As consumers around the world adopt healthier living standards, sports apparel companies are supported by strong secular tailwinds. More importantly, the sector is offering compelling opportunities on a company-specific level, including options for quality, growth and value investors.

The heavyweight champion
Investors looking for a high-quality company with rock solid competitive strengths and unparalleled global reach need to look no further than Nike (NYSE:NKE), the undisputed industry leader in sports apparel and footwear.

Elite athletes like Lebron James, Roger Federer and the national soccer team of Brazil have many things in common, superb talent is one of them, and Nike sponsorship is another one. Nike has invested through the decades in sponsoring many of the most renowned athletes in the world, and memorable marketing campaigns have made the company's brand a widely recognized name in the business.

The company is a consistent performer: Nike has raised its dividends in each of the last 11 consecutive years, including a strong increase of 17% announced in November of last year. Nike also rewards investors with an active buyback program, during the last quarter the company repurchased 8.4 million shares for approximately $526 million as part of the four-year, $8 billion program approved in September of last year.

The business is firing on all cylinders, Nike reported better than expected quarterly results last week with revenues increasing by 8% annually and earnings per share rising by a whopping 37% in the quarter. Future orders were also strong with an 8% increase versus the same quarter in the previous year, so investors in Nike have solid reasons to expect sustained financial performance in the middle and long term.

The challenger
Under Armour (NYSE:UAA) doesn't have the same scale and global reach as Nike, but the company is running from behind at full speed. Under Armour has delivered impressive growth rates over the last years with compounded sales growth of nearly 25% per year and earnings per share increasing at more than 18% annually over the last five years.

And there is no slowdown in sight; Under Armour delivered a sales increase of 23% in the last quarter with earnings per share rising at an explosive 160% versus the previous year thanks to expanding profit margins. Management also raised its guidance to between 22% and 23% growth in sales for 2013.

The company is focused on high-performance athletic apparel, and it has a strong culture of innovation when it comes to aspects like technology, materials and designs. Furthermore, Under Armour is run by founder and CEO Kevin Plank, a key asset for the company and its shareholders.

Plank has led Under Armour through its successful expansion since creating the company in 1994, and he still has seriously big ambitions for the business. Management aims to sustain annual sales growth of at least 20% over the next years, and Plank believes Under Armour will become a $10 billion brand in the future.

Growth plans may seem aggressive, but I wouldn´t bet against a company with such an amazing track record and a proven management team. Besides, with a market cap of $8.34 billion versus $64.4 billion for its bigger rival Nike, Under Armour has plenty of room for growth.

The underdog
VF Corp
(NYSE:VFC) is an $11 billion apparel and footwear powerhouse which owns outdoor and sports brands like North face, Vans and Timberland as well as fashion brands like Wrangler, Lee and Nautica among others. The company benefits from a diverse portfolio and scale efficiencies in areas like sourcing, manufacturing, distribution and marketing.

VF doesn´t have the same growth potential as Under Armour, but it offers investors a remarkable track record of dividend increases: the company has raised its dividends uninterruptedly over the last 40 years, including a 21% increase in October of last year.

Management has a revenue target of $17.3 billion by 2017, representing a five-year compounded annual growth rate of 10%, with 8% organic growth and 2% growth expected from acquisitions. The company also plans to increase earnings per share at 13% annually over the same period. Not bad for a mature and stable company.

Importantly, VF looks quite cheap in comparison to competitors like Nike and Under Armour. VF trades at a forward P/E ratio near 16 versus ratios in the areas of 21 and 64 for Nike and Under Armour, respectively.

If you are searching for an underappreciated company with a rock solid trajectory of dividend increases and trading at a discounted valuation, then VF may be the way to go.

Bottom line
When it comes to investing in the sports apparel sector, there are different alternatives for every investor. Nike is the undisputed quality leader; Under Armour offers superior growth prospects and VF Corp is the value play for investors looking to purchase a solid company at an attractive valuation.

Andrés Cardenal has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Nike and Under Armour. The Motley Fool owns shares of Nike and Under Armour. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.