Kevin Plank


When the gladiators of sport in the active market update investors, quarterly conference calls can start to take on the air of a pep rally.

And there’s plenty of reason to fire up the fans.

Despite many dimming lights in the fashion world right now, activewear is still ultrahot, part of the health and wellness trend and fueled by never-ending product innovation promoted as a means to help celebrity athletes up their performance.

Nike Inc. reigns in the kingdom, with sales of $33.5 billion in the most recent 12 months and a market capitalization of $86.3 billion. By comparison, Adidas has sales of 18.8 billion euros, or $19.6 billion, and a market cap of 28.9 million euros, or $30.2 billion, and Under Armour Inc. has sales of $4.7 billion and a market cap of $12.2 billion.

It’s a sector that takes the primary lesson of George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” to heart: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”

Nike president and chief executive officer Mark Parker, despite his commanding position, certainly feels the competition.

“With the energy we see in sports right now, along with today’s more active lifestyle, it’s no surprise that our industry continues to attract the competition,” Parker told investors Tuesday, while reporting better quarterly sales and profits.

“As in sports, competition is a positive thing,” he said. “It sharpens our focus in that we know there are areas in the short term where we haven’t executed as precisely as we would’ve liked. As good as we are, we can be even better by hyper focusing on our most compelling growth opportunities.”

Adidas’ ceo Kasper Rorsted, who came from Henkel, on his first quarterly call with investors last month was still feeling out the role as an activewear ceo, and only sparingly used sports talk.

“Reebok is today well-positioned to become the best fitness brand.…But at the same time, we have to be realistic,” he said. “Reebok is growing slower than Adidas and our competition. And we’ve seen no growth in North America in the past three years. And lastly, the profitability is significantly below the group average. It’s time to get back to the gym and redouble our efforts on Reebok.”

That’s more analytical than the full-throated half-time rally preferred by Under Armour’s chairman and ceo Kevin Plank.

“We have punched above our weight for a long time and that has been a central theme of our success,” he told investors in October. “That’s not going to change. We compete in an industry that is measured by a few very high standards. We’re measured by the innovative product we bring to consumers, by the strength and relevancy of our brand, by the talent of our team, and of course, by the financial results we deliver.”

Shortly after, at the WWD CEO Summit, he described the white board in his office that he uses to help solidify the company’s culture with sayings, including, “I don’t have to be right, I just want to win.”

And to do that, he’s willing to go toe-to-toe with anyone.

Asked if he read Nike cofounder Phil Knight’s book, “Shoe Dog,” Plank said he hadn’t yet, but recalled an anecdote that serves as something of an analog to the prefight psyche out.

“Every year I used to write a holiday card to the founder of our chief competitor,” Plank recalled. “Dear Mr. Knight, you don’t know who we are, but you will someday.’ I didn’t think they got there, but I did it out of spirit. Then in 2007 or so, he said somewhere that he got the cards and they pissed him off.”

Leading an activewear company is a sport of its own apparently.

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