Under Armour looking to wrest gold from rivals

With the Wimbledon tennis championships just around the corner, the heavyweight global sports brands will once again battle for supremacy at one of the highest profile sporting events in the world.

Long dominated by Adidas and Nike, complete with their respective three stripes and swoosh trademarks, the sporting universe is increasingly noting the arrival of an upstart interloper — Under Armour.

Famous for advertising slogans that pass into common parlance like: “Ordinary Is Unacceptable, Every Detail Makes You Better”, the Maryland-based company established 20 years ago in a basement continues to muscle in on the big players’ territory.

With its first-quarter earnings having doubled, analysts estimates, bolstered by sales of $1.05bn (€0.93bn), well ahead of projections, the company has long passed its debutant status, and settled into being an industry player with attitude.

“Our core business remains incredibly strong and our net revenue growth is clear evidence of the continued expansion in the breadth and depth of our brand,” said Kevin Plank, chairman and chief executive.

A former University of Maryland sportsman who hated having to change his sweat-soaked cotton T-shirts at regular intervals during training, Mr Plank created the first moisture-wicking performance shirt that enabled athletes to cope with weather extremes. 

Working from his grandmother’s basement in Washington DC’s Georgetown neighbourhood, he travelled up and down the east coast selling his revolutionary new product out of the boot of his car. By the end of 1996, Mr Plank made his first team sale, generating $17,000 in sales.

“We are confident in our ability to build upon this tremendous momentum, reinforcing our belief that we are just getting started in becoming the next great global brand,” he said recently.

In Euromonitor International’s latest research, Under Armour held 4% of the North American sportswear market in 2015, surpassing Adidas to become the number two sportswear brand in value behind Nike.

Mr Plank slowly outgrew his grandmother’s basement as he added further climate coping fabrics to the Under Armour catalogue, and then, in 1999, Hollywood came calling. Pitching and securing the contract to supply apparel to the Oliver Stone film, Any Given Sunday, starring Al Pacino and Jamie Foxx, the controversial movie became the launching pad for Under Armour across the US. 

Slowly gaining minor market share, the company scored another coup in 2003 with its legendary TV advert, “Protect This House”, fronted by football legend Eric ‘Big E’ Ogbogu who made the phrase a rallying cry for athletes everywhere.

Five years later, the brand began to add high profile clients to its roster — an essential for successful global marketing. Gold medal skier Lindsey Vonn, two-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady, and tennis prodigy Sloane Stephens were among its first big names. 

In 2012, one of the brand’s biggest athletes, swimmer Michael Phelps, cemented his legacy as the most decorated Olympian of all time. He was joined by basketball star Stephen Curry, regarded as the company’s leading marketing light, followed by golfing star Jordan Spieth.

On this side of the pond, tennis star Andy Murray signed a deal with Under Armour rumoured to be worth €20m, while the company also supplies apparel for the Welsh rugby team and Premiership side Tottenham Hotspur. 

It may be some time before Nike and Adidas lose their top spots on the revenue rostrum, but Under Armour’s edgier, more youth-oriented designs and advertising campaigns are garnering ever larger slices of the market.

In a period of strong global growth in the sportswear industry, Under Armour’s entry to the fitness and technology sectors has bolstered further its customer base. 

Having acquired workout tracker MapMy Fitness, personal fitness app Endomondo and calorie monitor MyFitnessPal, the company has added another revenue stream that seems poised to multiply significantly.

Its joint venture with HTC smartphones to launch HealthBox, an activity wristband and heart rate monitor is another jigsaw piece in its long distance plans. With its revenues continuing to increase across the US, Under Armour is targeting overseas markets in the next phase of its remarkable success story. 

The Olympics in Rio in August could be the chance to bite on a larger chunk of a global sportswear industry worth $270bn. As an opportunity to reach a global audience, the Olympics could see Under Armour nabbing gold from under the noses of its older rivals.


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