Fighting in Nike's shadow

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Five years ago, when Kevin Plank was in the process of maxing out $40,000 in credit cards while trying to start a sports-apparel business, the idea of a celebrity endorser was unrealistic.

"We watched companies from Starter to Logo to Apex who did all these endorsement deals, and it just wasn't a profitable thing for us," Mr. Plank said. "Frankly, it wasn't even an option."

Even without the endorsement of a high-profile athlete, Baltimore-based Under Armour's sales are expected to exceed $20 million this year. While that's far behind industry leaders such as Nike, which posted $324 million in apparel sales in the quarter ended Aug. 31, it's a good payoff for President-CEO Mr. Plank's brand-marketing strategy that started at the grass-roots level and has stayed there.

Billing itself as a performance-apparel company rather than strictly a sports-apparel business, Under Armour has developed a line of shirts made of microfiber fabric that fit snugly around an athlete's upper body, like a second skin. The microfibers "wick" sweat away from the body and through the outside of the shirt, where it evaporates or runs off.

The inspiration came from perspiration. Mr. Plank was a football player at the University of Maryland who was forced to change the cotton T-shirt under his jersey several times a game. Near the end of his career, in the fall of 1995, he wondered why someone had yet to develop an undershirt from the same material found on the compression shorts he and his teammates wore.

The technology wasn't new-competitors North Face and Columbia, for instance, market the same style of clothing to skiers-but the idea of doing it for football and basketball was. "So I went to Minnesota Fabrics, took it to a tailor and had him make some shirts for me," Mr. Plank said.

In early 1996, he gave the shirts to some of his friends who were still on the team and asked them for an assessment. After a few minor adjustments, Mr. Plank began Under Armour from the basement of his grandmother's Washington, D.C., home that summer.

Mr. Plank, who handles all advertising in-house, set about building awareness with a small budget. Instead of trying to gain the support and endorsement of a big-name athlete, he marketed the merits of the shirt to equipment managers. Mr. Plank made his first sale to the Georgia Tech football team, then began sending his product to friends and former teammates who had made it to the National Football League. By 1998, NFL Europe signed Under Armour to be the official supplier of performance apparel to its teams.

Licensing deals with Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League estimated at $10 million followed. The company also began supplying apparel to 90 college teams and nearly every NFL team.

Five years ago, Mr. Plank eschewed the endorsement angle because he couldn't afford it. Now he capitalizes on what he sees as a form of free advertising. New baseball home-run king Barry Bonds, for instance, wore Under Armour during the season. "We knew players would get injured [and remove their jersey], or do a postgame interview in their [Under Armour] T-shirt, or maybe a pregame workout," Mr. Plank said. "We knew it would be seen."

Maintaining and growing sales for Under Armour, however, may not be easy. The new Starter Sportswear-the company went out of business in 1999 before being relaunched last year-exceeded $100 million in sales in 2000. Apex One and Pro Player, two other notable sports-apparel companies, also went out of business.

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