UNDER ARMOUR WAS founded on a simple idea: Make athletes better. To do that, it’s turning human performance into a big data problem. The company is betting on the notion that the right hardware, the biggest dataset, a lot of machine learning, and powerful motivational tools can make everyone better, faster, and stronger. It’s betting that technology doesn’t exist solely to make us lazy, to bring everything to our door with the push of a button.
The centerpiece of that bet is a $400 kit, announced today, called Healthbox, that provides a scale, an activity tracker wearable, and a chest strap for measuring your heart rate. The company also is updating Record, its mobile app, making it a 24/7 real-time barometer of your fitness and health. These tools, combined with three apps Under Armour has purchased in recent years, provide the most comprehensive ecosystem of fitness products yet made.
This represents a huge investment for the company, which started 20 years ago in a basement in Washington, DC. The company’s spent more than $700 million since 2013 in a bid to correct a fundamental flaw in every activity tracker and app: None of them communicate with each other. Apps don’t sync with other apps. Or with most hardware. And switching from one device to another means starting everything anew. There are too many walled gardens, and, worse, most of these apps and gadgets do a lousy job telling you what to dowith all this information.
Under Armour is taking a comprehensive approach where everyone else is piecemeal. It worked with HTC on the hardware—a round glass scale, a fitness tracking wristband, and a heart-rate monitor. It also worked with Harmon Kardon on a pair of Bluetooth heart-rate-tracking headphones sold separately for $250. Everything is black and red and kind of aggressive looking in that way Under Armour loves so much. And it all connects effortlessly to the Record app at the touch of a button.
It’s all very slick. Very polished. But that’s not the point. Someone almost certainly will make hardware that’s cooler. Smaller. Whatever. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank doesn’t mind. In fact, he welcomes it. He’s committed to supporting anything anyone wants to make for Record.
All he wants is your data
That’s to be expected. After all, it’s all any tech company wants. And make no mistake: Under Armour is a tech company. That’s where this entire industry is headed. The days of dongles and wristbands and straps are numbered. It won’t be long before our fitness trackers are built into our shoes, our shirts, our headphones. Everything will be a fitness tracker, and every fitness company will be a tech company.
This is the idea that drives Plank. He doesn’t care what his designers and engineers and product people will do when Adidas or Nike makes a cool new shoe, or how they’ll compete with the next Fitbit. He’s thinking bigger than that, and he’s prepared to fend off all comers. All comers. “What are we going to do if—when—Apple makes a shoe?” he asks. “We’re contemplating right now, ‘How do we make it before they do?'”
The Under Armour story is a lot like a Tom Hanks movie: An all-American kind of guy walks on to a college football team and becomes beloved captain. He hates how sweaty his workout shirt always is, decides to make something better, and develops it in Grandma’s basement. His company grows and grows, eventually signs deals with Steph Curry and Tom Brady, and outfits everyone from the Notre Dame football team to Marvel superheroes. He earns billions making the world a better place where everyone looks cool and every drop of sweat is wicked. Roll credits.
Under Armour is growing like mad, and has been for years, but remains well behind Nike and Adidas. “It’s going to take five, 10, 20 years before they’re ahead of Nike,” says Adam Thorwart, a senior research associate at Strategy Analytics. It’s hard to out-swoosh the swoosh, after all. Plank hates being in third. He won’t even say Nike’s name, referring to the company only as “our competitor.” He’s got no more love for Adidas, which he once called “our dumbest competitor” on live television.
And so you can imagine that Plank is determined—you might even say obsessed—with shortening that takeover timeline. He knows his best shot at it is to stay ahead of the curve. After all, even though everyone makes a compression shirt these days, Under Armour still dominates the category. “I think first-mover advantage is a very powerful thing,” he says. Of course, being the first mover means knowing your next move.
Plank’s been planning his next move for quite awhile.
He telegraphed it almost five years ago, when hundreds of college football players descended on Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for the NFL Combine. Quarterback Cam Newton and wide receiver Julio Jones were two of the hottest players on the field, and everyone was watching them. At some point during the week, they all asked the same question: What is that on their shirts? Newtown and Jones were decked out in skin-tight red tank tops with a yellow … thing in the middle. It looked like a big round bug with an Under Armour logo.
It was the E39, a workout shirt with a removable biometric sensor measuring just about everything they did on the field. When Jones ran, his shirt tracked his heart rate, acceleration, and power. When Newton jumped, it measured the G-forces and and power in his vertical. Under Armour believed players could use the data to train better, and scouts could use it to make smarter decisions. No one had seen anything like it.
The idea started with a conversation four or five years earlier, when Plank grabbed a 0039, the compression shirt he’d created in his grandmother’s basement, the one that launched the Under Armour empire, and handed it to his head product guy, Kip Fulks. Make it electric, he said, not really knowing what that meant. “I just said, ‘Make it electric,'” Plank says. The project didn’t pan out. Oh sure, it was cool as hell, and it worked. But it was so complicated and expensive it wasn’t the slightest bit feasible.
Yet it changed everything at Under Armour.
All Your Clothing Will Be Connected
Plank made his next move in 2013, when Under Armour execs visited MapMyFitness to talk about an acquisition. It was a first for Under Armour, but Plank needed a tech team, fast. MapMyFitness had maybe 20 engineers. A good start. But Plank also needed a leader, which he saw in MapMyFitness CEO Robin Thurston. Plank knew Thurston’s crew was up to the task; after all, he used its MapMyRun app every time he ran.
During his presentation, Plank played a 60-second ad calledFuture Girl. In it, a pretty young woman wakes up in an austere, colorless apartment and walks to her dresser. She removes an Under Armour garment, one of an identical dozen, each neatly folded. The time, the weather, and the day’s schedule instantly appear in a projection before her. She dons the magical glittering fabric, which conforms perfectly to her body. As she does yoga, following prompts projected on her window, her vital signs appear on her sleeve. Later, with two taps, her outfit changes color and transforms from a full-body leotard into a stylish running outfit. It’s effortless, automatic, and oh so futuristic. “All you must provide,” a voiceover says over soothing beats, “is the will to make it happen.”