I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting in my college dorm room at Georgetown, watching this slender, baby-faced sophomore put a cinderella #10 seeded Davidson team on his back and upset my #2 seeded Georgetown Hoyas in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament in 2008. Stephen Curry scored 25 of his 30 points in the second half and rallied little Davidson from 17 points behind, past the Hoyas. While this upset would start a trend of early NCAA tournament heartbreak exits for the Hoyas, never would it be done in single-handed fashion as Curry managed to do it against JT III’s group in 2008.
A star was born.
Stephen Curry was overlooked by just about every power conference school in the country. Many ACC schools would not even invite him to walk on to their rosters, and Virginia Tech (where both of Steph’s parents excelled as student-athletes) didn’t even take a look at him. The beanpole guard out of Charlotte Christian School (NC) went on to Davidson, who took a chance on him. He proceeded to become the all-time leading scorer in Davidson basketball history (in just 3 years), was the 2009 NCAA Division 1 scoring leader, and the year before, broke the NCAA record for most 3-point field goals in a single season with 162.
People finally knew who Stephen Curry was.
Taken 7th by the Golden State Warriors in the 2009 NBA Draft, Curry has electrified the NBA. Obviously his MVP and title-winning season last year followed up with unworldly 24-0 winning streak to begin this 2015-16 NBA season has highlighted his unprecedented NBA career. Yesterday, Steph Curry was named the 2015 Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, beating double major winner Jordan Spieth and Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah.
While his stats, records and awards document his greatness, his immense popularity is far less tangible. Unlike most NBA greats (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James) who commonly rely on their height and athletic ability, Curry’s game relies on skills that he has developed: shooting, dribbling, and passing. His underdog story of not receiving any major scholarship offers coming out high school, being the third point guard taken in the 2009 draft, and a below-market contract extension three years ago, speaks to his perseverance and grit.
America likes rooting for the underdog.
His jersey is now the bestseller in the league. His team’s games get record television ratings at home and in opposing markets. He has built Under Armour into a $3 billion sportswear company. His 3-year-old daughter, Riley, has become a star in news conferences. As ESPN analyst Jalen Rose puts it, “Steph allows us into his living room. [America] is watching him on a national stage be a son, a dad, a husband, a father, a brother. And he does all of it while continuing to improve.”
Steph Curry is human and that is why America loves him.
19 years ago, a 23-year-old former special teams captain from the University of Maryland football team began a business from his grandmother’s basement in Washington, D.C. Kevin Plank was tired of having to change out of the sweat-soaked T-shirts worn under his jersey. Yet he noticed that his compression shorts always stayed dry during practice. This observation inspired Plank to develop his first prototype of a moisture-wicking synthetic fabric t-shirt. He gave the shirt to his Maryland teammates and past teammates who had gone on to the NFL. The recent college grad perfected the design that effectively wicked moisture and kept athletes cool, dry, and light … and the company that we now know as Under Armour was launched.
The first major team sale came with Georgia Tech football requesting 10 shirts from Plank. This led to contracts with other Division 1 football teams totaling $17,000 in revenue in year one. In 1999, Warner Brothers used Under Armour in two major films, Any Given Sunday and TheReplacements, which coupled with an ad in the ESPN The Magazine, generated about $750,000 in sales. In 2003, the company launched its first television commercial centering on the motto “Protect this house” which played into the company’s notion of being the underdog. Four years later, in 2007, Under Armour opened its first full line full-price retail location in Annapolis, Maryland. On January 21, 2014, Under Armour announced their official apparel and equipment partnership with Notre Dame, making it the largest of its kind in the history of college athletics. The company has maintained an operating profit of more than 30% since its inception and soared to over $3 billion in revenue this past year and over 8,000 employees. And this past year, Under Armour passed Adidas as the second-largest sportswear company in the US.
Last month, Under Armour reported a 29% growth in revenues over the same period last year, leading to a 7.3% jump in the company’s stock price. And so this begs the question, how does the company continue to grow at such a rapid place?
