A Summit Giving Other Denver Peaks a Run for Their Money

A full rundown of SFIA’s 6th annual Industry Leaders Summit

Wow. What a whirlwind it was. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) just wrapped up the 6th annual Industry Leaders Summit in Denver, bringing together the industry’s greatest leaders: executives, investors, experts and entrepreneurs for a packed 48 hours of networking, eye-opening presentations and thought-provoking panel discussions.

SFIA Presdient & CEO welcoming everyone to Denver
“The summit was an exceptional occasion for me to get very useful insights on the U.S. market, as well as a unique occasion to discuss with peers from every segment of the industry on trends and opportunities to come. It was also a very productive moment to meet new potential business partners.”
-Luca Tomat, Head of Sales at Lotto Sport

Headlining this year’s event was the 3rd annual Start-Up Challenge, which hosted a profound new level of competition and variety, likely inspired by the new grand prize: A $15,000 check (provided by venture capital firm, Black Lab Sports) and an all-expense-paid trip to spend a day with the Under Armour Innovation Team in Baltimore. With such high stakes, the room was packed to watch the young start-ups pitch their company to a panel of highly-regarded judges, which included President & CEO of Riddell, Dan Arment; CEO of Varsity Brands, Adam Blumenfeld; Founder & Managing Partner of KB Partners Venture Capital Firm, Keith Bank; heir to The Great Adi Dassler of adidas and Principal of ADvantage Sports Tech Fund, Alexander Bente; just to name a few…

The competition included a new technology to assess concussions, an innovative approach to a better hockey stick, a fitness gaming system to encourage youth activity, a versatile and efficient fitness product, and a mobile app making gym-time more accessible and affordable. After much deliberation, Nix, the creators of high-tech sensors, capable of measuring hydration status via sweat to optimize safety and physical and cognitive performance, took the prize.

“The challenge presented a very diverse group, from software to hardware. There were a lot of aspects of sports covered, and the people and teams were very, very strong.”
-Alexander Bente, Principal of ADvantage Sports Tech Fund
“The Challenge is a super highway for commercialization of new product — some of which will become the next game changer in the industry.”
-Adam Blumenfeld, CEO of Varsity Brands
“I like the mix of products — There were actual products brought to market, as well as tech platforms. There was innovation that covered the whole spectrum, including products that deliver biofeedback to enhance athletic performance and safety.”
-Julia Day, Executive Director of Business Development at The NPD Group
“I have served on a lot of business planning panels, and I thought this group of companies was particularly compelling, both in terms of enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit. I fully expect many of them to achieve funding and go on to great success.”
-Keith Bank, Founder & Managing Partner of KB Partners
Nix receiving the winner’s check from Black Lab Sports

Aside from the Start-Up Challenge, the agenda was loaded with interesting speakers addressing cutting-edge issues and trends. Michael Schrage, an innovation expert from MIT, provided an insightful keynote presentation, teaching the audience how to better understand and capture the consumer — Leaving many guests both bewildered and enlightened, as they stumbled into moments of major business revelations. Schrage’s line, “Making customers better makes better customers,” left a strong impression on the crowd, as his whole presentation seemed to resonate and settle in the minds of the audience throughout the entire event.

Tom Farrey, Executive Director of the Sports & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, joined SFIA President and CEO, Tom Cove, for a one-on-one discussion about the “once in a lifetime opportunity” presented by legalized sports betting. Farrey explained that sports betting could be used as a way to fund the base of our sports pyramid, and make meaningful progress in sports participation; however, it will require a serious amount of industry effort to ensure the money is allocated correctly.

On a very different note, an elite panel of retailers took the stage — Rick Mina (President of WSS), Jared Drinkwater (CMO of BSN Sports) and Joey Pointer (CEO of Fleet Feet). These executives have lead their companies to great success, while most others are struggling, if their doors are even still open…. How did they do it? “We’ve embraced technology,” said Mina. “Great communication and respect with your customers and vendors WORKS.”

In a time of seemingly severe retail disruption, moderator, Mark Sullivan announced, “THIS is the retail renaissance!”

Keeping up with the variety, addressing all changes, challenges and opportunities provided by today’s market, David Knies, Chief Growth Officer at ESSENTIAL DESIGN, gave an in-depth look at the rapid changes affecting everyday business. “In the past 15 years, 52% of the Fortune 500 companies have disappeared,” stated Knies. “We now live in an innovation economy. Your company is either disrupting other companies, or your company is about to be disrupted…”

Kevin Hall, CEO of Unifi, stressed the importance of sustainability in today’s marketplace, as younger generations are demanding sustainable companies. While discussing strategies such as a “circular economy” and efforts led by students holding companies accountable for their ecological footprint — It is clear that this is something worth investing the big bucks in — Not only for the good of the environment, but for any organization’s long-term success, as well.

