry grew 11% to $7.5 billion in 1996, according to Sporting Goods Intelligence. Fila's market share grew from 5.6% to 7.7% for the year. Nike also extended its market share, from 37% to 43%, but Reebok tumbled from 21% to 16%.


Now, Reebok is revamping its marketing message and its sneakers to regain lost ground. New TV advertising, created by Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, offers first-person portraits of key Reebok endorsers, most notably NBA rookie Allen Iverson. Print ads support.

"The statement we want to make in 1997 is that we're back in the game," said Leslie Smith, Reebok VP-global footwear. "We took our eye off the ball and lost touch with our consumers. The result was that we didn't stand for anything."

Nike and Reebok also both are pursuing the burgeoning women's market. Nike has secured a charter sponsorship of the Women's National Basketball Association. The pro league's marketing packages don't allow WNBA players to endorse rival brands during its summer schedule, so Reebok is seeking to have Reebok endorsers wear that brand of sneakers on the court.


Executives at Donna Karan Footwear Co., whose athletic shoe line hit last fall, say garment brands must stay true to their core brand image.

"We can't try to be like Nike. We have to maintain our point of view as we enter their world, just as they have to as they enter ours," said Anna Bakst, president of the Karan unit.

The line's first ad campaign, created in-house, will be launched in March fashion and lifestyle magazines.

Lauren has licensed its footwear to Reebok's Rockport Co. unit, set to bring out a Polo line in spring 1998. Tommy Hilfiger's TH Athletics division has licensed

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