The biggest growth categories for Under Armour recently have been golf-related items, women’s products, and basketball shoes and apparel. Not coincidently, Plank attributes much of the company’s recent success to that of Jordan Spieth, Misty Copeland, and Stephen Curry.
In today’s market, athletes are one of the most sought after groups of professionals for endorsements of products across a wide range of industries and categories. Being able to leverage an athlete’s appeal, recognition, and following within the general public in order to create a strong, positive association between a fan favorite and a brand, is a company’s dream. When you are dealing with a brand that happens to be a sports apparel brand, the value of endorsement is that much more amplified. This is not by any means a “new” marketing technique in the industry, however Under Armour has proven to be consistently good at identifying target areas of growth and then moreover, getting the right athletes in those areas.
Let’s start with Stephen Curry. One of Under Armour’s recent initiatives has been in basketball apparel and more specifically shoes. Under Armour’s global basketball e-commerce traffic has been up more than 300% year-over-year. The basketball-shoe business is dominated by Nike, with brands affiliated with Michael Jordan and Lebron James drawing massive revenues. However, in signing Stephen Curry, Under Armour has put a huge dent into Nike’s basketball market dominance. After Curry’s MVP season and winning the NBA Finals (over Lebron), the Curry One shoe has been a huge success especially with Under Armour’s e-commerce site. The revenue for the footwear business increased 40% compared to the same quarter last year, to $154 million.
Misty Copeland recently became the first black woman to be named principal ballerina at the prestigious American Ballet Theater. Her face and image has significantly contributed to the growth of capris, shorts, sports bras, and running footwear.
Jordan Speith, however, may be the single largest contributor to the company’s ongoing rapid growth. Plank said this about the company’s golf platform:
In just the sport of golf in the last two years our revenues have more than doubled. We’re seeing key category growth throughout the rest of the year — things like on our website — our playoff polos are a number one item at our Brand House and our e-commerce site. The business is basically up everywhere. Having the right asset in Jordan … has been a home run for us.
Back in April, the 21 year old Spieth, epitomizing the company’s underdog story, won his first Master’s championship, while Rory McIlroy (Nike’s golden boy) finished fourth and Tiger Woods, a longtime Nike athlete, tied for 17th. Since then, he won the U.S. Open championship, becoming the youngest golfer since Bobby Jones to win the tournament in 1923. Soon thereafter, Spieth nearly won the British Open as well. Spieth’s Masters win caused Under Armour shares to spike 2 percent in trading the following morning.
You see, Under Armour invests in athletes the way value investors pick stocks. The company does not fear spending vast amounts of money, and yet Under Armour will typically bid up a top prospect before walking away from the negotiating table. This marketing strategy often causes the Swoosh to pay more than what they wanted for the top prospect, while Under Armour positions itself for a cheaper talent.
This gamesmanship played out in their approach of forcing Nike to resign Kevin Durant for about $275 million, while being able to capitalize on getting Stephen Curry in 2013 for a much lower price. In golf, Under Armour took a run at McIlroy, who at the time was the youngest player to amass $10 million in PGA Tour winnings. When Nike signed McIlroy in 2013, Under Armour turned around and signed the 19-year-old Spieth who had just turned pro.
Everyone likes a good underdog story. Under Armour’s origins and history is exactly that, an underdog story. Their unprecedented rate of growth have garnered the question from industry experts as to where the finish line might be for the company. And while they certainly are the underdog once again, that 4-lettered company on the other coast is starting to look in its rearview mirror.
Adidas has lured Houston Rockets guard James Harden away from the Swoosh with a 13-year, $200 million offer that was announced yesterday.
Right now, Harden will average $16.78 million on the final three years of his deal with the Rockets and $15.38 million annually. However, if Harden reaches certain benchmarks, it’s entirely possible that he will earn from Adidas than he will from the Rockets.
Adidas was in significant need of signing a marquee player. Under Armour has Stephen Curry, Nike has LeBron James and now Adidas has James Harden … all 2014-15 All-NBA first team selections. Nike claims approximately 95% of the U.S. basketball sneakers, while Under Armour is very quickly expanding its own line of products and passed Adidas last year as the second-largest seller behind Nike. In the first six months of this year, Adidas sold fewer shows in the U.S. than Skechers and New Balance. Part of Adidas’ underwhelming basketball brand performance can be attributed to big injuries to two of their main stars, John Wall and Derrick Rose.
