Monday November 16th, 2015

This is a story about socks.

But it involves some of the world’s most prominent athletes and brands. There are patents and investors and incalculable millions on the line. And it pulls back the curtain on a family dispute involving one of the most powerful men in sports.

You might not think much about high-performance athletic socks. But Jim Cherneski does. In the fall of 2007, Cherneski had an idea. He was the player-coach for Crystal Palace USA, a Baltimore-based minor-league soccer team, and for years he had grown tired of having his feet move inside his soccer cleats during games, no matter how tightly he tied his shoelaces or how much he reduced the size of the shoes he bought.

“If I was sprinting and went to change directions rapidly and explode into a new direction, I would feel my foot slide on the bottom of the shoe, and my foot pushed off the outside leather of the shoe,” Cherneski says. “I felt like I didn’t have full explosion going in the new direction. I played often as a wide midfielder, and if I was sprinting down the wing to put a cross in, my plant foot would move a lot in my shoe.

“It drove me crazy.”

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After the last game of the 2007 season, Cherneski found himself railing about the problem again to his wife, Erin. “Well,” she responded, “just go and figure it out.”

And so he did. He began researching materials and movement. He visited a sock mill in Alabama and told the people there what he wanted to achieve. And over the next two years, through trial and error, he refined his idea in his garage and—crucially—patented it.

Cherneski’s socks had non-slip gripping pads on the inside and outside of the footbed, so that they would simultaneously grip your foot and the inside of the footwear so the shoe feels like it’s part of your body. The result: When you change directions sharply, your foot no longer moves a few millimeters or more inside the shoe before you explode in any direction.

“So you get what we call better power transference in the new direction,” Cherneski says. “In the plant foot, you get more stability when striking the ball, especially when you’re running at pace. You just have the stability that I think all players are seeking.”

Eight years after he started pursuing his idea, Cherneski’s upstart company, TruSox, has become a remarkable guerrilla-marketing success story, confounding the giants of the sports apparel industry (including Nike, Under Armour and Adidas) and winning the loyalty of many of the world’s top athletes in soccer, football, baseball, rugby and cricket—none of whom are willing to use their names while talking about the product, for fear of endangering their own apparel endorsement deals.

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But the evidence they’re wearing TruSox is plain to see on television and in photographs from games: The rows of trademark dots on players’ socks extending up from the heel. In order to have the required direct contact between their TruSox and their cleats, players will use scissors to cut the foot and lower-ankle section off their uniform socks and wear the upper part as a tube sleeve that’s affixed with athletic tape to their TruSox above the ankle.

Who wears TruSox? The world’s most expensive players in soccer (Gareth Bale) and baseball (Miguel Cabrera), to say nothing of the world’s No. 1 cricket batsman (Joe Root). Cherneski, who has moved with his family to Manchester, England, says that four years after Victor Moses became the first Premier League player to wear TruSox, 25% of Premier League players are now wearing his product. He estimates that nearly 100 players were wearing TruSox at World Cup 2014 in Brazil.

In their first full seasons wearing TruSox, both Bale (2012-13) and Luis Suárez (2013-14) won the Player of the Year awards in the Premier League. Other big-name devotees in European soccer include Arjen Robben and Edinson Cavani. Suárez is the only global athlete who’s paid by the company to wear the socks, Cherneski says, so they can have an image for sales displays. No other athletes get a dime right now, though they do receive free product (The socks retail for a steep $40 a pair).

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The socks are also worn by several members of the U.S. national teams, both on the men’s side (including Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Mix Diskerud and Omar Gonzalez) and on the women’s side (including Hope Solo, Kelley O’Hara, Megan Rapinoe, Heather O’Reilly and Ashlyn Harris).

But what do the athletes themselves think about the socks? How much real benefit is there? And is it more psychological—i.e., a placebo effect—than actual?

SI.com spoke to three soccer players who had tried TruSox but stopped wearing them. One did so because he/she was threatened with fines by their pro league. One said he/she didn’t find a significant benefit.

And another, U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones, said: “They work pretty good. I was wearing them, but since my shoes are a little tighter I don’t need them really. But if you slip in your shoes then they’re really good.”

But two U.S. national soccer team players who do wear TruSox explained why they continue wearing them, even though they’re not paid to do it and risk being fined and angering their own apparel sponsors.

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Icon Sportswire/AP

Do these socks really work?

