The history of college sports in the US dates back to the first Harvard-Yale regatta in 1852, an annual event that continues to this day. 30 years ago, the trophy oars from the original race were unexpectedly discovered and in May 2022 they were auctioned by Sothebys. Sothebys anticipated that the oars would sell for $3-5 million and the related article included the following quote:
“The camaraderie and intense rivalries born out of the intercollegiate spirit shape not only students’ and alumni’s lives, but have come to define the world of American sports—and American culture at large.”
If you are not from the US, it can be hard to fathom the scale of college sports. The 2022 college football home opener between Texas and Alabama drew in a crowd of 105,203, which is close to the capacity of the largest football stadium in the country. Last year’s finals between the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia drew 23 million viewers.
Any growing athletic market also comes with a growing apparel opportunity. A 2015 article by Forbes claims that the Collegiate Licensing Company estimated the retail market for collegiate apparel at $4.6 billion, and that was seven years ago.
Several apparel brands outside of traditional sports are also involved in the collegiate apparel market. While the likes of Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour dominate the market, brands such as lululemon, Fabletics, and American Eagle are increasing their involvement. In July 2022, Nike signed a deal with licensing giant Fanatics to manufacture college apparel and share the rights to several major universities, clearly showcasing the growth that both companies anticipate in the market. Also in July, headwear retailer Lids announced the launch of Lids University, a retail concept specifically focused on college sports and apparel.
From 2019 to 2021, the market saw growth of 18.6% which was largely a result of the rule change allowing college players to make money off of their name, image, and likeness (NIL). NIL gives players the opportunity to benefit from their popularity and encourages fans to financially support players by purchasing custom apparel. To support this, colleges like the University of Virginia have integrated customisation technologies into their bookstore website.
Customisation and on-demand manufacturing systems are vital in the fanwear market to meet real-time expectations. Fanatics highlight their ability to analyse data and enable on-demand manufacturing as one of their key strategic levers and these capabilities are required for any brand or organisation that wants to maximise the potential of this opportunity. Considering the growing demand for college apparel acoss athletes, students, and fans, brands who want to be involved should focus on how to adapt their strategies and enable their supply chains to be competitive against larger brands.
Collegiate apparel is an exciting space and we’re happy to be part of it through our teamwear business where we work with some of the largest sportswear companies to enable on-demand production and replenishment for college bookstores across the US.