Sports Authority, EMS and the change in retail


The parent company of both the California-based Sports Chalet and the New Hampshire based Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) has filed for bankruptcy.  All Sports Chalet stores will be closed. The EMS stores will dwindle down in numbers.

Additionally, the Denver-based Sports Authority is quite possibly liquidating their stores and stock or, maybe, selling parts of the company. With over 450 stores, that is a large rumbling in the  sports and outdoor retail market. As of this writing on May 5th, the fate of the Sports Authority stores is unknown.

I have no specific thoughts on the Sports Chalet. I have never set foot in those stores and have no experience with them.

EMS and Sports Authority? Both those stores are intertwined into my life for various reasons.

The no longer present  EMS in Attleboro, MA is where I bought some of my first “real” outdoor gear. An EMS 5500 was carried on some of my first backpacks and on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I still have a fair amount of EMS branded equipment. The EMS branded Black Diamond snow shovel is a constant companion on winter trips and an EMS down coat is my puffy beater of choice.


And the long-gone EMS in Ft. Collins, CO is where I purchased my first ski touring gear. Used rentals from the previous season for the equivalent of $70 in 2016 dollars. A pair of boots and skis took me into the Colorado winter backcountry and introduced me to another great way to see the outdoors.

Sports Authority is based here in Denver of course. So it is a local store in many ways.  A store with its roots that go back a quite a bit in Colorado.

The Sports Authority in Boulder and near where I worked in Superior, CO were always dependable places for oddball items I would need quickly: Fuel canisters, white gas, propane canisters. Maybe a pair of socks or insoles for shoes.  Or perhaps if I needed a pair of gloves or a winter hat.  Quicker to get in and out of  and less expensive than REI.   ( As I noted before, the exact same camp stove is re-branded depending on whether it was sold at REI or Sports Authority..but with a nearly $35 difference at full retail price! )

The Sports Authority house-brand (Alpine Design)  was often pretty good for the basics, too. The wife and I make good use of their inexpensive, durable and very functional duffle bags for various camping or road trips.

Or using with a gear sled.

And the Alpine Design makes both my favorite wool beanie and my fleece pullover of choice. Both were for much less money versus similar items sold elsewhere and have served me well.

Wearing a wool beanie and my (now) very sun faded fleece pullover. Both from Sports Authority.

Finally, the Alpine Design house brand “casual” clothing is (was?) less expensive than Royal Robbins, Columbia or similar type of travel/outdoor clothing for around town use. (I don’t like to wear my outdoor clothing for non-outdoor trip use. Gets rather beat up looking! 🙂 )

What doe all this mean? It shows how if companies don’t adapt to the changing markets, demographics and technologies, they will be left behind.

EMS stores primarily were/are located at malls or even strip malls.

REI became a destination place and an experience that also really integrated its web presence into its traditional Brick and Mortar (B&M) stores.

Going to REI feels like an outting for many people: Community rooms for presentations, lectures or even classes. Climbing walls. Coffee shops…As I said, an experience. REI sells a lifestyle very effectively.  Their top-notch customer service in support of the lifestyle they are selling helps immensely, too.  People will also make a day at REI in some cases.

REI Denver. PCO USA Today.

EMS? Felt like picking up the groceries for many people.  The mainly suburban locations did not help either.

from Yahoo Finance.  EMS or the local DMV ???

Sports Authority? Their main competitor of Dick’s Sporting Goods would seem to be similar: All-in-one shop with hunting, fishing, camping, biking and general sporting goods.

But Sports Authority made some poor business decisions people much more qualified than I have talked about and analyzed.

Sports Authority Field at Mile High sign_1455806419730_316217_ver1.0
Exhibit A? – from 9News in Denver.

Dick’s proves there is a still a place for a general outdoor B&M store even in this day of Amazon, discount stores such as Walmart and specialized retailers for bikes, hunting, etc.

And, much like REI, Dick’s seemed to integrate its web retailing very well into its traditional B&M presence.

It is not that Sports Authority’s model of a general store for the outdoors and sporting goods was flawed per se. It was how they executed the model that was flawed in my opinion. Dick’s executed the concept well. The company is very profitable. 

From a purely selfish standpoint, having a general outdoor retailer close by was handy.

The Dick’s nearest to me is in a heavily trafficked and congested area at a local mall about ten miles up the road.

Myself, traffic and congestion do not go together well. To put it mildly.

I have not been to an EMS in years but I’ll always have a soft spot for them.

Sports Authority? Oh, I can still pick up the oddball and last-minute item at REI, I suppose.

But I don’t want to purchase a lifestyle.  I just want a fuel canister or a pair of gloves since I misplaced a pair. And inexpensive button downs on clearance are not bad.

Sports Authority sold those items inexpensively and efficiently for me.

I’ll miss it.

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8 years ago

The closest of any of these stores was still 30 miles away and none were easy to get in and out of. There has never been an EMS store close by. Dicks has had the greatest presence around here, but they are in the mall and traffic is bad. There is a Gander Mountain and a Scheel’s but they are pretty pricey and seldom carry what I might want. I’ve known that the Sports Authority store was closing for some time, but never took the time to look for bargains. The thing that is most difficult to come by and… Read more »

8 years ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

I seldom use the canister stoves, but I like to have the option. For most simple cooking, an alcohol stove works fine and it’s not that hard to find yellow HEET. I prefer denatured, but don’t always want to buy a gallon.

8 years ago

My only experience with EMS was in Manchester Center, VT on the AT. That one was tiny but I was able to get new boots and a belt to hold up my pants that were falling off me by that point. Sports Authority was ubiquitous in Florida when we lived there and was really the only outdoor store in many areas of the state. REI only came to Jacksonville (why they went there is beyond me…much better suited for Orlando) a few years ago. I’ll be curious to see what outdoor stores fill in the gap in Florida. Bass Pro… Read more »

Mike B
Mike B
8 years ago

When our Sports Authority started their going out of business sale here in No. California I didn’t realize I was the entire chain. We have a couple of other “Outdoor” chain stores here, Dicks and Sportsmen’s Warehouse, but the only decent places to get decent outdoor gear around here are the local Hermits Hut (mountaineering) and a small local chain, Sports LTD (biking, hiking, skiing, and mountaineering). To tell the truth, I’m not going to miss SA at all. They never carried gear that I found useful. I guess I’m not alone.

Bamboo Bob Sartini
Bamboo Bob Sartini
8 years ago

My two cents. EMS went the way of Eddie Bauer, Abercrombie & Fitch, Wilderness House, Go-Lite, and many other local “outdoor” stores. They become clothing stores instead of gear stores. Clothing has a way better retail margin than gear per sq ft of retail space, REI is in danger of being overwhelmed by clothing as well. But they do a lot of things very well and that helps them. There are so many small cottage industry players that compete well too. But really becoming a clothing store is a dead end for gear companies.