The performance-apparel market is bursting at the seams, with one manufacturer after another promising athletes enhanced comfort and performance
Though cut from different cloth, the sleeveless muscle shirts worn as a second skin by San Francisco 49ers wideout Terrell Owens and the long johns of Oakland A's bench coach Terry Francona share a common - albeit figurative - thread. Both are considered "performance apparel," a phrase that has been stretched like spandex to the marketing limits in recent months to encompass caps, socks and most everything touching an athlete's skin in between.
For the 43-year-old Francona, whose complications from bilateral knee surgeries last winter resulted in the formation of near-fatal blood clots and 32 pounds of fluid buildup in his legs, "performance apparel" assumes literal significance. Suffice to say Francona wouldn't be able to pitch batting practice, hit fungoes or perform his job's more sedentary duties to the best of his ability - if at all - without the specially fitted compression leggings that keep his swelling under wraps beneath his uniform pants. "He needs to wear a compression garment," says A's trainer Larry Davis. Without the tights, Davis adds, "he wouldn't be able to function."
The same statement can't be made of the perennially fit Owens and his form-fitting shirt. Nevertheless, the performance-apparel market is bursting at the seams, with everyone from major footwear manufacturers to former college and professional football players to a one-time purveyor of women's lingerie muscling their way into the high-stakes game of athletic undergarments and accessories. Several consider themselves to be on the industry's cutting edge, and all maintain that their products elevate the comfort level of those who wear them.
Support of such assertions abounds among athletes, yet empirical evidence that performance apparel actually enhances onfield ability remains scant. Even if it can't be proven without a doubt that they perform better when their shorts, T-shirts and mock turtlenecks fit snugly and dry quickly, players say they feel better when wearing them. "Performance is something that a lot of manufacturers are really interested in because of the consumer response that we're getting," says Mark Koppes, general manager for men's apparel at Nike. "It has become very popular with athletes across all sports."
That's all the incentive domestic and foreign mills need to continue rolling out fabrics with the two attributes working in concert in nearly every piece of performance apparel on the market today: moisture-wicking ability and compression.
Tight-fitting athletic apparel has existed in some form for more than half a century, but only within the past 10 years have the same properties found in modern-day compression shorts seen widespread application to the upper bodies of team-sports participants.
As a walk-on special teams captain for the University of Maryland in the mid-1990s, Kevin Plank marveled at how the compression shorts he wore under his football pants stayed dry, while the cotton T-shirt underneath his jersey and shoulder pads quickly became soaked with sweat. Once his senior season passed, Plank combed local fabric shops for a material that felt like his shorts, then convinced a skeptical jobber in New York's garment district to tailor 20 prototype shirts for him and, more important, his former teammates back at Maryland and in the NFL. Feedback was positive, and the Under Armour brand of performance apparel was born.
Since then, Under Armour has aggressively pushed the performance-apparel industry's agenda - initially through equipment managers' word of mouth and now through slick multimedia advertising campaigns.
Whether or not Plank was a true performance apparel pioneer (Nike executives point to the late-'80s birth of that company's family of Dri-FIT ™ moisture-wicking fabrics), it's undeniable that Under Armour tapped into a team-sports market underserved in terms of underwear. Consider that Plank has parlayed his 1996 investment of $40,000 (garnered by exhausting the cash limit on five high-interest credit cards while still in college) into a $110 million business, which according to Inc. magazine currently ranks as the second-fastest growing privately held company in the United States. "Now for the first time stores have pulled us off the equipment and hard-good shelves and merchandised us in branded apparel against Reebok, adidas and Nike," says Raphel Peck, Under Armour's vice president for apparel. "We're not the stepchild anymore."
While the company's target demographic remains 12- to 24-year-old males, a line of women's products debuted earlier this year. ColdGear ™ - a double-sided waffle weave incorporating nylon, polyester and elastane yarns - now complements the original poly-andelastane HeatGear ™ line. LooseGear ™ provides all the features of HeatGear, but in a loosely fitting garment.
Any resistance to these technologies, meanwhile, is being met head-on. "We found there were typically 10 percent of the guys on a football team - usually the linemen - who didn't want to get rid of their cotton shirts," says Steve Battista, Under Armour's director of marketing. "We developed a shirt we call our Performance Gray that looks and feels like a normal cotton shirt but actually performs like Under Armour. It pulls the sweat off your body."
Yet, amid all these developments, Under Armour has not sought a single patent. That, Peck says, is because apparel by nature doesn't readily lend itself to technological exclusives - at least not on the same level as athletic footwear. As a result, more than a dozen companies large and small are now seeking similar good fortune through the marketing of similar performance apparel. "If a person sweats, that person is our potential customer," says NFL alum Bert Emanuel, president of KAOS, a six year-old company targeting runners, weight lifters, mountain bikers and other lifestyle sports enthusiasts in an effort to carve its own performance-apparel niche.
