The Under Armour Innovation Center is behind two security doors in a building on the company's campus, across a set of freight-train tracks from the building that houses Plank's office. Kevin Haley, the company's head of innovation, an athletically built guy with close-cropped blond hair, walks me down a hallway past sewing machines and 3-D printers used for rapid prototyping, including one he calls the Big Daddy. About 30 people work in the innovation department, focusing exclusively on the most forward-looking and longest-gestating projects. Under Armour also throws the place open to outside inventors from time to time; the company sponsors a business competition every year at the University of Maryland, Cupid's Cup, named after Plank's collegiate rose-delivery business, designed to spotlight up-and-coming entrepreneurs. Plank says he wanted Under Armour to be a welcoming place to anyone with an interesting idea; if some 23-year-old kid comes knocking on the door, "there's not some bureaucrat who's sitting there going, 'Oh, no, no, no; let me tell you how the process works.' They're going, 'Hey, man, that's pretty cool.' And they'll know, 'Come to Under Armour and we'll give you a fair shake.'"
Plank told me a story about how this process can work: A few years ago, he found himself in the New York Rangers locker room after a game, and he noticed the players wearing a type of compression short he'd never seen before. "I'm like, 'Why aren't these guys wearing our shorts? What's that product?' It's the Coreshort. It's this guy named Greg, a physiologist. Who wears it? Everybody. Everybody on the Rangers? No, everybody in the NHL. Like, all right. We can knock him off. We can buy it. Or we can license it." And that's what they've done: Under Armour now sells hundreds of thousands of Coreshorts at twice what Greg was selling them for. "We should be the platform," Plank said. "I want everybody in the world to think of cool ideas. If you can do it yourself, great. But if you're concerned, or if you want validation? Come to Under Armour."
Haley and I arrive at a wall where several shirts are hanging. They have circular holes in the center where computer sensors would go to monitor heart rate and other performance data. "These are our early Frankenstein prototypes for our 39 project," Haley says. Five years in the making, it launched in March under the name Armour39. Named after the original compression shirt – prototype No. 39 – Armour39 is an interesting window into where the company is heading. The day when our computers and our clothing fuse together seamlessly is not that far off; Under Armour dramatizes this in a commercial playing in the lobby featuring "Future Girl," a woman who pushes a button and changes the color of her clothes. It's an open question whether the technology companies or the clothing companies will define what this fusion looks like and thereby control the market. With all the disclosures lately about how tech companies like Google and Facebook are handing over customer data to the National Security Agency, are customers likely to trust them to manufacture things they actually put next to their skin? "Am I supposed to give that [market] away to the computer guys?" Plank says. "Who does the customer trust more? Who's going to be leading that charge? Will it be Facebook? I don't know. I know we'll be there in some way, shape, or form."
Haley brings me to a small workout area draped in black fabric. This is where they've been testing Armour39, as well as what he calls a "revolutionary" new bra and a new kind of shoe that's going to "revolutionize the footwear industry."
Under Armour has been trying to break into footwear for seven years now, without a lot of success. It still controls just a tiny slice of the U.S. footwear pie – 2 percent. The desire to make shoes was always there, says Fulks; they'd never be as big as Nike if they didn't make shoes. "Just wait until we make shoes," they used to say to each other. "It's gonna blow up." Adds Fulks, "Obviously a little naive." Cross-trainers, basketball shoes, running shoes – nothing has seemed to stick. Plank says it's taken the company that long to figure out the complicated logistics of making shoes in factories overseas: "Sometimes you're just going to make mistakes for seven years." But they were also trying to take market share from an overwhelmingly dominant competitor: Nike owns 40 percent of the U.S. athletic footwear market and 90 percent of the basketball-shoe business.
Nike has loomed large for Plank since the very beginning; he used to send Nike CEO Phil Knight a Christmas card every year, writing, "You will hear about us one day." Plank doesn't talk much about Nike anymore. He calls them "the guys from out West," as in, "The guys from out West are valued at $50 billion. Are they nine times more valuable [than us]? I don't know about that." (Nike's market cap is $50 billion; Under Armour's is $6 billion.) Plank makes sure to tell me he thinks Knight is a good man, and respects him. "He's also nearly 40 years older than me. So it gives me at least 40 years."
