Several months ago, Gregg Hartley, vice president of marketing and operations for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, decided it was time the fitness industry sat down together now and then to discuss joint issues.
That had happened successfully for a decade or so with the association's Fitness Products Council until it lapsed into a comatose state about four or five years ago.
So, last October, Hartley emailed close to 150 fitness manufacturers -- those exhibiting at the association-owned The Super Show in January as well as a few key others who were not going to be setting up booths there. He related the idea of sitting down together to discuss common issues and concerns with a focus on retail. Then he waited.
And waited. And waited. His answers? A total of six confirmations by companies saying they would be at the meeting scheduled for the second day of the show, Jan. 13, at 10:30 a.m., and another three rejections because of one reason or another. That's nine. The rest? His guess is as good as ours.
Still, he set up a meeting room, invited the association's lobbying team and a couple of others such as a representative from the American Council on Exercise, and showed up, hopeful that any start was a good start. He waited.
And waited. And waited. SNEWS Â® waited with him.
Twenty minutes after the meeting was supposed to start, the room was still barren and quiet. And Hartley was resigned to canceling it and trying again another time. Only Louis Stack, CEO of balance-specialist Fitter International, showed up (about 20 minutes late, but credit where credit is due!). And he had just heard about it by chance and hadn't ever seen the email announcing it. The others? Hartley's guess is as good as ours. (We did talk to one invited company later whose representative apologized profusely, said he was in an important client meeting that went longer than expected, and he just couldn't leave. Another had called Hartley in advance and said plans had changed and she wouldn't be attending the show.)
No perceived issue
"It's always a fact that it's easier to get a group together if there is some distinct issue that is perceived as threatening to the industry," Hartley told SNEWS later. He named steel tariffs as one that helped keep the former Fitness Products Council together. The group also helped to put together consumer guides on how to buy equipment, he said. "On the fitness side, right now, it's hard to pinpoint an issue."
Of course, the old council had an annual grant of about $300,000 to $500,000 a year from proceeds from The Super Show. It used that money to put out consumer guides and to start other research. The elimination of that money was one shovel of dirt in the grave of the council, Hartley said, although he's convinced a group doesn't need money to come together as an industry. At least, at first.
Wouldn't the growing obesity and inactivity epidemic be an issue?
"Yes, everybody would say that's an issue and that we should support programs that would help," Hartley said, "but they don't see an immediate action or return, so they don't stay the course.
"Most companies are focused on day-to-day, quarter-to-quarter business," he added.
That in fact frustrates Hartley and others just a tad: It IS an issue that should bring together companies and could -- eventually -- increase sales. But eventually is the key word there. Any action in this arena could take years and years, he said, since if you affect kids, they will likely have to become adults before they become consumers.
If kids learn to be healthy and to have active lifestyles," he said, "they're eventually going to use the (exercise) products."
Timing and momentum
Meeting timing is another problem, he said. During the show day, client meetings understandably get top priority. And he said that nobody wants to come in early; neither do they want to hang around afterward.
"I find there is no good time," he said.
Unless of course there is enough interest built that any time is a good time...
"It comes down to building some momentum, some agenda," he said, saying he wants a group to focus on the retail market.
Another problem is that the fitness industry overall is still a small blip on the sporting goods market radar -- only worth about $2.8 billion wholesale. Nevertheless, the retail market he said is about three-quarters of that ($2.1 billion), while the commercial market is only about $700 million. Yet the commercial market has a much larger lobby and more interest groups.
"I am disappointed, and that's because I think there are some important issues out there," he said. "I think we have for the first time in history a really important chance to get the government to take a serious look at tax credits and exemptions â€¦ for people who buy fitness equipment for the home."
SNEWS View: SNEWSÂ® got awfully excited when we heard about the meeting and showed up eagerly to see how it would unfold. We were as disappointed as Hartley. Remember our special report in the premiere GearTrends fitness magazine in 2003 called "United We Stand?" that questioned the same lack of a representative group and what it could do. (You can download the article in PDF by going to www.GearTrends.com, if you missed it.) One bit of information the industry has perhaps overlooked: The Carol M. White "PEP" grants are worth millions of dollars to schools. This is something the SGMA lobbies hard for (and Congress just passed a bill worth $70 million this year, money that must by law go toward either hiring or training instructors OR -- here's the kicker -- toward buying EQUIPMENT). Said Hartley: "There are millions of dollars spent on equipment, and the industry is missing out." Oooo, that hits the bottom line, and not just some nebulous future.
We don't understand how the industry can be so egocentric, and how many companies can't begin to look beyond their own noses to build the industry as a whole, thinking of the long-term gain. (In the meantime, you may even land some equipment sales via PEP grants.) Build up the whole and everybody will gain and prosper. Hm, guess some folks missed that message in high school economics and history. Maybe we're naÃ¯ve, but if other, much larger, industries can do it, it's about time fitness did.
But it's not too late. Email Hartley at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him you're interested.