Editor's Foreward: In this exclusive Inge Scheve interview, xcskiworld.com shines a spotlight on a truly unique success story in the endurance sport arena. A small, privately-held company based in Eugene, Oregon, SportHill has developed into a major player in the XC ski apparel market throughout North America.
SportHill's "shed the layers and keep the warmth"-concept of the XC line has graced the endurance apparel market for more than a decade and has changed the way many endurance athletes think about dressing for their sports.
In many ways, the XC line concept mirrors the philosophy of the company: "It's like running, itís so simple," says Jim Hill the founder of SportHill. Originally from Virginia, Hill came to Oregon in the 1980s as a student, ran track for the University of Oregon, "and sort of stuck here since."
During his time training in the soggy western Oregon weather, he felt the effects of poor fabrics: After years of practicing twice every day in cotton socks and nylon shorts of the kind that soaked and then let the wind through like a fishnet pantyhose, Hill eyed the potential for well-engineered, technical running clothes.
"In 1985, there were few options other than tights and baggy sweats," Hill recalls.
While running in Europe, Hill fell in love with the cut and the design of European apparel, and thought that if he could combine the finest of American fabrics with the best of European design, he could create a unique endurance apparel line. And so the SportHill concept was born.
Only a few years later, Hill added his XC line, known to endurance athletes as the gold standard of technical clothing.
The theme of the XC line has not changed much during its first ten years on the market, Hill notes. "And I bet we could be on the same theme for another ten years."
The XC line was first released for the 1990-1991 season. The Thanksgiving before, Hill was in Sun River (Mt. Bachelor) cross-country skiing in his regular running gear, he recalls. That was when he realized that runners have many of the same needs as cross-country skiers, although skiers have to brave snow and colder temperatures.
"The running apparel was OK but not great."
At the same time Hill was romping around Mt. Bachelor on cross-country skis, his Eugene-based company was testing an extreme-weather running pant in Canada. It dawned on Hill that the same pant that keeps runners warm in 20-degree weather can be used for skiing. A pant that wicks, blocks wind and keeps runners warm also suits the needs of cross-country skiers, winter bicyclists and kayakers, he says.
"We call this the miracle fabric because it performs so well in a wide variety of conditions."
The 3SP fabric SportHill uses for the XC line is a densely spun polypropylene fabric that provides a well-engineered balance between wind resistance, breathability, evaporation, insulation and ventilation, Hill says, explaining that this makes the garments well-suited for temperatures between 15 and 45 degrees. This combination allows athletes to laugh in the face of the well-established layering concept that has been thrown at outdoors enthusiasts for 25 years, Hill says. With fewer layers and less bulk, users move more freely and increase the fun.
SportHill is the official outfitter of the Canadian cross-country ski team and the XC Oregon cross-country ski team, a Bend-based elite development team that has put athletes on the 1998 and 2002 U.S. Olympic Teams and annually competes on both the international and North American circuit. Hill says he hopes these teams add visibility to the brand and add credibility when it is needed. And even though Hill sends sales representatives to outdoor stores, he says athletes' tendency to layer and over-layer is hard to overcome.
But shedding the layers translates to fewer pieces of clothing sold. "We are not particularly favored by other manufacturers because we are less expensive than the traditional layering concept." An XC pant, for example, sells for about $90, he says. A pair of high quality lycra tights costs at least $55 or $60, and to that, the athlete would have to add a wind shell and possibly thermal underwear. A layer system for your legs would add up to $150 or more.
"3SP is so unique in its simplicity and its pricing that from a marketing perspective it is hard to beat," Hill says.
Though the fabric used in the XC line has remained the same since it entered the market, the finish is constantly being fine-tuned to increase the comfort, Hill says. And unlike membranes that wear out and begin to leak or let wind through, the 3SP never has to be replaced unless itís torn or destroyed, Hill says.
The demographics of the XC line-users hardly differ from that of SportHillís conventional endurance apparel, Hill explains, but the geographics do. And just like his conventional endurance apparel costumers, the buyers of XC products stay costumers for a long time.
"Our market is Middle-America - people who want a lot of benefit from a fairly-priced product," Hill says.
The XC line is basic -- "It's the foundation of the wardrobe for extreme-weather sports," Hill says. Black is not that exciting, but people wear a vest with it to brighten it up.
The response cards and mail Hill receives from customers indicate that most are endurance athletes of some sort: runners, climbers, skiers, cyclists.
A rower from Quebec just sent an email raving about how wonderfully his XC apparel performs in the harsh north-eastern climate, Hill says.
Hill explains that SportHill's Philosophy is to concentrate on making great apparel, and from that the profit should follow. "If we can't make great apparel, we should find something else to do."