Title 9 Sports Founder Recalls Rocky Beginning

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BURLINGTON, VT -- Title 9 Sports founder/president Missy Park related her humble start in the catalog business in her "Building Authenticity Into a Brand" address at the New England Mail Order Association's Fall 2003 Conference here yesterday.

"In 1989 I mailed a whopping 15,000 catalogs," she said. "The results were a little underwhelming. We got precisely four orders ... and of those four orders, there was one person I didn't know.

"Smarter people would've quit at that point. There was a sports bra on each of those four orders. The first catalog was digest-sized and was ... 16 pages, and I pretty much spent all my money at that point."

Then she sent a one-page folded flier, producing a response rate that wasn't much improved. But it had more sports bras, so it was "a little better."

The cataloger of women's athletic apparel hired its first full-time employee in 1991 and became profitable two years later. It has been profitable every year for 10 years and now mails 26 million catalogs annually with 70,000 three-month buyers. It employs 115 people.

"Women don't buy brands," she said. "We join them."

This comment segued into a video of a photo shoot that had Madonna's hit song "Vogue" as the soundtrack.

The audience then learned that the average American woman's bra size is 36C, "but a lot of our models are 36-much-less-than-A. Our models [are] not really models at all. They're our friends and our teammates."

She added the hope that the company's models, rather than focusing on how good they look, demonstrate to customers "competence and confidence."

"I'm sure a lot of you see Madison Avenue versions of athletic women as sort of adorably dorky," she said. "We really look to show women athletes as what they are -- as incredibly competent."

She also mentioned the importance of her book's captions. An example shown to the audience included a photo of an athletic woman along with facts such as: Brigid; occupation, sales rep; accomplishment, ironman; hobby, martial arts.

"The captions really resonate with our customers," she said. "They let our customers know that our models are real women, with real jobs and real families. They're just trying to fit their mountain bike riding amongst a ton of other responsibilities. They are not some Madison Avenue ideal of perfection. Our hope is that our customers see our models as a potential running partner, as someone they can be or at least be friends with."

She drew plenty of laughter and some applause while winding down her talk.

"We believe that thong underwear has no place in sports," she said. "We could sell a truckload of it, unfortunately. Can you imagine running a marathon in a thong? Yikes."


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