As apparel sponsor of the U.S. speedskating team, Under Armour collaborated with aircraft firm Lockheed Martin to create what it trumpeted as the fastest, most aerodynamic speedskating "skin" ever: the Mach 39. With the eyes of the world on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the suit was to be UA's global coming-out party as it expanded internationally against rival Nike. Nearly 20 years after its founding, the $2 billion apparel and shoe company still generates 90% of its revenue in North America.
But the party almost didn't get started. When the U.S. long-track speedskating team started to lose, skaters and critics blamed UA's high-tech racing suits, questioning whether vents in the back were actually slowing the skaters down.
UA put technicians to work, patching the vents for panicky U.S. speedskaters. That didn't improve the team's performance. So Team USA tried switching to older UA suits. That didn't work, either. U.S. long-trackers failed to medal for the first time since the Sarajevo Games in 1984.
A Wall Street Journal article detailed the criticism and the company's attempts to fix the suits. UA executives on the ground in Sochi were bewildered, but knew they had a crisis on their hands. The athletic company had touted the Mach 39 as a game-changer, and that was now being interpreted in the worst way.
The company considered its options. Going into full lockdown mode ran counter to UA's reputation as a scrappy underdog challenging Nike. UA was built around athletic-performance wear, and the Sochi allegations went to the heart of the brand. Painting U.S. team members as a bunch of losers looking for excuses wouldn't wash either -- that could boomerang with the American public.