Athletes and active outdoorsmen and women choose Under Armour as their active wear because of its superior quality. It is a relatively new company that started in 1996, but it has been producing a variety of sports gear and apparel that rivals to the likes of giant sports brands like Nike and Adidas. The success of CEO and Founder Kevin Plank lies on breakthrough technology, celebrity endorsements and smart product placements, which made Under Armour a $15 billion athletic-apparel empire as of 2015.
How Under Armour started
In 1995, Kevin Plank was a special teams captain of the University of Maryland football team. He wasn’t the best player in the field – he was just a smart guy who wanted a little bit of an edge on the game. He got tired of having to change out of sweat-soaked shirts he wore under his jersey, but he noticed that his compression shorts stayed dry. He wondered why no one had ever addressed this issue, like why don’t they make a better alternative for cotton shirts? He thought innovation in sports and sporting goods were limited to shoes and equipment, but apparel was always an afterthought.
This inspired him to make T-shirts that can deal with sweat. After graduating from the university, Plank developed his first prototype. After extensive research on the athletic benefits of synthetic fabrics, Plank designed the first HeatGear T-shirt, which he named the #37. It helps keep the athletes cool, dry and light even in hot conditions. He gave it to his teammates and friends who had gone on to play in the NFL. Once he perfected the design of the T-shirt built from microfibers that wicked moisture, he began selling the apparel out of the trunk of his car and his grandmother’s basement in Georgetown, Washington D.C.
Under Armour started in September 25, 1996 and got its funds from Plank’s personal savings worth $20,000 and $40,000 worth of credit card debt.
Origin of the Under Armour name
The Under Armour name was formed by accident. Back when the company was starting Kevin Plank wanted to call the company Heart, thinking that you can wear your heart on your sleeve. But it didn’t go through the patent and trademark process. His next idea was “Body Armor” and he told his friends and family that it’s the name he picked for his company.
But his friend who helped him negotiate patent and trademark said he shouldn’t get Body Armor since it’s already taken. He got disappointed. His older brother Bill asked him one afternoon, “How’s that company you’re working on, uhh… Under Armor?” Bill got the wrong name, but Kevin thought it was perfect. Kevin quickly went back to his grandma’s house after that, filled out the paper work and sent it to the patent and trademark office. The reason why stuck with the British spelling “Armour” was because he thought the phone number 888-4ARMOUR was much more compelling than 888-44ARMOR.
The Under Armour logo was out of the Under Armour name, combining the “U” in “Under” and a curved “A” in “Armour.” Today, the popularity of its logo is one of the driving forces behind their clothing and shoe sales. In almost all of Under Armour’s designs, their logo is the key design feature.
By the end of 1996, Plank made his first team sale to Georgia Tech for about $17,000. His next team sale was to North Carolina State. The prototypes he sent to his friends in the NFL was favored by the players, and soon, word began to spread among the players. In 1997, two dozen NFL teams followed, so by the end of his second year, he had sold $100,000 in product. He found a factory in Ohio who can make the shirts. Due to this, major competing brands like Nike, Adidas and Reebok would soon follow Plank’s footsteps in manufacturing their own moisture-wicking apparel.
Also in 1997, Under Armour introduced the first version of its now-famous ColdGear fabric, which keeps athletes warm, light and dry in cold conditions, as well as the AllSeasonGear line designed to keep athletes comfortable between extreme weather. By the end of 1998, the company outgrew grandma’s basement and moved in a new warehouse and office in Baltimore.
Another big break for Under Armour came in 1999, when Warner Brothers contracted the company to outfit two of its feature films, Any Given Sunday (a 1999 sports drama film), and The Replacements (a 2000 sports comedy). In Any Given Sunday, Jamie Foxx wore an Under Armour jockstrap. During the release of the film, Plank purchased an ad in ESPN The Magazine, which generated about $750,000 in sales.
More success and developments in the 2000s to 2010s
In the year 2000, Under Armour became the official outfitter of the new XFL football league, gaining even more attention during the league’s debut on national TV. In 2003, the company launched its first TV commercial which centered on the campaign “We Must Protect This House.” The commercials associated the brand with discipline, hard work and football valor.
Plant took the company public in 2005, and raised $153 million in capital. By 2007, Under Armour already opened its first full-line, full-price retail location at the Westfield Annapolis Mall in Maryland.
The company gradually opened specialty stores and factory outlet locations in 39 states, as well as in Canada and China. Besides Baltimore, Under Armour has global offices and headquarters in Austin, Houston, New York City, Pittsburgh, Portland, San Francisco, Toronto, Mexico City, Panama City, Sao Paulo, Santiago, Amsterdam, London, Munich, Paris, Jakarta, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul.
Under Armour slowly landed big time endorsements. In 2010, they signed Tom Brady by giving him equity in the company. In the early 2010s, it is also the major commercial sponsor for the A&E reality TV show Duck Dynasty.
The company also started making software acquisitions. In 2013, it started acquisition of MapMyFitness for $150 million, as well as Endomondo and MyFitnessPal in 2015.
In 2014, Under Armour passed Adidas in the list of the best-selling sports apparel brand in the US, second to Nike. That same year, the company signed Brady’s wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen to expand the brand to women. Ballerina Misty Copeland also signed and starred in an ad that easily went viral. In January 2014, Under Armour became the official uniform and athletic equipment provider for the University of Notre Dame.
Under Armour also faced backlash in 2014, when it provided the suits for the US speed skaters in the 2014 Winter Olympics. The team made its worse showing in 30 years, causing them to speculate that the suits were partially to blame. But when they reverted to the previous suits, the skaters continued to lose. However, the news of the suits still spread, causing the stock of Under Armour to drop 2.38%.
Luckily in 2015, the brand landed a high-profile endorsement that made it popular worldwide. For many people who never heard of Under Armour before, it became familiar because of its partnership with NBA superstar Stephen Curry, who the face of their new Curry One shoe line. Curry was originally signed to Nike, but joined Under Armour in the 2013 offseason. Because Curry became a two-time NBA MVP awardee and one of the most popular athletes in the world, the sales of the Curry One shoes became very significant for the company. The rise and fall of stock price of the company became affected by the success of the Curry shoe line.
In 2016, the company partnered with big-time companies and associations like IBM, North American Soccer League (NASL), UCLA and Major League Basketball (MLB).
Under Armour also became widely known for its partnership with PGA golfer Jordan Spieth, who had won major championships in2015 to 2017. The company has launched the first signature golf shoe line with Spieth, naming the line Spieth One.
The success story of Under Armour is inspiring, especially for up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Perhaps Kevin Plank never imagined that the small-time T-shirt business he started in 1996 would boom into the multi-billion athletic wear empire that it is today. That’s why he advises that if you have an idea, get it out there.