A US trends research firm has warned footwear companies that sports personalities are losing their appeal to youngsters, and that athletic shoes sales are falling as a whole in this sector because sports are losing their appeal for many young people.

Zandl Group, a New York-based trends research firm, says, "We have seen a steady decline over the past several years of young people's involvement in sport, based on their description of a fun time and the people they would most like to meet."

For example, in 1996, 23 per cent of respondents said the person they would most like to meet was in sports; by 1999, this figure was down to 15 per cent. In 1996, sports fitted the description of a "really fun time" for 17 per cent of respondents; by 1999 the figure was down to 10 per cent.

"The free agent system," adds Zandl, "has made professional athletes appear greedy to many kids while undermining the kind of loyalty they used to have for specific teams. And when it comes to entertainment value, it is hard for traditional sports, with all their time-outs, to compete with wrestling with its non-stop action. Consequently, the endorsement of professional athletes no longer moves many pairs of athletic shoes.

"With many kinds getting into sports at an earlier age, we are also seeing sports burn-out occurring at earlier ages. And for some young people with little patience for rules, coaches, and practice schedules, the immediate gratification of the entertainment world is hard to resist, so young people need fewer pairs of athletic shoes and they tend to last longer."

The news comes on top of a report by Kalorama Information on the US footwear market, which shows that it has only grown by 2.5 per cent annually over the past five years.

This overall figure disguises the trend away from dress shoes - down by 6.5 per cent annually, and the growth in rugged footwear - up by 14.3 per cent annually.

The market is dominated, however, by the casual category, which has grown 4.5 per cent annually and athletic by 1.2 per cent annually.

What is interesting, however, is that fashion designers like Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger are creating casual and athletic shoes in order to provide a complete line of luxury clothing. In retaliation, footwear marketers are extending their lines to include scarves, handbags, apparel and other accessories.

From Peter Embling, Shoestyle