The real MVP: The unstoppable rise of Under Armour

With its first store in Dubai, Under Armour’s plans for world domination are on track.

Meryl D'Souza March 2, 2016

Many sports companies try to go by the adage 'get them while they’re young’.

Few succeed: Arsene Wenger with Arsenal until 2006, Billy Beane with the Oakland A’s in 2003 and this season, Leicester City have been taking the premier league by storm based on that same principle.

The code is simple: tie down prodigies when they’re young and it pays off in the long run. That was the business model Kevin Plank based his brainchild on back in 1996. A little less than twenty years later, Under Armour is worth nearly $4 billion in annual sales. It’s fair to say Plank has succeeded.

After a breakout year in 2015 where it surpassed Adidas to become the second biggest sportswear brand in the US, Under Armour has now set its sights on the untapped markets of the Middle East, with a new stand–alone store (below) at Dubai's shopping mall City Centre Mirdif. This is their second store in the UAE after opening one in Abu Dhabi’s Yas Mall in 2015, with future plans for 25 stores across the GCC. 

It started with a simple idea stemming from Plank's experiences as a decent NFL player during his University of Maryland days. Athletes need shirts that stay dry under all that padding. The idea resonated across sports. 

Plank began work on a moisture absorbing t-shirt in 1995. His prototype was a hit with Maryland teammates, and with their feedback he created the revolutionising technology that his Under Armour empire now stands on.

His first major sale was 10 shirts to an equipment manager from Gerogia Tech. That deal opened doors to contracts with Arizona State University, North Carolina State and other Division I American Football teams. By the end of 1996, Under Armour had sold 500 of its HeatGear shirts, generating $17,000.

Today, Plank’s company boasts all four MVPs from the top American sports on its roster of sponsored athletes: NFL’s Cam Newton, NBA's Stephen Curry, MLB's Bryce Harper and NHL's Carey Price. 

Also on the brand's books are the world’s number one golfer Jordan Spieth, two-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray, all-time Olympic gold medal record holder Michael Phelps, the Welsh rugby team and the Premier League’s Tottenham Hotspur — not too shabby when you consider the brand’s relatively young age compared to its rivals. 

Nike is ahead of the curve when it comes to market share and not by a short margin. But Michael Jordan's swoosh has a larger budget on its side, not to mention a 30-year head start, and Under Armour hasn’t been deterred one bit. While Plank's bets on young, unproven talent is paying off, his company has expanded its clientele from just sporting heroes to icons from other fields, such as Gisele BündchenDwyane “The Rock” Johnson, Jamie Foxx and Kylie Jenner among others. 

What will be interesting to watch is if Under Armour's new range of friendly faces can help the brand challenge Nike in the lifestyle market. To do that though, they’ll need more success stories like those of its MVPs, and hope that fans will want to dress like their athletes, or train like the most bankable wrestler-turned-actor in the business. 

One thing is for sure, now that Under Armour has well and truly left its footprint on the American sportswear market, Nick Plank will be hoping new customers in the Middle East and around the world can take it onto that next level of global status.