Plank has the affect and intensity of a head coach--direct eye contact, military analogies, the air of someone you do not want to disappoint. "Winning is a part of our culture--it's who we are," he says in his lofty office overlooking the harbor. (The only artwork behind his desk: a giant UA logo, its letters stacked to evoke arms raised in victory.) "And culture is formed on habits." Perhaps the most important guardrail, and the company's official mission, is seeking to "make all athletes better." It has long equaled thinking about clothes as high-performance gear, but recently it's taken on a big new meaning. ... Over the past two years, Under Armour has spent close to $1 billion buying and investing in three leading makers of activity- and diet-tracking mobile apps. By doing so, the company has amassed the world's largest digital health-and-fitness community, with 150 million users. Plank envisions all of those users, and their metrics, as a big data engine to drive everything from product development to merchandising to marketing. Many observers, though, balked at the $710 million cost of the acquisitions ... the high-stakes bet on Connected Fitness will be slow to pay off. Under Armour recently increased its projections for the next two years, estimating that it would nearly double net revenue by 2018, to $7.5 billion (up from a previous estimate of $6.8 billion). Only $200 million--a paltry 2.7 percent--will come from Connected Fitness. ... "If I'm right," he says, Connected Fitness "becomes a force multiplier that takes us from shirts-and-shoes company to true technology company. If I'm wrong, it costs us some money--we have $710 million on the table."
IN THE 2013 offseason -- coming off a year in which Curry had started 78 games and the Warriors had made the Western Conference semis -- Nike owned the first opportunity to keep Curry. It was its privilege as the incumbent with an advantage that extended beyond vast resources. "I was with them for years," Curry says. "It's kind of a weird process being pitched by the company you're already with. There was some familiar faces in there." ... Curry was a Nike athlete long before 2013, though. His godfather, Greg Brink, works for Nike. He wore the shoes growing up, sported the swoosh at Davidson. ... Nike had every advantage when it came to keeping Curry. Incumbency is a massive recruiting edge for a shoe company, as players often express a loyalty to these brands their NBA franchises might envy. And Nike wasn't just any shoe company. It's the shoe company that claims cultural and monetary dominance over the sneaker market. According to Nick DePaula of The Vertical, Nike has signed 68 percent of NBA players, more than 74 percent if you include Nike's Jordan Brand subsidiary. ... According to Forbes, Nike accounted for 95.5 percent of the basketball sneaker market in 2014. In short, its grip on the NBA universe is reflective of a corporation claiming Michael Jordan heritage and a $100 billion market cap -- all advantages that might explain why Nike's pitch to Curry evoked something hastily thrown together by a hungover college student. ... A PowerPoint slide featured Kevin Durant's name, presumably left on by accident, presumably residue from repurposed materials. "I stopped paying attention after that," Dell says.
An underdog ethic is still baked into company lore, even though last year Under Armour overtook Adidas to become the second-biggest sportswear brand in the U.S. In May, the company signed the largest sponsorship deal in the history of college sports, paying $280 million for a 15-year contract with UCLA. The company has invested more than $700 million in fitness apps and activity-tracking technology, and it hired the designer Tim Coppens, a ready-to-wear rising star, to help snag a portion of the lucrative “athleisure” market. ... These days, Under Armour looks like an underdog only when held up against Nike, a company that Plank and other executives refuse to even name. “Five years ago, our largest competitor was 12 times our size,” Plank says. “Then it was 11 times, then 10 times. Today, they’re roughly six times our size. But the fact is, they’re still six times our size. So we have a lot of work to do.” He clearly relishes the idea of the world’s biggest sportswear company feeling Under Armour breathing down its neck. ... Plank’s appreciation for the overlooked and underestimated—he’s the youngest of five brothers—is manifest in his affection for Baltimore. On the surface, there may not seem to be much linking the edgy, gritty city of John Waters and The Wire with Under Armour’s performance-bro aesthetic. But Plank sees an affinity between Baltimore’s hardworking, blue-collar past and his company’s relentless striving to be the best sportswear company out there.