The cards have changed a bit over the years. Under Armour isn't just a start-up staffed by Plank's bros anymore, although the bros are still around; he's been able to lure top talent from Nike, Reebok, and other major fashion brands. After seven years of struggle, Plank finally believes they're ready to take on footwear – this time with a new kind of running shoe called the SpeedForm.
I'm introduced to Dave Dombrow, senior creative director for footwear, a young former Nike employee with a shaved head, a plaid Under Armour shirt, and a soothingly inspirational style of speaking. He shows me the SpeedForm. The shoe's distinguishing feature is a completely seamless heel, which gives it an ultraclose fit. Dombrow hands me a pair; they're incredibly light and look like slippers. Under Armour likes to show off this shoe because, for one thing, it seems distinctively Armour-ish in a way that its other shoes didn't; with its bra-cup-like heel, the SpeedForm is basically a compression sock for your foot. But the shoe also gives Plank a chance to talk about Baltimore. A typical shoe requires 100 to 200 sets of hands to make, which means chasing cheap labor all around the globe. The SpeedForm requires only 40 or 50 sets of hands, because it's made in a bra factory, not a shoe factory, using manufacturing methods not usually used for shoes – like "ultrasonic" welding, a way of fusing material together without stitches. "We think we can get it down to 20, 30 sets of hands," Plank says. If so, it may be cost-effective to manufacture in America instead of China.
"The public markets do not value jobs the way they once did," Plank says, leaning back in his chair. "In the early 1970s, GM was the most valuable company in the world. Sixty billion dollars. They had jobs for a million Americans. You take the four horsemen of Silicon Valley? Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook? That's 150,000 jobs. And collectively posting a trillion-dollar market cap.... So where are the jobs here? Does everybody work at McDonald's?"
Suddenly, Plank starts reeling off growth percentages; that's how guys like him keep score. Under Armour grew by 24 percent in 2010, 38 percent in 2011, and 25 percent in 2012. "I'm not guaranteeing it, but if we grow at least 23 percent for the next seven years, we're a $10 billion company. So that's five times from where we are today. What if we could just find a way to bring 25,000 jobs back to Baltimore city? Can you imagine what that would mean? Actually find a model that can invigorate the city of Baltimore again?"
This is where you start to involuntarily nod along with the guy. Plank isn't Wall Street; he's not a social media company. He's not hawking credit-default swaps or some dipshit app. He's a guy making shoes and shirts, actual physical products, things that come from factories and create jobs. At the same time, he's so passionate about what innovation can do that it's easy to forget what it can't do. For instance, innovation probably can't do anything to protect the shy sack of mayonnaise that is the human brain if the human it belongs to is hitting another human with a force of 15 to 20 Gs, which is the force that a lineman generates on every play, and which is about equal to a car hitting a brick wall at 30 miles per hour.
Earlier this year, Under Armour joined the Head Health Initiative, a $60 million partnership with the NFL and General Electric to reduce brain injuries in the league. The effort isn't very far along, but there are reasons to be skeptical that it's an earnest attempt to solve a problem and not just a public relations move to deflect criticism and liability. (At the time the initiative was announced, more than 4,000 former players were getting ready to sue the NFL over head trauma; the suit has since been filed.) When I call a couple of medical experts who study chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease that doctors have found in the brains of dozens of deceased NFL players, they tell me that it's likely that no technology in the foreseeable future will be able to blunt the massive forces inherent in the game of football.
Plank doesn't supply the NFL's uniforms. Nike does. The contract is worth an estimated $1.1 billion. The initiative stands to strengthen Plank's relationship with the league. It "represents another way in," Forbes has written, "and a chance to be a hero."
When I relay the medical experts' skepticism to Plank, he darkens. "I love the sport. And I hate seeing it under attack. I think it's important that we put the strongest resources that we have to defend it." He says maybe there's some angle we haven't thought of, some technology from an Army helmet or a shoe or a boat. America is a smart, resourceful country, he says. If we can put a man on the moon...