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 half-time 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 stayed dry?
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," he says.
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 stuff."
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."