Competition is fierce, as evidenced by a seemingly neverending string of claims, counterclaims and covert allegiances. Even as one company calls itself the official supplier of performance apparel to Major League Baseball, a rival rattles off the names of dozens of big-league teams it has outfitted. Likewise, the manufacturer's logo clearly visible on an NFL jersey may belie what lies beneath. All this can make determining who has the upper hand in the undergarment game a futile exercise. (The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, which annually tracks international sales figures for certain apparel categories, has yet to specifically examine performance apparel.)
At the college level, the financial leverage of marketing giants such as Nike has long kept smaller competitors at arm's length, or from even setting foot on campuses currently under Nike contract, according to one such competitor that unsuccessfully sought monopoly-busting help from the U.S. Justice Department. Providing free merchandise or the combination of merchandise and money to willing recipients has become an effective marketing tactic at the professional level, too. "Players have a tendency to go with what is comfortable, what is convenient and what is free vs. what is best for them," admits Davis.
So how does one determine what is best? Separating marketing fact from fiction can be difficult, particularly when trying to determine what separates one company's performance-apparel line from another's.
Most combine the hydrophobic benefits of polyester with the compressive qualities of Lycra ® in a roughly 80-20 mix. Polyester fibers lend themselves well to performance apparel since polyester never fully saturates, says Koppes. Moisture sits on the surface, where it can more easily evaporate. By comparison, nylon saturates slightly and cotton completely saturates. The greater the saturation, the greater the drying time - perhaps the easiest performance-apparel attribute to measure. "The reason that is relevant when it's on your body is that the drying process is what creates the evaporative cooling effect, the sensation of cooling the skin," Koppes says.
Product development at Nike includes measuring skin and core body temperatures, as well as mapping the body's specific heat-release zones - namely, the upper back and kidneys - with infrared imagery. Hence, Nike has introduced Dri-FIT shirts with Provent mesh panels (also made of Dri-FIT fabric) across the shoulders, down the spine, under the arms and along the sides as a way to increase airflow to these areas. Does it work? "We have found, especially with the vented product that allows additional heat to escape in some key areas of the body, that over a period of time, body temperature rises more slowly," Koppes says. "So the perception of heat buildup happens more slowly in the vented product. The perception in the athlete's mind is that he doesn't overheat as quickly." Even under football shoulder pads and a jersey? "There's a marked perception that it's cooler," Koppes says.
When asked about his repeated use of the word "perception," Koppes concedes, "That's just athletes' feedback. That is a very difficult thing to measure in the lab. It is absolutely subjective."
Clearly, prompt evaporation of perspiration reduces unwanted weight-retention in an athlete's apparel, and prevents the onset of chills during the athlete's cooldown. But there is no shortage of debate regarding the best means to wick moisture away from the skin in the first place. Some fabrics are chemically treated to enhance their hydrophobic properties, while others are made of fibers physically modified to channel moisture and air. When viewed in cross-section, the popular CoolMax ® fiber by DuPont, for example, takes the shape of a four-pointed star, with four corresponding channels that move perspiration away from the skin and facilitate airflow to it. These fibers form yarns, which in turn form fabrics that produce an end product exhibiting millions of channels. The advantage, proponents argue, is that the shape of the fiber cannot be laundered away, while a chemical treatment can.
While moisture-wicking technology has even woven its way into football game jerseys, the transfer of perspiration from an athlete's skin to the garment's external surface is aided greatly by how snugly the garment fits, as determined by its cut and level of compression. It's a textile team effort that has led athletes in some sports to stretch the concept of traditional fashion. "We've actually seen a lot of our tennis players move toward closer-fitting garments, because they find it to be more comfortable." Koppes says.
Old-school players who have clung to shirts that don't necessarily cling to them can also benefit. That's because moisture-wicking fabrics are being incorporated into loosely fitting garments in areas where the greatest amount of body heat will be released and gravity will ensure direct contact with the skin, adds Koppes. "What we put across the top of the shoulders and down the back is more conducive to the player's comfort than what we put on the front of the shirt, which is more driven by aesthetics," he says.
Manufacturers concur that some compression in athletic tops and bottoms helps put moisture-wicking fabrics in direct contact with skin, where it does the most good. However, few can agree upon what compression actually does for the muscles, joints and tendons under the skin. Well-known physician and NBC News medical correspondent Ian Smith, writing about compression shorts in the June issue of Men's Health, stated, "There is no scientific proof that these will prevent injury or help you recover from injury. If you think they work, compression shorts may boost your confidence. They may not help, but they can't hurt."