“They work,” says the unnamed U.S. women’s national team regular. “They definitely work. In the beginning, it was sort of a novelty. What is that? Why are they wearing those? What’s so good about them? I want to try them. Aesthetically, they kind of have a cool look that’s sort of subtle, but you can definitely tell people are wearing them.

“Then you put them on, and straight away they’re comfortable. They fit. For me, I found going back and forth between the national team and club team and just working out on my own, you’re constantly changing. Some socks are thicker, sometimes you get game socks when they’re brand new and they’re slippery. I’ve found with the consistency of one sock all the time, you always know what you’re going to get, and you have it in every color. I run in them, I train in them, I lift in them, I play in them, I practice in them.

“I have kind of sensitive feet, and having that consistency across the board every day is a little mind-blowing. And for me, playing on [artificial] turf so much, I’ve found I slide less in my shoe. It’s actually easier on my feet in my shoe on my toes and toenails. I don’t think it’s [just] a mental thing, I really don’t.”

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The unnamed U.S. men’s national team regular flashes a knowing smile when the topic of TruSox is brought up.

“I’m losing money wearing them,” he says, estimating that he paid “around $5,000” in fines to MLS this season for wearing uniform apparel in games not provided by league sponsor Adidas. “But once I started using them, I can’t be without them.”

“For me, personally, I sweat a lot with my feet,” the player continues, citing TruSox’s argument that the socks still work even with sweaty feet, “and I like it because my foot doesn’t move. I don’t have to worry about my shoes, and my foot feels comfortable. For a soccer player that’s the ultimate. I started wearing them two years ago, and I feel a huge difference when I play without them.”

In a written statement, an MLS spokesman confirmed that the league fines players who show the TruSox branding on the field during an official game. “The uniform socks are included under Adidas’ partnership with MLS,” the statement continued. “Adidas has exclusive rights as they are part of the on-field uniform. Thus, a player wearing TruSox is in violation of our agreement with Adidas … Also, Adidas has developed a comparable product that can satisfy the need for better traction in boots.”

TruSox devotees disagree with the “comparable product” statement, and Cherneski notes his company now has nine patents that are either approved, issued or pending, some of them in 54 nations across the globe—the entire point of which is to prevent the big companies from copying the product and putting TruSox out of business.

“There’s a reason for the patent system,” says Cherneski, “and it’s to give entrepreneurs a chance to be in business. It’s all about patents. We’ve invested to this point hundreds of thousands of dollars protecting our intellectual property. And it’s paid off, because no one can get into the space without infringing on that.”

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For its part, Nike—the apparel sponsor for the U.S. national teams—issued this statement: “We invest in innovation for every aspect of the uniforms we create, including socks. We also adhere to the guidelines issued by soccer’s governing bodies on use of branding and logos on all parts of those uniforms, including the socks.”

Yet both U.S. national team players interviewed for this story said they had not been fined by U.S. Soccer for wearing TruSox in games.

“I haven’t been personally told not to wear them,” said the U.S. women’s player, “but my agent knows they would prefer for me to not wear them.”

Cherneski tells plenty of stories about athletes going to significant lengths for their TruSox in the face of corporate and team/league resistance. Like the one about Bale telling him he started washing his TruSox at home when Tottenham Hotspur (an Under Armour team) refused to do it for him. Or the one about receiving an online order direct from Turkey for Michael Essien. Or the one about Spurs forward Erik Lamela, a recent convert, asking for more and saying, “I can’t train or play without these.”

“We’ve had players texting us before the World Cup final saying: ‘Can you please send me TruSox where you can’t tell they’re TruSox because I have to pay [fines] if I’m going to wear these?’” says Cherneski, whose brother, Bobby, is in charge of sales and the player liaison in North America. “And then we say: ‘I’m sorry, that’s an essential part of the product. We’ll provide them to you, but we can’t provide something that’s not our product.’ We’ve also had NFL players tell us they’ve been threatened with a $10,000 fine for wearing the product.”

This is a story about socks. But it’s also a story about the sports business, circa 2015. How Jim Cherneski took TruSox from his Maryland garage in 2007 to the feet of the world’s best athletes is a rollicking tale. And where TruSox goes from here? Oh, you can bet that will be another one, too.

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Fred Beckham/AP

During Crystal Palace USA’s seasons in 2008 and ’09, Cherneski (who was still the player-coach) would pass out prototypes of TruSox to his players, who told him: You’re onto something here. “The product was uncomfortable, and it only worked in dry conditions. It didn’t work when you started to perspire,” says Cherneski. “So it took some time to develop from there. But it was a good start, and we actually filed for a patent on it.”

