- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2002

Four Baltimore City police officers knew where to go for that extra layer of warmth on a cold and windy afternoon in January.
They ducked into the offices of Under Armour, a growing 6-year-old company that makes a tight-fitting, long-sleeve shirt that rechannels body heat and helps maintain body temperature. The officers were looking for the same type of shirt that Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington wears for games in cold weather.
Typically, Under Armour, owned by former Maryland football player Kevin Plank, doesn't sell its athletic performance apparel from its 1600 Bush St. business office near PSINet Stadium, but it has made exceptions for the officers.
And why not?
Under Armour is getting wooed from all sides these days. When he explored the plan for Under Armour in spring 1996 as a Maryland senior, Mr. Plank's goal was simple: to make a lightweight alternative to the cotton T-shirt.
But he has expanded the company's scope from one shirt a sleek undershirt made of a hybrid fabric that sheds moisture and acts as a "second skin" to six lines of athletic gear made for hot and cold weather.
Two weeks ago in Las Vegas at the Super Show, one of the most prominent sporting-good trade shows in the country, Under Armour introduced its new line of women's apparel.
No longer is the company a small business run out of Mr. Plank's grandmother's basement in Georgetown, as it was in 1997. It has grown 300 percent per year since 1996, and continues to grow out of its warehouses. He expects to expand his staff, now with 80-plus employees, to more than 100 in the coming year.
"We're continuing to build to be the premiere brand in performance apparel," Mr. Plank said. "A lot of people are coming after us, but we're committed to it."
Bigger manufacturers like Nike and Reebok are scrambling to close the gap by creating similar products.
Under Armour posted $25 million in sales in 2001, and Mr. Plank anticipates doubling that figure this year.
All but two National Football League teams and 91 college football teams wore some form of Under Armour this past season. Baseball, hockey and lacrosse players also have discovered its benefits, and although Under Armour has become available to the weekend athlete, it holds its roots in a product made by athletes, for athletes.
"[Players] loved it," said New York Giants equipment manager Ed Wagner, who noted that Under Armour would custom-make gear to players' preferences. "Everything you could want, they made. They have something that works in all climates. It's pretty impressive to a player when a company will make something with their input."
The genesis for Under Armour came when, as a fullback for Maryland in the mid-1990s, Mr. Plank didn't like wearing the traditional cotton T-shirt under his shoulder pads the shirt would become soaked with sweat, heavy and uncomfortable. But the need for lightweight upper-body apparel had not been met.
"It was a natural evolution," Mr. Plank said. "It was a product whose time had come."
Ryan Wood, a company vice president who played at Arizona State University and had a brief stint in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, had known Mr. Plank from their days at Fork Union Military Academy where they battled for starting time at fullback, to block for future Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George and had kept in touch through college.
Kip Fulks, a former lacrosse player at Maryland who now plays for the National Lacrosse League's Washington Power and is the company's other vice president, was introduced to Mr. Plank through a mutual friend after college.
Mr. Plank and Mr. Wood parlayed their connections in pro sports into sales opportunities.
Mr. Plank would send gear to former college teammates in the NFL such as Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jermaine Lewis or the Pittsburgh Steelers' Chad Scott, and the players would critique the product. Better yet, Under Armour got exposure through word of mouth.
"From when we discussed [Under Armour] for the first time, you could see where this was going," Mr. Wood said. "I don't think any of us knew it would grow and develop to what it is today."
Mr. Plank said he has rejected several bids from larger companies to buy his company, and boasts that no other brand can make the claim that Under Armour does that the product originated from athletes.
Howard Smith, Major League Baseball's vice president of licensing, says the "made by athletes" factor is the main reason why baseball has a multiyear agreement with the company.
"They offer an extremely unique product, which is a tremendous point of difference to anybody," Mr. Smith said. In terms of apparel manufacturers, "Under Armour is one of the real special ones."
Local production and distribution is perhaps Under Armour's greatest advantage over its competitors. If a team needs cold-weather gear for a game in two days, Under Armour can fill the order with custom-made apparel. Other companies often rely on items already in stock and can't turn around apparel as quickly.
If Under Armour had a "big break," it came when Mr. Plank arranged to have the casts of "Any Given Sunday" and "The Replacements," films released in 1999 and 2000, respectively, outfitted in Under Armour gear for football scenes. The films generated invaluable exposure, and Mr. Plank also had the foresight to gamble on an ad in "ESPN: The Magazine" in 1999 and orders jumped by 8,000, delivering $350,000 in sales.
Now that Under Armour has 2,200 distribution centers throughout the United States and is available in Asia and Europe, Mr. Plank can laugh when he thinks about how Under Armour was exposed on national television.
The Atlanta Falcons, the first NFL team to wear the product, were playing on national television in 1997, and he watched as several players during the game came back to the sideline with rips in the sleeve seams. He rectified that problem.
"Little things like that," he said, "help keep us ahead."

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