Five-Ring Circus

Is the Under Armour Speedskating Suit the Worst Product Placement in Sports History?

Don’t fight the suit!

Photo by ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine how the Sochi Games could be going worse for Under Armour. The sports apparel company spent untold hours developing a high-tech aerodynamic racing suit for the U.S. speedskating team, betting it would push an already strong group of skaters—four-time Olympic medalist Shani Davis, 1000-meter world record holder Brittany Bowe, and more—to glorious victory. Instead, no U.S. skater has medaled. And it’s not just that the Under Armour suit hasn’t provided an edge—the skaters now seem to be blaming the suit for holding them back. Whoops!

Several unnamed sources told Joshua Robinson and Sara Germano of the Wall Street Journal that the suit’s vented design was affecting the skaters’ speed, and that “team members felt they were fighting the suit to maintain correct form.” I don’t know much about speedskating, but I do know that you’re not supposed to be fighting your suit. Clearly, the U.S. speedskaters have a big problem on their hands, and their legs, and all of their other body parts.

Yeah, yeah, a bad speedskater always blames his futuristic skating suit, I know. But even if the allegations are false, the fact that they’re being made at all is terrible news for Under Armour, which was hoping to focus our attention on record-setting times and maybe those weird gray crotch patches. Will the U.S. speedskating/Under Armour debacle go down as the worst athletic product placement in history? It’s too soon to tell—there’s always the chance that a goalie will choke on a hockey puck, which would be ruinous for the hockey puck industry—but this clearly is not the outcome Under Armour envisioned when it signed on with the speedskating team.

Sports are a huge marketing tool for companies like Under Armour, which can reap significant rewards from a prominent affiliation with a successful athlete. Take Nike, for instance, which entered the crowded golf apparel and equipment market in the late 1990s with nothing going for it other than an endorsement contract with Tiger Woods. Today, Nike Golf earns more than $750 million per year. As Gene Yasuda wrote last year for Golfweek, Woods almost single-handedly “legitimized Nike, known foremost as an athletic shoe and apparel company, as a golf brand.” When a company is strongly associated with a winning athlete, consumers are more likely to think that company’s products played some role in the athlete’s success.

When companies decide to sponsor Olympians, they’re hoping to share in those athletes’ glories, of course. But the Olympics can also be a platform for businesses to show the world just how innovative they are. In 2010, for example, the chronically unsuccessful U.S. bobsled team, after years of racing with worn-out equipment, came to Vancouver with brand-new sleds that had been engineered by the Exa Corporation. And, sure enough, the U.S. team took the gold medal in the four-man race—America’s first bobsled gold since 1948. Thanks, Exa! I would now like to purchase your goods and/or services.

In Sochi, it’s more of the same synergy. This year, the U.S. bobsleds got an aerodynamic carbon-fiber makeover courtesy of BMW, and they’re covered in aerodynamic paint provided by Entrotech. When the U.S. luge racers sped down the chute, they did so atop lightweight runners designed by Dow Chemicals. The skeleton riders are racing on sleds engineered by four different technology and engineering companies. These firms aren’t volunteering their time and labor simply out of patriotism and sportsmanship. They do it to prove they’re on the cutting edge of technology.

That’s what Under Armour was hoping to show with the ostensibly aerodynamic “Mach 39” racing suit, which was tested in wind tunnels, designed with input from Lockheed Martin engineers, and advertised as the “fastest speedskating suit in the world.” Instead, the Mach 39 has become the New Coke of skintight, high-performance skating outfits—an object of mockery and derision, a colossal flop on the biggest possible stage—and Under Armour looks inept instead of innovative.

At this point, Under Armour is trying anything they can to fix their possibly substandard suits. Covering a vent on Heather Richardson’s uniform didn’t seem to help—the top-ranked female skater in the world finished a mere seventh in the 1,000 meters. They’re also trying, and failing, to win the PR war. “While a multitude of factors ultimately determine on-ice success, many skaters have posted personal-best sea-level heat times, split times or race times this week, and we’re rooting for that to translate into medals over these next couple of days,” an Under Armour spokesman said. So maybe it’s not the suits after all. It could really be anything! Maybe it’s the skates. Yeah, that’s the ticket—the skates. Right, guys? Hello? Where is everyone going?

Indeed, the only way this will end well for Under Armour is if the U.S. skaters rally and bring home a few medals. “If I was Shani, I’d talk to Under Armour and I’d see if I could use my Nike [suit] and put an Under Armour sticker on it,” a former Olympic skater told the Journal. At this point, Under Armour would probably be OK with that plan.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.