Cherneski’s club, meanwhile, was struggling. The English club Crystal Palace went into administration in early 2010 and stopped paying Cherneski’s salary. At the same time, the U.S.-based backers of Crystal Palace USA fell on hard financial times. Cherneski’s team was going out of business, and he and his wife were running out of their own savings to stay afloat. When his patent attorney called and said his year-long patent-pending wait had finally been approved, he could barely find the $1,500 to pay the issuing fee.

Later in 2010, the club’s accountants had a meeting with Cherneski about his personal taxes. “Jim, we know the club hasn’t been paying you,” one said. “What have you been living on?”

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“Well, we had some credit cards, but we’re at the end of our rope with those,” Cherneski replied. “We’ve been living off anything that was saved up, and we’re out. We’re out of money.”

“Do you have any assets?”

“No. I have a mortgage I’m upside down on. I have a car with 280,000 miles on it. I have another vehicle I still have payments on.”

Then Cherneski thought some more. “I do have a patent,” he said. “I believe in it, but I don’t know where to go from here with it.”

One of the accountants, Jeff Ring, was intrigued by the patent, and he said he would look into finding an investor he knew who could buy a portion of Cherneski’s patent in exchange for paying off his debts. Two weeks later, Ring came back saying he couldn’t find anyone to be an investor, but he himself wanted to invest, along with his accounting partner Sandy Fisher.

As Cherneski recalls, “They both put in—relatively-speaking now—a small amount of money and said, ‘Go develop this further. Let’s start a business.’ So that’s what we did.”

For the next year, Cherneski kept tinkering in the garage with his prototypes at night, and the next day he’d try them out during workouts with fellow soccer players in the park. In November 2011, things came to a head. “We found a product that worked in all conditions,” Cherneski says, “and I was like, ‘This is it. It works. This solves the problem.’”

Initially, Cherneski had wanted to call his product Traction Socks, and he tried to come up with different ways to use the word traction. But a friend and colleague at Crystal Palace USA, Pete Medd, suggested using a form of the word true. Eventually they settled on TruSox.

Cherneski started calling some of his contacts at Crystal Palace, who connected him to former Palace player Victor Moses, who was now with Wigan in the Premier League. Cherneski sent Moses some socks. Moses soon texted back: Jim, I love these. Can you send me more? Cherneski was elated.

At almost the exact same time, however, his investor money ran out. Another potential investor promised $50,000 but backed out. One day, Cherneski, who’s religious, was driving from Columbia, Maryland, to his home in Bel Air and listening to a Christian radio station.

“I’m praying: God, I thought this was what you wanted me to do. These guys supported me when I didn’t have anything. Now we’re out of money and I don’t know what we’re going to do. And on the radio there’s a guy saying, ‘Well, we wrote this book because we believe God puts ideas in people’s minds and wants to develop companies and products. We talked to a number of people who had an idea in their head and didn’t do anything with it, and then you see it on a store shelf two years later.”

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​Cherneski saw it as a sign. He persuaded Ring and Fisher to invest more money. And soon Moses wasn’t the only Premier League player wearing TruSox. In January 2012, his Palace contacts helped set up meetings with Newcastle United, Tottenham and West Ham United. “I passed them out on a Friday, and the following day there were four guys in the Premier League match wearing TruSox,” says Cherneski. “I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re wearing them.’”

Thus began a strategy. Cherneski would use his English soccer contacts to get the socks in players’ hands (and on their feet). Later, when it would come time to introduce TruSox in other sports like rugby and baseball, Cherneski would hire credible former professional players to share the product with current players. Word of mouth took it from there, and the popularity of the socks skyrocketed. In one year, Cherneski estimates more than one-third of rugby’s Aviva Premiership started wearing TruSox.

The Premier League has been a similar growth story, and so too have international retail sales as global distribution has increased.

“In 2012, we had seven players in the Premier League wearing TruSox and about $70,000 in sales,” Cherneski says. “The next year [2013] we had maybe 10% of the league wearing them and did $500,000 in sales. The next year [2014] we had over 20% of the league wearing them and did $2 million in sales. That brings us into the current year [2015], with over 25% of the league wearing TruSox.”

“We think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg. We’ve moved something like 300,000 to 360,000 pairs of socks this year. We think we can hit a million in 2016, and that would provide revenues of $20 million. The revenues have been growing pretty consistently around 400% year over year.”

