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Sports apparel marketers look to be in need of an attitude adjustment.

Sales of sports-licensed apparel, though impressive, are cresting, and "verbiage T-shirts"-or attitude wear-are coming on strong among young people. Attitude wear's latest generation, which started appearing a few years ago on California beaches, is trying to seize the mantle from licensed clothing as the high-growth segment of sportswear.

The T-shirts and other clothing feature in-your-face, often sports-inspired slogans, everything from "Coed naked soccer-get your kicks in the grass" from Coed Sportswear to the more single entendre "Starter-It's about team" from Starter Corp.

Marketers big and small are gearing up. No Fear, one of the small companies specializing in attitude wear, made the segment's first foray into TV advertising with a spot during Super Bowl XXIX. Ohio-based CS Crable Sportswear, know more for Pebble Beach golfwear, is thinking considerably younger these days through a licensing deal with ESPN2. And Starter, the top marketer of sports-licensed clothing, is also copping an attitude.

Not that sports-licensed merchandise is fading, but its growth has slowed from an average of 15% annually between 1989 and '92 to 5% in '94. With 1994 sales of $13.8 billion, such products still dwarf attitude wear. Attitude leader No Fear has estimated sales of $200 million, and others in the sportswear industry estimate attitude wear as a whole may be worth three times that at $600 million.

"Team-licensed apparel is very hot, but it's not getting any hotter," said Peter Zollo, president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a teen marketing research company in Northbrook, Ill.

Attitude wear has a clear edge now with youths, Mr. Zollo said. "One of the things that's strong about this generation is that whatever is the newest is the most appealing. That alone helps attitude wear."

But Mr. Zollo believes attitude wear will have more staying power than a mere fad; he considers it a bona fide trend.

In fact, some of the big marketers of sports-licensed apparel will help keep attitude wear on the shelves. Nike and Reebok International have come out with verbiage T-shirts of their own in recent months. And Starter plans to give some of its team-licensed T-shirts an "attitude" by adding in-your-face verbiage.

"Instead of just putting a UConn T-shirt together, we'll be doing a UConn verbiage T-shirt, as well as [Starter] branded verbiage T-shirts," said Ian Gomar, VP-marketing at the New Haven, Conn.-based company.

Starter's response is key since it's the leading marketer of licensed sportswear with a 5% share of the $7 billion segment. The popularity of hip-hop had been a boon to Starter apparel, but now many young people seem to be going in a different direction.

Despite the flattening of the sports-licensed market overall, Mr. Gomar said, Starter continues to grow at the expense of second- and third-tier brands. But he also sees a need to get in on an attitude segment he described as a "small but rapidly growing part of our business."

Back on the West Coast, small new brands are always surfacing on the California beach or in the bike shops and can flash into stiff competition overnight, said Weston Anson, chairman of La Jolla consultancy Trademark & Licensing Inc., and a founder of Hang Ten, an attitude wear marketer of an earlier era.

About 20 years ago, "Hang Ten was the definitive surf-Nazi brand-the definitive statement," Mr. Anson said. "A company like No Fear must at all times look over its shoulder."

Among those predator companies is Coed Sportswear, Newfields, N.H., which is distributed through 10,000 retail locations in the U.S. and Canada, and has grown in sales from $7 million in 1993 to $25 million last year. The company plans a print and outdoor campaign from the Silverman Group, New Haven, Conn. That agency helped launch Starter's first clothing line.

"We expect to grow 200% to 300% percent in 1995," said Scott MacHardy, Coed president.

Another sign of attitude wear's emergence was the 15-second spot by No Fear, created in-house, that broke during the Super Bowl.

But No Fear's attitude ownership of the airwaves will be short-lived. Teaser spots broke March 1 for the first attitude line to be launched with a TV campaign. Xtreme Wear, a licensing venture between cable network ESPN2 and CS Crable Sportswear, will mix verbiage T-shirts with "extreme" sports, such as ESPN2 programming staples mountain biking, roller hockey and snow boarding. The ads will run on ESPN2, ESPN and MTV: Music Television.

Samples of the slogans: "Slap it like you hate it" on a roller hockey shirt and "Come hard or don't come at all" on a basketball shirt.

Cincinnati agency Backley Gingrich Tobe, which actually designed the sportswear and produced the campaign, has also created a mythical spokesman, Johnny Xtreme. The goal is to spawn a "counterculture hero" for Generation Xers and "cult icon" for the brand, said partner Bob Tobe.

CS Crable approached ESPN2 with the licensing deal as the company saw its traditional market in pro and college licensed apparel peaking.

Association with ESPN2 and the ad campaign should give Xtreme Wear instant credibility and recognition that took other attitude brands years to develop, Mr. Tobe said. Those brands grew largely through exposure and promotions on beaches and college campuses, as well as distribution in surf and bike shops. Xtreme Wear will go directly to TV and such retail outlets as J.C. Penney Co.

Speeding the process through advertising is a risk, Mr. Tobe said, explaining, "You have to walk a fine line when you advertise to this segment. You don't want them to feel like you're advertising to them. You have to make it almost feel like it's a grass-roots movement."

That's why the campaign will take an indirect approach, starting with a week of cryptic teasers. Johnny Xtreme will never be seen. He will only be described by his parents, buddies and girlfriends.

Helping create the grass-roots feeling, Mr. Tobe said, will be promotional events at college campuses and sports bars, and sponsorship of roller hockey tournaments.

The rollout will test whether a mainstream sportswear marketer based near Cincinnati, whose current line includes Pebble Beach golf clothes, can become hip for Generation Xers.

"The business is different than it was three or four years ago," said CS Crable VP-Marketing Gary Massa. "Strikes in baseball and hockey didn't help. Everyone in the market is looking for different niches and younger demographics."

Mr. Massa believes attitude wear is a reasonable stretch from CS Crable's core market in team-licensed apparel. He noted that the Xtreme Wear line also will include verbiage T-shirts on such traditional sports themes as basketball and football. And he said the merchandising outlets for Xtreme Wear will be the same department store and sporting goods chains that already carry the company's team-licensed apparel.

CS Crable is looking to ESPN2 to help bridge the hipness gap to Generation Xers.

"Part of the reason ESPN2 was so attractive to us is that it's a hot network right now with that target demographic," Mr. Massa said.

Though attitude wear seems inextricably linked to today's young people, some old "attitudes" seem to age well. San Diego-based Hang Ten International, named for the coolest move in surfing-hanging 10 toes over the nose of the surfboard-was started 35 years ago and is still going strong.

Hang Ten's trademark radical stripes are now enjoying a revival among the young. When "The Doors" movie was released several years ago, publicity photos showed star Val Kilmer in a Hang Ten striped T-shirt. Interest was so strong that the company went back to its archives and began re-releasing some of the original stripes.

"Some of the ugliest color combos are the coolest and best selling today," said David M.H. Isaacs, senior VP at Hang Ten.

Hang Ten advertising, created in-house, even acknowledges its longevity. One ad theme is "Surfwear back from when your mom was a babe."

Alice Z. Cuneo contributed to this story.

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