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Company Rolls Along On Popularity of In-Line Skate

October 3, 1988

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) _ To the delight of two Minnesota companies, exercise enthusiasts around the country are rollicking on a new set of wheels that look like ice skates and ride like roller skates.

″We’re going after people who want to have some serious fun and want to make the investment in the product,″ said John Sundet, president of Eden Prairie-based Rollerblade Inc.

Sundet would not disclose financial information about the privately held company, but said Rollerblade has 75 percent of the $10 million to $12 million market for the skates. Rollerblade’s top competitor is Blaine, Minn.-based First Team Sports, which sells its version of the in-line skate under the brand name of Ultra-Wheels.

″It’s a healthy competition,″ said John Egart, vice president of marketing for First Team Sports. He said First Team has about 20 percent to 25 percent of what he estimates is an $8 million to $10 million market.

″It’s very similar to roller skating, but it has the feel of ice skates,″ said skater Gary Baglien, who stopped for a breather during a recent spin around Minneapolis’ Lake Calhoun. ″There’s definitely more speed than the conventional skates.″

Baglien, who skates every other day to stay in shape, said using the in- line skate is ″a little more tricky″ than the conventional skate, particularly when it comes to stopping.

The ″in-line″ skate looks like a hockey skate mounted on a line of three or four wheels. A rubber brake pad is located on the back of the right skate as opposed to the front bumpers on many roller skates.

Its popularity began among hockey players and cross-country skiers looking for a way to stay in shape during the off-season, but has recently spread to others looking for an alternative outdoor exercise.

The company’s biggest markets used to be in ice-skating strongholds such as Boston and Minneapolis, but now the hottest sales are in southern California, where they’re popular in places such as Venice Beach. New York’s Central Park is another popular spot for single-track skaters.

″It’s not a toy, not a frivolous type item. It’s to an extent a recreational product,″ said Sundet. ″Fitness is the key, particularly with all the concern about health lately.″

A Rollerblade study claims to show that users of the skates improved aerobic endurance and reduced body fat. Sundet said skating with in-line skates is a great alternative to jogging because there is less pounding on the joints.

The skates, which sell for between $89.95 and $175, are assembled at the company’s Eden Prairie headquarters, then shipped across the country and overseas. Most of the parts are made overseas.

″We’ve barely tapped the market nationally. It has an enormous potential to become a nationally recognized product,″ said Sundet, who expects strong Christmas sales.

Egart said First Team Sports is not particulalry troubled that ″rollerblade’ ′ has become synonymous with in-line skates. ″We’re doing our best to make people aware that there are other manufacturers out there other than Rollerblade,″ he said.

Two years ago, Rollerblade had two models of in-line skates; This fall, they have nine. The original model was black, similar to hockey skates, but Rollerblade is now using brightly-colored boots and wheels.

Rollerblade is taking measures to ensure the skates will not become just another fad. The company is supporting an in-line skate federation, creating competitive events and is considering expanding into a line of accessories and clothing.

″I’m very optimistic that this is not a fad,″ said Sundet, who at age 40 is the company’s oldest employee. ″We really do think there is a long-term market for this product.″

The company’s sales in July were four times what they were last year, and Sundet said they plan to stay on top of the market. The company’s marketing strategy includes skating demonstrations from seven vans that travel around the country.

Rollerblade received a publicity boost last winter when Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka called the Metrodome the ″Rollerdome.″ Minnesota Vikings General Manager Mike Lynn countered by sending Ditka a pair of Rollerblades and Lynn also outfitted the Vikings’ cheerleaders with them to wear during the Dec. 6 Vikings-Bears matchup.

The company got its start nine years ago when Scott and Brennan Olson, both high school hockey players, were looking for a way to condition in the summertime.

The brothers purchased a pair of what Brennan described as ″crude, slow″ in-line skates on sale for $15 at a sporting goods store, and set out to create a better skate.

Six months later, they were selling them out of their parents’ basement in Bloomington, Minn. Scott Olson later sold the company while Brennan stayed on and is now Rollerblade’s director of research and development.

″We are constantly improving the product and coming up new ones that are more appealing to a wider variety,″ Brennan Scott said.

While the in-line skate seems like the latest innovation in the skating world, the concept dates back to the early 1700s when a Dutchman nailed wooden spools to strips of wood and attached them to his shoes.

End Adv Monday Oct. 3

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