How Under Armour Tackled Nike and Adidas

My first sale was to the Georgia Tech football team in 1996. I had passed out some prototypes to my friends and word was getting around, but I was still looking for that first big sale. I realized the guys I needed to go after were the equipment managers, since they're the ones deciding what a team wears. So I got a list of all the equipment managers in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and sent them letters and samples of what I had. Tom Conner at Georgia Tech was the first guy to call back. He said, "We love your stuff. We want to wear it." Within a few weeks it went from a couple guys on offense wearing it to the whole team. Slowly my gear started trickling through the ACC. When Georgia Tech played Florida State that year, the equipment guy was there. He was a Florida State alum and after the game went down to the locker room and saw that some of the guys were wearing these Under Armour shirts under their pads. A couple days later, I was in my grandma's basement when the phone rang and the guy said, "I'm the equipment manager for the Atlanta Falcons. We want to buy your shirts." That was big. I ended up doing about $17,000 in sales that year, but it was still small potatoes. I knew this thing could get much bigger. And the next year it did. In 1997 I was up to $100,000, as more and more programs started wearing the stuff.

But I'd say my biggest break came in the summer of 1998. I was at a San Francisco 49ers preseason game. My buddy Jim Druckenmiller was the backup quarterback at the time, and we were hanging out before the game. One of his friends was there and started talking about this football movie he was trying out for, down in Miami. Turns out it was Any Given Sunday by Oliver Stone. I immediately called and found out their production location and FedExed down a box of gear. Late one afternoon a few days later, I got a call from Oliver Stone's office. "We love the gear," they said. "We want to put it in the movie. Can you send more samples?" They wanted like several thousand pieces of gear. I said, "Look, I'd love to, but we're a really small outfit and can't afford to send that much for free." So they called back and agreed to pay for $30,000 of product. I knew this movie was coming out in late 1999 and wanted to time our first print ad around the release. A half-page ad in ESPN The Magazine cost $25,000 upfront. At the time we were a company of about 12 people. I asked everyone if they thought we should spend the money, and most of them said no, that we should keep investing in ourselves. But I thought the most important thing was to tell our story. So I bought the ad, which proved to be hugely successful. The direct response to it kept us afloat through the spring of 2000. It was an important moment to take a bet on telling our story. That year was sort of a launching pad for us. We did $5 million in sales in 2000. We finished last year at $725 million.

Looking back, I never really knew how I was gonna make Under Armour happen, but I never believed that it couldn't happen. I'll put it like this: I was always smart enough to be naive enough to not know what I can't accomplish. I set out to build the world's greatest T shirt, and I think I've done that. You know, if I hadn't done this right out of school, I probably would've worked in the industry for five or six years and been intimidated by others and not ended up doing it.

Does it bug me that some of the other big brands have followed us into this market and that I see products similar to ours out there? No. It means the overall market continues to grow. But let's not forget—this was our idea. We built this market and we own it. I grew up with different brands, but we see ourselves as the brand of this youth generation, the 8- to 24-year-olds. That's not an entitlement. We have to get up every day and earn it just like everyone else. But I'm having tons of fun at it.