The sports apparel business can be remarkably lucrative for well-run companies with powerful brands in the business. Keeping this in mind, let´s look at three leading companies in the sector -- Nike (NYSE:NKE), Under Armour (NYSE:UAA), and lululemon athletica (NASDAQ:LULU) -- to find out what the best play may be for your portfolio.

Nike: the quality leader
Investors looking for a steady and reliable performer offering brand differentiation, global reach, and scale advantages should look no further than Nike. Through decades of sponsoring the most renowned athletes in various disciplines around the planet, the Nike swoosh has become one of the world's most recognizable brand logos.

Nike invested more than $3 billion in marketing during the fiscal year ending on May 31. The company records marketing as "demand creation expense" in its financial statements, which shows the importance that brand image and marketing investing have in Nike's overall business strategy.

Source: Nike.

The company is generating attractive growth rates for a business of its size. Sales during the past quarter increased 11% year over year to $7.4 billion. Emerging markets are a particularly encouraging growth driver for Nike. Sales in that segment grew 25% during the quarter when excluding currency fluctuations.

Nike is a cash flow machine, and management is consistently rewarding investors with growing dividends over time. The company has raised its dividend in each of the past 12 consecutive years, including a 14% increase announced last November. Through the past fiscal year, Nike has distributed $2.1 billion to investors via dividends and share repurchases.

Under Armour for explosive growth
Under Armour is less than 10% of Nike's size in terms of sales, but the company is running from behind at full speed. Under Armour has increased sales at an amazing 26.3% annually though the past five years, and there's no slowdown in sight, judging by recent financial performance. Quite the contrary: Revenue during the quarter ended on June 30 jumped by a remarkable 34% versus the same period in 2013.

Importantly, Under Armour still has a lot of room for growth as long as management continues leading the company in the right direction and capitalizing its opportunities. Footwear sales in the first six months of 2014 were $223 million, quite close to the $239 million the company recorded in the category during the full 12 months of 2012. Considering that footwear is a huge category in the sports industry, this bodes remarkably well for Under Armour in the years ahead.

Source: Under Armour.

International markets are another particularly promising growth opportunity for Under Armour. Global sales increased 80% year over year during the second quarter, reaching $46 million, or 8% of total revenues. To put things in perspective, Nike makes more than 50% of sales in international markets, which indicates that Under Armour offers abundant room for global expansion in the years ahead.

Lululemon: the turnaround play
Lululemon is going through a transition phase, as the company is trying to recover from past mistakes and accelerate growth. Quality problems related to excessive sheerness in some of the company's pants last year, followed by public relations missteps, have affected its image and reputation. In addition, competition has been materially increasing lately, as players such as Gap and its Athleta brand are undercutting Lululemon with competitively low prices.

On the other hand, uncertainty usually creates opportunity for investors, and there are some reasons to believe Lululemon has what it takes to implement a successful turnaround.

Performance during the last quarter wasn't too bad, considering the circumstances. Sales during the quarter ended on May 4 increased 11% to $384.6 million, with the direct-to-consumer segment generating a big 22% revenue increase to $66 million, or 17.2% of total sales.

Source: Lululemon.

Lululemon is expanding into men's products, and the segment produced an impressive 9% increase in comparable-store sales during the past quarter. Lululemon is also betting on its ivivva brand to gain market share among younger consumers, and the division is firing on all cylinders, with a 39% increase in comparable sales during the quarter.

In the company's latest conference call, CEO Laurent Potdevin provided an optimistic assessment of Lululemon's opportunities for growth in international markets: "The success of our first London store opening, which is on track to do $7 million, in its first year is a testament to the international demand for our brand. In other parts of the world we continue to experience increasing traffic and volume in our showroom."

Key takeaway
It all depends here on your overall investment strategy and risk tolerance. Investors looking for a sound performer offering undisputed quality should clearly go for Nike. Under Armour is smaller and riskier, but it offers tremendous potential for growth. As for Lululemon, it could be the right play for contrarian investors willing to bet on a turnaround.

Andrés Cardenal owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, lululemon athletica, Nike, and Under Armour and owns shares of Apple, Nike, and Under Armour. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.