Cherneski was making so many trips to England to Europe that he finally moved his family of four to Manchester in August 2013. All the while, the growth of TruSox hasn’t stopped.

“We have equity firms that want to take us public right now,” he says. “We’re just weighing up our options. Some are saying we just want to make a private investment in you, what can you get for this amount of money? There are about 10 different conversations going on with major groups, whether it’s equity groups, groups that want to take us public on the London or New York stock exchanges, and major apparel companies have approached us as well. On the back of the success of this, there has been lots of outside interest and internal interest in making this full branding.”

And that right now is the fundamental question for Jim Cherneski and TruSox. Do you want to sell your company to Nike or Adidas or Puma? Or do you want to try and become the next global giant in sports apparel?

Enter Bill Plank.

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Denis Doyle/Getty Images

Bill Plank wants you to know something right from the start.

“I’m not a sports fan,” he says. “I ran track. I do alpine skiing. Individual things. Team sports has never been my wheelhouse. So I don’t have the fan gene. I don’t know what it is that makes people care about whether one team beats another team.”

He really means it. When Plank talks about Cherneski’s stable of global soccer stars wearing his product, he says it’s better than “Nike’s relationship back in the day with … what’s his name?”

Jordan? Michael Jordan?

“Yeah. Exactly. Michael Jordan.”

You probably don’t know Bill Plank—one of three investors in TruSox and, since 2013, a 20% owner of the company—but you have likely heard of his youngest brother, Kevin, the hard-driving CEO of Under Armour.

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Under Armour recently became the No. 2 sports apparel company in the U.S., passing Adidas to trail only Nike.

With a market cap of $18.8 billion and a stock price that has climbed 27% in the past year, Under Armour is the personification of Kevin Plank, a former University of Maryland football player who hit it big selling athletic apparel with moisture-wicking materials found in other areas of the garment industry.

Before Under Armour became Under Armour, it was called K.P. Sports. Bill Plank says he was asked by the sons’ mother, Jayne, to help Kevin with the business he was starting. According to Bill, 13 years Kevin’s senior, he said yes because their father, William, had died, and so he decided to help.

“I tried to show Kevin: You need a name, you need a logo, you need a product identity,” Bill says. “He had no interest. None. So I tailored all that stuff around him and sent it to him in little bites.”

Wait, what? For nearly half an hour Bill has been finding creative ways to avoid saying the name "Under Armour," using phrases like “the other business I was involved in” and “the other company.” So it seems worthwhile to ask: What’s the nature of your relationship with your brother and Under Armour?

“My relationship with Kevin is strained, and my relationship with Under Armour is over,” Bill says.

Later he explains: “With Under Armour the task was to fashion the identity around Kevin’s personality so that he would accept it. I think I did a good job, such a good job that Kevin thinks he thought of it.” Bill laughs. “And that’s the reality. And now Kevin’s in a position where nobody contravenes Kevin on anything. You get to a point in the world where you just banish people who don’t gibe with you."

“I got all kinds of things out of Under Armour. Under Armour just never followed through on any of them,” Bill will say later. “Because it wasn’t Under Armour yet. It was K.P. Sports. And K.P. Sports was Kevin, and Kevin and I made lots of deals. But Kevin does what he has to do to get what he wants. And then once he gets what he wants, that’s what he got. So with the family partnership that I set up that got tied to Under Armour, eventually there was a settlement made. And basically it’s an ugly story. I don’t really like going there.”

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In response, an Under Armour spokesperson issued the following statement: “The comments are inaccurate, and this is a private family matter.”

Brother-vs.-brother feuds have happened before in the sports apparel industry, of course. Most famously, the German Dassler brothers, Adolf (Adi) and Rudolph (Rudi), split bitterly in 1948 and founded their own warring shoe companies, which became Adidas and Puma.

In that case, Rudi Dassler was known as the salesman brother, while Adi Dassler was the shoemaking expert. The Plank family is a little different. Bill freely calls Kevin “a genius salesman” and casts himself as a branding guru, a self-described “hippie” who helps budding CEOs laser in on an overarching identity and strategy. After meeting Cherneski two years ago through a mutual friend, Bill Plank decided not just to invest in TruSox but to try and push Cherneski into making it the next giant global sports brand—the next Under Armour, if you will.

“I came up with one solution then,” says Plank, “and I’m going: This is an opportunity to do virtually the same thing with an even better setup. Because in this instance the guy [Cherneski] has a real product, O.K.? He’s not just taking a product from one market and arbitraging it into a different marketplace. He’s actually invented a product that is unique … The patentability means it is in fact unique.

