A First Run in Under Armour Prototypes

BusinessWeek gets an exclusive first look at Under Armour's new cross-trainers, trying out the Proto Power, Speed, and Evade

Walking up to a sneaker wall at a sporting goods shop is an exercise in too many choices. But when you work out four to six times a week, the choice of footwear is crucial.

It was with some satisfaction that I opened up Under Armour's (UA) new Prototype cross-trainers precisely because the choice had already been made for me. My previous journey through the sneaker wall took more than an hour. Ultimately, I ended up with Adidas (ADSG.DE) Sambas for cross-training treadmill work, weightlifting, elliptical work, exercise biking, etc. For basketball, I wear Converse high-tops.

The first pleasant surprise was the black-and-silver color scheme on two of the three pairs of sneakers. I hate seeing three and four colors on a sneaker. The third pair were a deep lavender-purple and silver (the Under Armour logo and heel are silver).

The new Prototype, which will be in stores in May priced at $89 to $100, comes in three versions. The Proto Power is a high-top shoe with a flat heel. The Proto Speed has a hollow in the heel and the tread structure is meant to maximize performance and comfort in straight-ahead running and movement. The Proto Evade has tread structure meant to maximize performance in lateral movement. At underarmour.com, there is a link to a microsite that allows users to plug in their height and weight and workout routines and get a suggested sneaker. Starting Feb. 4, the company will take preorders by color and type.

Trying Them On

The first design attribute that jumps out is a slightly dorky-looking Velcro strap near the toe. The company says it is meant to create a snugger fit at the toe where laces often don't get tied tight enough. The second feature is the tongue of the sneaker, which is connected to the base by way of an elastic strap. This makes it slightly harder to put the shoes on. I had to unlace the sneakers halfway down before I could easily get my foot in. But once in, I was impressed with the shoe's snug and solid feel.

These are cross-trainers, which means they are intended to be used in between serious playing. In other words, wear a basketball shoe for basketball and a running shoe for running on a track or the street. These shoes are for the all-around workout, like mine, where the user is on exercise bikes, treadmills, and machines, as well as doing floor exercises. I wore all three sneakers over the course of three days.

Frankly, both the Evade and Speed seemed excellent for my usual workout. Knowing they are designed with cushioning to maximize comfort in certain movements distracted me a bit. Both seemed fine to me for lateral and straight-ahead movement. Having one artificial knee makes stability a primary concern for me.

The high-top Proto Powers were another story. I donned these sneakers when I went to the basketball court for a shoot-around. While they aren't specifically designed for basketball, I found them to be more comfortable than my Converse shoes. No doubt Under Armour will launch a basketball shoe in the next year or so. Until then, the casual player could work out in these and grab a weekly three-on-three game and not feel shortchanged, or in need of a "basketball shoe."

A Particular Target Customer

Anyone who thinks that Adidas, Nike (NKE), New Balance, or Reebok don't have anything to worry about from Under Armour isn't paying attention. True, the company may not get the fashion sneaker business. But that's not what it's after. UA is not found in Kohl's (KSS) and J.C. Penney (JCP), just sporting goods stores and hunting-and-fishing shops like Cabela's (CAB). Under Armour is after the market of people serious about performing better, on a team or in their workout.

And though some of UA's form-fitting and tapered shirts are very unforgiving and unflattering to regular people with regular bodies, they also have sizes that go up to 3X, indicating it is a democratic brand poised for solid growth.

I, for one, hope they don't get too deep into fashion sneakers. And if I had my druthers, they would make all the sneakers black and silver—by far the best look.