Kevin Plank: Sports Industry Lagging In Innovation And Technology

CEO and Founder of Under Armour Kevin Plank discusses the initial concept for creating a women's apparel line and the powerful impact women make in the workforce at the 2015 espnW: Women + Sports Summit.

Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank remembers his company's humble beginnings in 1996, when the business ran out of "a little rowhouse" in Georgetown and earned approximately $17,000 in revenue.

Nineteen years later, the company is approaching $4 billion, but Plank, who spoke at the espnW Summit on Wednesday regarding the business of women in sports apparel, lamented that his business is still lagging far behind in innovation and technology.

"Today you have more information about your car than you do about your own body," Plank said. "I know how much gas, how much oil, how much tire pressure ... but when you ask about my health, it's a subjective answer. 'I feel OK.' And we should know more. And frankly, part of that challenge was how do we get smarter people in sport to help us learn and understand more."

Under Armour, Plank said, has gone from 15 engineers fewer than two-and-a-half years ago, to close to 500 people on its connected fitness teams, more than 350 of whom are engineers or app developers. But it's still not enough, he said.

"I think this is part of the brain drain in sports," he said. "We are not just competing with 'Are you going to come work at Under Armour or some company in the Pacific Northwest?' It's 'Are you going to come work for Under Armour or go work with Lockheed Martin or Goldman Sachs?' How do we get smarter people to address sports?' "

In 2013, the NFL, Under Armour and GE offered up to $10 million for new innovation and materials that could protect athletes from traumatic brain injury.

Asked about progress in that area, Plank again said their industries have to attract the same people who reduced the width of flat-screen televisions to three inches.

"Sony must have 100,000 and Samsung must have like 200,000, all that brainpower, just working on a super-flat-screen television," he said. "And selfishly, I'm thinking what if I had that brainpower working on the problems and issues in sports? What if we could compel really smart people to work in our industry because we shouldn't be the industry of C students. We should be the industry of A students."

Plank daydreamed about "borrowing" 20 engineers from each company and bringing them to a Dick's Sporting Goods. "Just say, 'I'm going to challenge every one of you to form teams of 5 to 15 people and everybody grab one product and start innovating on that one product.' And someone would certainly grab a shoe and someone would certainly grab a fishing rod and someone would grab a football or softball and a cotton T-shirt and say I'm going to make this better.

"This isn't rocket science but imagine if we could apply rocket science to the problems we have, whether it's little girls getting concussions from doing a header in a soccer game. We haven't tried hard enough here."

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