The Ode: Athletes World (1978–2013)

Time runs out for retailer.

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In 1978, the Bata footwear empire opened Athletes World, its first store dedicated to athletic shoes. It eventually grew into a national chain, with 210 locations across the country, selling sneakers and sports apparel everywhere from Cold Lake, Alta., to Corner Brook, Nfld.

But by the first few years of the 21st century, the chain was lagging, particularly in urban centres where increased competition from the likes of Foot Locker and Sport Chek put the squeeze on sales. According to court documents, Athletes World lost $7.4 million on sales of $186 million in 2006.

The company owed creditors more than $150 million, including $115 million to parent Bata. By then, Bata had begun a major shift of focus away from Canada toward the shoe-happy markets of Europe and Asia-Pacific, moving its headquarters from Toronto to Lausanne, Switzerland. In May 2007, Bata agreed to sell the 138- store chain to Michael Gold, owner of such retail brands as Suzy Shier, Stitches and Bluenotes.

Bata director Sonja Bata told the Globe and Mail her company was reluctant to give up on the chain. “Sometimes in business you might have to step back, and then you step forward again,” she said. “Our roots are Canadian roots. I hope that there is a way to succeed again.”

But the deal with Gold hit a snag over a tax dispute with the government of Manitoba, who claimed Athletes World owed hundreds of thousands in back taxes. Seven months later, Calgary-based Forzani Group—owners of Sport Chek, Sport Mart and Coast Mountain Sports—swooped in and bought the chain in a deal worth $21.5 million. Within days, Forzani announced it was closing 37 Athletes World stores.

In a conference call to analysts, Forzani’s then-CEO Bill Gregson said the purchase hadn’t been a deal the company was pursuing but saw it as a strategically defensive move. “If someone else is going to be coming in who has deep pockets and was prepared to focus on athletic clothing and footwear in the malls and get aggressive, we’re better off having that under our belt,” he said.

By 2012, shortly after Forzani (now FGL Sports) was purchased by Canadian Tire, there were just 43 Athletes World stores scattered across smaller centres and rural areas like Yellowknife and Bathurst, N.B., which were not already swamped with other Forzani stores. In May, Canadian Tire said it would be closing 115 stores across Forzani ’s retail brands in order to focus on growing Sport Chek. FGL president Michael Medline said, “In our work leading up to the acquisition of Forzani, it was clear that banner closures would be necessary.…These banners are expected to be generating unprofitable sales at the time they are closed and are not strategically well-differentiated.”

Athletes World stores began closing in January, with the remainder to be closed by March. Though it was hinted some stores might be converted into Sport Cheks, Athletes World leaves no heirs.

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