Seventeen years ago, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank couldn't find/afford a hotel room in South Bend, so he slept in the visiting locker room at Notre Dame Stadium.
Back then, Under Armour was only in its second year of existence and only made about $110,000. The company's only client was Georgia Tech, which happened to be playing Notre Dame in South Bend in September of 1997.
Fast-forward to Tuesday, when Plank and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced a 10-year deal that's the largest apparel deal at the collegiate level (ESPN.com reported it's worth about $90 million). Under Armour has had a meteoric rise as a company, landing plenty of prominent clients (such as Auburn) along the way. But Notre Dame is by far the biggest get the Baltimore-based company has had since being founded in 1996.
"Partnering with one of the world's most respected and admired universities, it's really a game‑changing event for our company," Plank said. "It puts us on a completely different level, and frankly we are ready for that level. This being our 13th deal, we've done this before, but we know which direction we're going in, and we think this we have an understanding of what this university needs and the role that we can play to making it more successful.
"... Notre Dame is one of those, wow, that's one of the elites, and I think all of our programs are terrific, but this is a ‑‑ this just has a different angle and a different twist to it."
For a school so steeped in tradition, turning to a company that's as old as the players Brian Kelly's staff are recruiting seems like a deviation. But Notre Dame is doing things differently while still keeping its tradition in perspective: An annual five-game agreement with the ACC begins this coming fall, and a video board and artificial turf could be on tap for the venerable Notre Dame Stadium. The Under Armour deal is another part of the modernization plan to keep Notre Dame competitive while retaining its storied history.
"In every airport and at every venue I went to, Under Armour is there," Swarbrick said. "Its ability leveraging its brand in combination with our brand is critical to us keeping Notre Dame positioned at a different level, at a level where our identity remains unique in the collegiate market landscape."
For Notre Dame, the deal with Under Armour is positioned as a win-win: It allows the school to stay true to its past while also modernizing its 26 varsity athletic teams. Notre Dame also gets Under Armour stock options in the deal, too.
But for Under Armour, having Notre Dame on its ledger is a massive win as it continues to take a greater piece of the market away from Nike, adidas and the like.
"This is a pinch‑me moment for me without question," Plank said.