LAS VEGAS — “Why is a sports brand at CES?”
That’s the question that Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank asked a packed session at the Consumer Electronics Show on Friday.
It was an appropriate question. And while some in the crowd may have wondered why this former college football player turned apparel and footwear entrepreneur was hanging with the geeks, make no mistake that Under Armour very much views itself as a company fueled by innovation.
In other words, it’s not just a T-shirt company. At least not anymore.
That became apparently clear during Plank’s remarks, where he discussed the strides that Under Armour is making in using technology to connect people to their sporting lifestyles.
In conjunction with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Under Armour introduced a set of high-tech PJs that are designed to monitor an athlete’s sleep patterns, making it easier for them to prepare for the next day’s activities. It also unveiled three new pairs of its UA Record Equipped running shoes, which include sensors to monitor performance and activity.
Those moves are designed to keep Under Armour — a relative newcomer in the sports apparel and footwear business — in front of its bigger rivals.
And while you’d think that Nike or Adidas may be the first concern of Plank’s, he offered a slightly different take on the competitive landscape.
“The challenge that I give to our product teams each season isn’t about what we are going to do about our current competition,” said Plank. “It’s what are we going to do if Apple and Samsung decide that they are going to start making apparel and footwear. And, if they did, what would it look like? And, more importantly, what would it do? How do we beat them to it, how are we thinking ahead of that curve.”
The 21-year-old Baltimore-based sports apparel and footwear powerhouse didn’t always have innovation front and center.
Back in 2009 when the company’s headcount was soaring into the thousands, Plank said they only employed “a few dozen engineers.”
“I thought to myself: How can we fast-pace, fast-track it,” said Plank. “I realized this void, not only in our company, but in our industry.” Plank pressed the company to “thoughtfully address the problems that consumers face when it comes to sport.” Innovation was the key to that challenge.
To help accelerate those efforts, Under Armour went on a shopping spree, buying digitally-focused companies such as MyFitnessPal and MapMyFitness. It now has more than 300 engineers on its connected fitness team spread among Austin, San Francisco, Copenhagen and Baltimore. Under Armour also has invested in new products, including the Gemini 2 connected running shoe. Released at last year’s CES, Plank said the shoe collects all of the information that you’d need, from distance run to speed.
To help make his point about the power of connected devices and big data, Plank invited on stage Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who showed off a pair of Under Armour’s new line of connected shoes. The shoes are equipped with a “jump test” technology that allow athletes to jump six times in order to measure fatigue levels, telling athletes to “go hard,” “go even,” or “go easy.” “I wish I had stuff like this eight, four years ago,” said Phelps, who led the CES crowd in a jump test. “It is completely different now in what technology is doing, and how it is helping you get the best out of yourself.”
Last year, Plank said 2.6 billion workouts and activities were logged via Under Armour’s apps. The company boasts 194 million registered users, and is now striving to interconnect data in four core areas: sleep, fitness, activity and nutrition.
As Plank sees it, “data is the new oil” and he’s not about to let Under Armour cede its lucrative patch to anyone.
The goal, he said, is to create a “holistic system to help you make better choices about your life,” and turn “your data into direction.”
We often like to say that every company today is a tech company. And perhaps there is no better example of that adage than Under Armour.
Plank, who speaks in a style reminiscent of a competitive football coach, is not about to let others encroach on his turf.
“So when you think about what Facebook has done for social, what Amazon has done with Amazon Prime for purchasing, what LinkedIn has done for business, we expect to do with fitness and wellness,” he said.