Sports gear gets more gadget-y

Sporting goods makers who once treated technology as a threat are boosting revenue with online social-networking tools, mapping programs and wireless gadgets.

The shift is driven by falling costs for global positioning systems (GPS) and other technology, making once-pricey consumer goods affordable. In addition, educators are scrambling to get tech-savvy kids to exercise more.

Start-ups and other companies plunging into the industry are chasing consumers like Robert Parris, a sales and marketing executive in Atlanta shopping for his first set of golf clubs. Parris, 43, likes tech, and has budgeted up to $500 for "the latest and greatest," he says. He'd consider a GPS device, too, "if it makes it easier to find the ball."

Technology has become such a force that the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association is hosting a three-day conference on the subject starting Tuesday. Speakers are to include executives from Google and Nike.

Tech's been part of sports for years, spurring lighter-weight tennis rackets and powerful golf clubs like Callaway's elyBig Bertha. But marketers began worrying it was a threat in the late 1990s, when consumers began spending more time in sedentary activities like Web surfing, says Mike May, a spokesman for the sporting goods trade group. Now, the industry is leveraging tech in sports to get more business in:

•Running. Location Nation near Denver is launching a service today that lets runners upload and display on Google maps data captured with GPS gadgets. The data, such as distance traveled, are stored on the company's site, where users can then meet others with similar interests — as on social-networking sites Facebook and MySpace. nws The service is free; the company may seek revenue from ads targeted by interest, including hiking, rafting and other sports.

A second service, to be launched in November, lets subscribers track, for example, a runner's marathon progress in real time on Location Nation's site; monthly fees start at $12.95.

Nike nke launched a similar social-network site last year with its $29 Nike + iPod Sport Kit, using a wireless sensor tucked in specially designed shoes. Since then, users have logged more than 33 million miles on the NikePlus site, which also uses Google maps.

•Biking. GPS maker Garmin grmn is rolling out new versions of its bicycle computers that display turn-by-turn directions and record heart rate, cadence and other data. The information can be stored on a Garmin site and shared with others. The top model, Edge 705 with a color monitor, makes its debut in January for about $542.

•Hunting. Active Hunting Solutions, launched two years ago, sells digital cameras with motion detectors and cellphone technology so hunters can remotely track deer, bear and other big game.

Hunters place cameras at a spot where they expect game to pass. Once they detect motion, cameras snap a photo that's transferred in real time to the company's site — with time, location and other coordinates. Hunters then know whether game they're seeking is at that location, saving time spent in the wrong spot.

Infrared technology avoids flash, which can spook game, says President Junior Sanders. Cameras start at about $800. Monthly service fees are $22.95 for 80 photos, $39.95 for 200.

The industry's growing interest in tech comes when consumer sports equipment sales are forecast at $25.2 billion this year, up just 3% from last year, the National Sporting Goods Association retail trade group says.