Women’s Golf Apparel Industry Growing, But Not Without Challenges

The growth of women’s sportswear continues to be a major positive trend in the global apparel market, and for good reason. Estimates have found that American women alone wield between $5 trillion in and $15 trillion in purchasing power, and their influence on industry trends is visible to even the casual observer. The “athleisure” segment grew 11 percent in 2016 to reach nearly $46 billion in sales, compared to $219 billion in overall U.S. apparel sales that year. And yet, stunningly, women’s sportswear continues to be an afterthought for many companies, an add-on of product lines that would never be worn off the course or the court.

Women’s golf, in particular, has been plagued with this unfortunate status since its inception. Scottish women in the Victorian era played the game worse not because they were less talented, but because their attire included crinolines, bustles, and multiple petticoats. This made it either challenging or impossible to swing and putt with ease, and golfers had to wear arm and skirt bands to hold clothing in place during play. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that showing ankles became acceptable, saving thousands of women from “the muddy skirt problem.”

Fast forward to today, and women’s golf apparel is still playing catch up for both fashion and function. Today’s options seem to vacillate between stodgy and masculine (think boxy polos in pastel colors) and ultra-tight and revealing, more suited for Michelle Wie’s Size 0 body type than the typical golfer. When the LPGA waded in to the debate last summer, issuing a new dress code that forbid “exposure of the bottom area at any time…racerback tops without collars, and…plunging necklines,” the controversy came to a head.

Many observers decried this as “body shaming” of the worst kind, a difficult to police set of guidelines that only reinforces the sports stodgy image. As LPGA pro Paige Spiranac put it so well, “What constitutes a plunging neckline? … [A] curvier, fuller-figured woman would be chided and fined far more often than a woman with a smaller bust. In a world where women are continually and unwantedly sexualized, this new rule serves as yet another reason for women to feel ashamed of their bodies, and a reminder that to be respected, they must alter their behavior because of outside perception.”

If this leads to fewer girls and women picking up the sport, it will reverse one of golf’s more positive recent trends. While the sport has lost overall players since its Tiger Woods heyday in the early 2000s, nearly 1 million more women took to the links in 2016 than in 2010. Their average age is 40.7 years, younger than the male average, and a third of all golfers under 18 are girls. Their shopping habits reflect it; golf apparel sales are estimated to grow at a rate of nearly 6 percent annually through 2021. Expanding the global women’s golf community has been called the sport’s $35 billion growth opportunity. In the broader sportswear industry, brands like Athleta have succeeded by focusing on a customer demographic aged 35 to 55, with an increasingly active lifestyle and a higher average household income. Golf has yet to do the same.

All of these factors – growing demand, an evolving and increasingly discerning marketplace, and a shifting dynamic in the role that women’s sports are playing – led to our launch of Kinona earlier this year. The brand seeks not only to provide women of all ages with stylish, functional and flattering options, but also to empower a new crop of female entrepreneurs through its Champions sales network. So-called “momprenuers” have been wildly successful in redefining traditional sales models, and direct selling, a sector dominated by women, reached $183.7 billion in global revenue in 2015.

At the ANA Inspiration LPGA tournament last week, Kinona’s co-founders joined other women business leaders not only in the merchandise tent, but at the ANA Inspiring Women in Sports Conference. The conference featured speakers including financial feminist and former Bank of America executive Sally Krawcheck and Team USA Hockey stars Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureaux. It’s has become a can’t-miss event for female entrepreneurs, especially those focused on the sporting world. The conference is a spectacular opportunity for serious discussion alongside fierce on-the-course competition, as well as a celebration of the empowerment vehicle that women’s sports has become today. As women, as golfers, and as entrepreneurs, committed to the growth of the sport and the industry we love, we were proud to be part of it.

Dianne Jefferies and Tami Fujii are apparel industry veterans and co-founders of Kinona, an innovative golf and lifestyle brand. Learn more at www.kinonasport.com