Success, someone once said, is 1% inspiration and 99%
perspiration. Yet for Kevin Plank, the two ingredients are
essentially one and the same. As a special teams captain for the
Maryland football team in the mid-'90s, Plank was vexed by the
prospect of having to change his sweat-saturated T-shirt at
halftime of every game and midway through practices. Why, he
wondered, couldn't someone design an undershirt from the same
material as his skintight compression shorts, which always
In the spring of 1996, with graduation and an uncertain future
looming--"The one thing I knew for sure was that I wasn't going to
be an NFL draft pick," Plank says--he went about solving his
clothing conundrum. Though he had no experience in either
textiles or fashion design, he spent much of his final semester
learning about fabrics, often driving through the night to visit
contract shops in Manhattan's garment district. When he found the
fabric he wanted, he went to a tailor and had seven shirts made
to order. He then asked Terps teammates to wear the shirts under
their jerseys at spring practice and critique them.
After making minor adjustments, Plank launched Under Armour
performance apparel in the summer of 1996, setting up shop in
Georgetown, in the basement of his deceased grandmother's house.
Rather than try to secure a loan or seek money from venture
capitalists, Plank took advantage of the credit card companies
that prey on profligate undergrads. He used his five pieces of
plastic to go $40,000 into debt. "It was obvious that I was going
to have to go broke before I could make it," he says.
Four years later, he's made it--big. Having grown faster than
Jack's beanstalk, Under Armour now sells its apparel to 75
Division I football teams and 25 NFL franchises and is an
official supplier to NFL Europe. The clothing is also featured in
the movie The Replacements, which was filmed in PSINet Stadium,
across the street from Under Armour's Baltimore headquarters.
This year the company will sell roughly 500,000 pieces of
clothing, including jog bras, hats, shorts and leggings priced
from $20 to $55, and the operation in Grandma's basement has
moved to a 15,000-square-foot warehouse, where Plank, 28, employs
45 workers. "I'm a little surprised how fast things are going,"
Under Armour is made from a stretchy synthetic fabric that is
designed to feel, as Plank puts it, "like a second skin." The
shirt's microfibers push moisture from the skin to the outside of
the garment--a process known as "wicking"--where it evaporates or
runs off the clothing. While a fully soaked cotton T-shirt can
weigh as much as three pounds, an Under Armour shirt suffused
with sweat weighs six to eight ounces, says Plank. "If you're
playing football and your body is two pounds lighter," he says,
"it can make all the difference over 70 to 80 plays."
To help his company grow, Plank and his management team tapped a
rich vein of football contacts. He sold his first big order to
Georgia Tech's equipment manager, Tom Conner, whom he had met
through ACC games. What's more, before Plank played at Maryland,
he spent a postgrad year at Fork Union Military Academy, a
perennial powerhouse in Virginia that boasts 13 current NFL
players among its graduates. "I didn't want to be like a third
cousin asking for a handout," says Plank, "but I called some of
those guys and said, 'Just try this stuff and tell me what you
think.' I figured once [the product] got in the locker rooms,
we'd be in good shape."
Though Under Armour's 2000 revenues should exceed $10 million,
the company's endorsement budget is next to $0. Even Deion
Sanders, who has called the company directly to place his orders,
gets an invoice. "I'm happy to pay for it," says Arizona
Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer. "Especially playing in the
desert, it helps me stay cooler than cotton does. I love the
As do, it seems, ordinary Joes. Under Armour's six lines have
been picked up by more than 600 retail outlets. "It's going
gangbusters for us," says Scott Edgerton, a senior manager at
Eastbay, the country's largest catalog company for retail
sporting goods. "It's one of the best-selling performance lines
we've ever had."
Still, there are a few potential chinks in the Under Armour.
Plank admits that as business burgeons, it's getting harder to
resist the siren song of cheaper overseas labor and
manufacturing. More important, the company owns no patent on the
fabric, and a handful of competitors are already manufacturing
knock-offs. Plank, though, isn't exceedingly concerned. "I guess
in a way it validates us," he says. "There's nothing we can do to
stop them; we can only control what we do."