Panel addressing mergers and acquisitions in the industry

In terms of trends, Alison Minter (Managing Director at North Castle Partners), Mike Dowse (President of Wilson Sporting Goods) and Seth Richards (CEO of Implus) led an intriguing discussion on the countless mergers and acquisitions occurring in the sports and fitness industry. “The Millennial generation is having an impact, where the spend on experiences is almost four times as great as on the consumption of goods,” said Minter, explaining influencers to these major organizational overhauls. “As it relates to fitness, the other trend we’re seeing is this sense of community. Fitness has become social. Consumers don’t meet up at the local bar, they meet up at a SoulCycle class.” Companies need to keep up with the rapidly-changing consumer, and frequently, in order to do that, a partnership of some kind is the solution.

Wrapping up Day 1, Senior Vice President of Nielsen Sports & Entertainment, Andrew Lafiosca, shared some of Nielsen’s most prominent and prevalent findings in the sports consumer world. The ways in which consumers watch and engage with sports today has skyrocketed, creating a fanbase with a non-existent attention span. While this makes marketing and advertising that much more difficult to grab the consumer, it has also started to drown out the importance of TV advertising. For the first time, in 2017, internet ad spend was at about $210 billion, overtaking TV ad spend, which came in around $190 billion.

The NPD Group enjoying time to network

Once all sessions had come to a close for the day, the summit guests enjoyed networking and a delicious dinner. However, it may have been the final speech of the night that really won over the crowd. After dinner, Lieutenant Colonel of the U.S. Army, Greg Gadson, delivered a heart-wrenching and truly inspirational message. Lt. Col. Gadson, former West Point football star and highly decorated Army commander, served in every major conflict over the last 20 years, and tragically lost both his legs in an IED attack in Iraq. He spoke to the audience about overcoming personal challenges — An athlete and soldier who could no longer walk. He spoke about teamwork and investing in others — As he would not have survived without the help of his men. Leaving the audience in tears, yet filled with hope and admiration, he was loved by all.

Lieutenant Colonel Greg Gadson speaking to the audience after dinner

After wiping the tears and gushing over a newfound hero, guests rallied into the night — more handshaking and business card swaps until the networking bar was filled to capacity! Eager businessmen and women looking to build new relationships dispersed into the streets of Denver, taking over every bar in sight.

The final day of the Summit started with a fan-favorite, “Breakfast with Matt Powell.” The audience loves this session, as Matt, a sports industry and retail expert with The NPD Group, provides the most up-to-date retail trends and future predictions. Reinforcing many thoughts, athleisure is still very much “in” and does not seem to be going anywhere. According to Matt, “Athletic apparel is now more acceptable than ever. Sixty percent of those wearing activewear at least several times a month, almost never exercise.” For the first time, not a single performance category is trending positively.

For a more controversial take on sports, Merril Hoge, former NFL player and ESPN analyst, took the stage with his colleague, Dr. Peter Cummings from Boston University. Merril, who is set to release his new book, Brainwash, shared his take on all things related to football, concussions and the validity of head trauma research. The discussion was quite provocative and, to a majority of the crowd, quite shocking, as he sifted through medical studies on head injury pointing out major discrepancies between the science papers themselves and the headlines touting outrageous statistics.

Next, a panel including Jim Weber (CEO of Brooks Running), Gwen Manto (Former EVP and Chief Merchandising Officer of both Sports Authority and Dick’s Sporting Goods) and Jennifer Harned (President and GM of Bell & Giro at Vista Outdoor) dove into the hot topic of diversity in the workplace; and more specifically, gender diversity. For instance, 67% of corporate C-suite positions are filled by white men. And that is an issue that needs to be addressed. Upon further breakdown, the remaining positions are 18% white women, 12% men of color and a mere 3% women of color. With Millennials and Gen Z being more diverse than ever, it is of utmost importance for any executive team to be representative of their consumer base, if they want to understand and connect with them.

David Cohen, discussing tariffs & trade

Last, but not least, David Cohen, Operating Committee Member from Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, P.A., took on the incredibly timely issue of tariffs and the looming trade war with China. While explaining the current situation, processes and remedies to tariffs, the overall message of Cohen’s presentation was, “It’s basic Econ 101: Prices go up. Sales go down. Jobs get lost.” As an expert and advisor on the subject of trade, the audience was captivated by his presentation — looking for guidance in unchartered waters.

Overall, the summit was a great success. The lessons, relationships and experiences that attendees brought home from this summit are unparalleled. We are already looking forward to addressing the new issues, obstacles and opportunities that arise in the coming year at the 2019 Industry Leaders Summit in Baltimore on September 25–26 — Don’t miss out!