"I claim that the fabric we have does protect you," says Ephriam Nathan, president of Lontex Corp., which markets performance apparel under the name Sweat It Out ® . "We use 30 percent Lycra. But it's not only that. We have a fabric in which we are incorporating Lycra with the yarn from left to right and up and down. It compresses your body evenly in all directions."
It's a dynamic Nathan says varies little from that of a woman's girdle. In fact, it was while manufacturing women's intimate apparel under the name Hold Me Tight that Nathan began designing and selling football girdles to professional football teams in the 1980s. Now, athletic apparel is all he does. "We don't make one compression short," he says. "We make a compression short for lower-back pain. We make a compression short for thigh, hip and groin support, so if you have a hamstring or groin pull, it will enhance and improve your ability to rehabilitate without pain."
The uncertainty regarding compression's medical benefits - at least as compression applies to athletes - is reminiscent of the age-old debates surrounding the psychological and physiological effectiveness of knee braces and high-top basketball shoes. But what about the upper body? "We're in the process of studying how compression might help with the feedback of the arm, for instance," says Nike's Koppes, whose company markets garments called Pro Compression. "When wearing a compressive garment, do you get better feedback that allows your body to more accurately align itself, whether it's a free throw, or throwing a football or baseball. The jury is completely out. But it's an interesting concept."
Peck and Nathan are already convinced that compression improves performance. "DuPont has shown that by reducing muscle oscillation, you can indeed improve the athlete's stamina, longevity and ability to perform on the field," says Peck. "We absolutely think our product plays a significant role in that." (DuPont-sponsored research regarding its Lycra ® Power ™ product, conducted in 1999 at The Penn State University Center for Sports Medicine, can be viewed on Nathan's web site - www.sweatitout.com.)
As someone who deals with elite athletes day to day, Davis doesn't take the stance that compression enhances such performance characteristics as flexibility and strength. But, he sees benefits, nonetheless. "When you plant your foot, the vibration is absorbed by your quads and hamstrings, and that vibration is an enemy of what you're trying to do next," he says. "Nobody has really studied it and said absolutely that this is what happens, but in my opinion compression helps stop the vibration and that gives you a feeling of well-being."
Even if conclusive proof were to one day emerge that compression does little for the body, it has already done wonders for the brain. "That's what you want," Davis says. "You want it in the player's mind that this is supporting him and helping him." For its part, Under Armour claims to have stumbled upon a more superficial link between upper-body compression and athlete confidence. "What we've found in focus groups is that the tight product gives the athlete a tremendous perception of self-confidence," Peck says. "There's a certain image that a tight product gives you."
By next year, Under Armour plans to incorporate another self-confidence-boosting element to its performance apparel: antimicrobial fabrics. "When you deal with high polyester products, they tend to smell. We absolutely feel like the athlete has a right to pay for a product and for it not to stink," says Peck.
Odor-resistant performance apparel is not exactly a fresh concept. Earlier this year, performance-apparel manufacturer Hot Chillys touted the success of its BioSilver line of workout wear, which utilizes ionized silver yarns to create a fabric that inhibits the growth of odor-causing bacteria. Under Armour, on the other hand, plans to incorporate its newest product enhancement without much marketing fanfare ("I don't need to remind a baseball kid or a football kid that he smells," Peck says), but that's also a reflection of the company's desire to keep technologies digestible. Says Peck, "Our customer doesn't want to go into the store and read six pages on the swing ticket."
For the purposes of this article, Koppes likewise elected to not "get deep into individual fiber statements about how the fabric is constructed," adding, "Our primary focus is athlete comfort, and we've found that with the appropriate fabric technology and the right garment design for a particular sport, we can do a lot of things to enhance athlete comfort."
While athletes may be more comfortable than ever, performance-apparel manufacturers refuse to get complacent. "This is not something where we settle on a fabric and we're done," Koppes says. "We're in constant testing and development with athletes to see what we can do to make them more comfortable and perform better." Says Under Armour's Battista, "We're constantly evolving. The HeatGear shirt we sold last week is different from the one we sold a year ago."
And if consumers aren't sold on the performance apparel concept yet, Under Armour and its competitors will surely keep upping the marketing ante. "We're doubling each year as a company," Battista says. "So when the company doubles, our marketing and advertising budget doubles, as well."
Will this arms (and legs and shoulders and back) race leave room for niche performance-apparel manufacturers such as Lontex Corp?. "I use it," says Davis, who like Francona slips into a Sweat It Out brand compression garment - the only difference being that Davis' pants feature a reinforced waistband for increased back support. "I'm not the model of physical fitness, by any means. I have two problem disks in my back," he says. "But I'm able to function, ride my mountain bike and do what I want to do. Some of it is because I wear this apparel."