“And soccer means it has a way bigger starting reach than football did. In my experience, tailoring a brand around the chief salesman is what you do. You pick your zealot and make your message around what he’s interested in. So that’s kind of the thing. In the case of the other company, I think their success was based on the tailoring around the football mentality of the American ‘F--- yeah, U-S-A!’ and throwing the ball and thumping your chest and saying ‘f--- you’ and then thanking Jesus for it.”

“I actually came to believe that most people are in football so they can do that. The football itself is irrelevant. It’s just the one arena left where you’re allowed to behave like a complete a--hole and get paid for it.”

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Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

An intriguing thing happens when you enter the URL “TruAthletic.com” into your web browser. You’re taken to the TruSox website. It’s pretty hard to build a global brand with “Sox” in the name. But Athletic? That’s a different story. “If TruSox does choose to go the branding route, TruSox will become TruAthletic,” says Bill Plank, “and TruAthletic will be a force to be reckoned with in the international branding arena.”

Plank has a theory, one that he feels has already been supported once by his experience shaping Under Armour: That it’s possible to build a thriving brand, a range of top-selling products, based on the success of one particular product.

“I will be disappointed if we sell TruSox to another company,” he says, “because it will not let me test out my theory: That the application of this thought process to the problem of branding based off of a one-product company actually works like a formula. That would give me an enormous amount of satisfaction, probably way more than the money. I would rather get my theory proven here than have any amount of money at all. If my theory is right, the upside is virtually unlimited.”

But Plank owns only 20% of TruSox. It will not be his decision in the end, but rather Cherneski’s. And Cherneski isn’t so sure what to do. He could make a lot of money by selling to one of the big companies, and they’re interested.

“If I said there are five major companies, the only major one that has not approached us is New Balance,” Cherneski says. “There are times when those offers get tempting, and there are ongoing conversations right now as an example.”

The conflict between product and brand, the same one Bill Plank originally had with Kevin, is now happening between Bill and Cherneski. You could argue that it’s a useful tension at times, but the conflict is often real. Plank gets frustrated over a number of things: that Cherneski refuses to make top athletes pay for their socks; that Cherneski hasn’t done more to go out and raise more money; and that Cherneski hasn’t done more to hire a bigger marketing staff. Plank laments that TruSox is still “a garage band.”

“Jim’s soccer fandom is giving him a very, very narrow focus,” says Plank. “My involvement in the company was to broaden that focus.”

And Cherneski has decided to take and use some of that advice. So TruSox has branched out into other sports besides soccer. It is nearly ready to launch a new outdoor-sports product called the TruSox Adventure Series, with “Descents” for downhill skiing and snowboarding and “Ascents” for hiking and climbing. And six months ago, at Plank’s insistence, Cherneski hired a graphics designer to work on branding materials. The TruAthletic brand is there to launch—but only if Cherneski wants it.

The graphics artist “has been creating cohesion where there was little to none and helping Jim put some of this stuff out there,” says Plank. “Now we’re on the verge of having clothing we can do. We have a hierarchy of wordmarks, trademarks and logos. He can be a brand in two seconds flat if he had any money, if you hire these guys. The only thing standing in his way is the fact that the people wearing his product can’t say they’re wearing his product.”

“I’ve been staunchly and forever on the side of build a brand,” Plank continues later. “But it takes a certain kind of leader, a certain kind of a personality to do that. Kevin is definitely one of those people. I’ve never met a better salesman, never met a more focused business guy. I don’t see those guys very often. I don’t know if Jim’s exactly that kind of guy. We can hire them. I don’t have the personal ambition to be that. I just looked at Jim as a project. I have delivered on my part. It’s up to him to decide what he wants to be.”

“I’ve encouraged him to go in the direction of the branding. I’ve never seen a better-positioned opportunity … It’s truly amazing. He’s got people who can’t be paid enough to do anything in the world who are willing to take a punch from their endorsement guys and say, ‘Screw you.’”

Whether or not Cherneski sells his company, he knows he and his family will be fine. The socks he worked on for so long in his Maryland garage are now being worn by the world’s top athletes in soccer and a host of other sports. Cherneski is an athlete at heart, a grinder, and he feels like he found a solution to a problem for himself and other athletes. The possibilities for a great idea can be limitless. And they can also bring out all the things that make us human.

This is a story about socks—and a whole lot more.

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