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Coach Mike Wills says that wherever the White Oak Warriors played this season, the boys on the opposite sidelines already knew all about his team, and more kids want to sign with his club than ever before. The Silver Spring outfit has won national championships and year after year has ranked among the top youth football programs in the area. But, Wills says, success on the field didn’t bring White Oak its current renown.
“Everybody knows about us from the commercials,” he says. “That really blew us up.”
The Warriors are among the many locals who’ve been given starring roles in ads for Under Armour, the athletic-apparel juggernaut.
In White Oak’s second and most celebrated appearance in an Under Armour commercial, which was shot at Sherwood High School’s field last year but has been in heavy rotation on pro and college football broadcasts this season, kids are seen chanting and pounding in rhythm on the seats of a bus while riding home from a win.
The charismatic and muscle-bound chant leader in the 15-second spot, officially known as “Protect This House III: Fired Up,” is Jenkins Monzey, a former White Oak star who this season played running back for the junior-varsity team at Georgetown Prep. The company was founded in D.C. in 1996 by Kevin Plank, a Georgetown Prep alum.
Plank spent his peewee football career playing with the Maplewood Sports Association; a team from Maplewood provides the opposition for White Oak in the “Fired Up” spot.
Plank played college ball at the University of Maryland. Terps head coach Ralph Friedgen starred in an early “Protect This House” spot, as did defensive-line coach Dave Sollazzo. Former Maryland tight end Vernon Davis is featured in the company’s “Click Clack” campaign, which introduces Under Armour’s new line of cleats.
Since the “Protect This House” commercials debuted three years ago, Under Armour has cemented its major-player status among sportswear manufacturers. In 2003, the company posted sales of $52 million; in 2005, sales exceeded $280 million. Now in its first year as a shoe retailer, Under Armour says it has already captured 22 percent of the U.S. football-cleats market. Only Nike sells more.
When the company, now headquartered in Baltimore, first went public in November 2005, its stock opened on the NASDAQ board at $13 a share. As of Nov. 20’s market close, it was trading at more than $47. Founder and CEO Kevin Plank announced last week that the company would move up to the New York Stock Exchange next month.
Given that image is just about everything in the garb realm, Under Armour’s rise has as much to do with its advertisements as its designs. Stock prices and market shares aren’t the only signs of the company’s penetration: Probably every football player in the country, from the peewees to the pros, has heard and perhaps even yelled, “Protect this house!”
“We have tapes of everybody from David Letterman to Oprah saying, ‘Protect this house!’” says Steve Battista, who, as vice president of brand for Under Armour, is in charge of the company’s marketing campaigns. “A lot of NFL teams have adopted that to use as a crowd prompt. The kids from White Oak and Maplewood all knew our mantra before we started shooting. That means a lot for an underdog brand in an industry full of goliaths.”
Like the on-screen talent, the behind-the-scenes brainpower that came up with the ads has a local flavor.
Battista, who grew up in Beltsville and attended Pallotti High School, says the momentous “Protect this house!” slogan was birthed during a brainstorming session that he, Plank, and Under Armour Creative Director Marcus Stephens (a DeMatha High alum) held at Plank’s condo in 2003.
“We do everything in-house, all our creative,” says Battista. “We don’t use advertising agencies to come up with these things.”
Battista’s peers have taken notice.
In September, Maxim and Advertising Age magazines invited Battista to provide expert testimony at a gathering they dubbed “The Man Conference.” His job was to share Under Armour’s magic with other corporate types who hoped to match his company’s success in attracting male consumers. The official theme of Battista’s presentation: “Getting Men to Say ‘I Love You!’ (To a Brand).”
At the conference, Battista says, attendees told him that his company’s “Protect This House” had become the “Where’s the Beef?” of the sports world.
Another sign of the advertising campaign’s penetration: Counterfeit Under Armour commercials, made by graduate marketing students and pranksters and parroting both the “Protect This House” and “Click Clack” spots, have been posted on Web video outlets such as YouTube.
“There’s some out of Japan that are really good,” Battista says.
But Battista says that with all the praise and imitation, he feels most flattered when fans at stadiums yell his company’s trademarked slogans when they’re not in any way referring to Under Armour.
“We get the most pride when we see people use it at games or any place where we didn’t pay to run it, to use it for their own mantra,” he says.
Coach Mills of White Oak says he can gauge the success of Under Armour’s marketing efforts just by taking a look at his players as they show up for practice.
“I have kids who had everything from Under Armour book bags to Under Armour armbands, and everybody’s got Under Armour winter gear on now,” he says. “This is stuff they paid for. They all want to know when Under Armour is going to start making [kids’] football uniforms. We’ll get ’em.”—Dave McKenna