Earlier this year, Adidas chose not to renew a deal with the NBA that had established it as the official outfitter of the league and in came Nike with an 8-year partnership that is worth roughly $1 billion. Moreover, Under Armour announced its own global marketing partnership with the NBA, which positions the brand as a title partner and outfitter of the NBA Draft Combine, presenting partner of the Junior NBA program in the U.S. and allows Under Armour to work with the league to launch an NBA FIT mobile app.
Adidas foresees Harden making a big splash in China, as the Rockets have remained a fan favorite in the Far East since the days of Yao Ming. The deal will feature a signature Harden shoe, his own apparel line, as well as Harden traveling on extensive brand tours in Europe and Asia. Additionally, Harden has started dating Khloe Khardashian who is a marketing machine herself and will undoubtedly raise his visibility into other demographics. Nonetheless, Harden’s jersey sales were only 14th in the league last year behind players like Damian Lillard, Dirk Nowitzski and Chris Paul. Adidas is expecting the deal to help move his merchandise sales upwards.
Harden’s endorsement deal with Adidas, which will officially begin on October 1st of this year, speaks to the increased value placed in brand marketing. Harden, who was not that long ago a sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder, will now be making more money from this deal than what seven-time NBA All Star Tracy McGrady and eleven-time NBA All Star Allen Iverson made throughout their respective careers from on-court earnings. In basketball and major U.S. sports in general, a highly marketable player and personality like a James Harden can earn more money by pushing a brand than his performance on the court. While on court performance and off-court marketability are highly correlative, Harden’s Adidas deal speaks to how marketability is valued more so now than ever.
One thing remains the same, Nike is still firmly established as the dominant shoe and apparel company in basketball, as they hold long-running endorsement deals with the three most globally popular (active or former) players in the world in LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan. And so they have the luxury of being able to allow MVP runner-up and All-NBA mainstay James Harden bolt to their three-stripe rival without much fuss. Nike had the option to match Adidas’ offer but chose not to, perhaps because of their recent large investment in getting the NBA league wide deal.
On Wednesday, Nike officially announced a shoe and apparel deal with the University of Michigan that was worth $169 million. The contract begins in the 2016-17 fall season and will run for 11 years through 2027, with an option to extend through 2031. The cash and equipment part of the deal over the guaranteed 11 years is worth $122.3 million, with $65.5 million in cash and $56.8 million in apparel and equipment. There will be another $46.6 million in cash and apparel through the four-year option. The only larger school and apparel deal in the country is Notre Dame’s deal with Under Armour that was worth in the neighborhood of $90 million over 10 years.
Michigan’s current deal with Adidas was worth $8.2 million a year in cash and equipment and was the most lucrative among public schools in the country. The new deal struck with Nike will be worth $11.26 million per year over the course of the next 15 years.
According to reports, Nike was in fact the lowest bidder for the Wolverines new deal. However, given the angst over the much-criticized Adidas deal, Michigan interim athletic director Jim Hackett felt making the right deal with the right partner was important:
After careful consideration, the right partner for the University of Michigan was Nike. This decision is about more than Michigan athletics; at the core, it is about our University community and it is about two great names reuniting for an opportunity that speaks to more than uniforms and apparel.
This deal dwarfs Nike’s next largest shoe and apparel deal with a public school (Florida State) by two and a half times. Nike gives the Seminoles $4.4 million a year in cash and gear.
Comparatively to other Big Ten Schools, the deal doesn’t even come close to the next largest deals. Ohio State has the next largest deal that is worth about $4.16 million per year in cash and gear with Nike, followed by Wisconsin’s $3.5 million per year contract with Adidas and then Nebraska’s $3 million per year contract with Adidas.
Despite Michigan’s relatively weak performance in both basketball and football over the past few years, the shoe and apparel titan went to the mat for the Wolverines.
It was just announced on Wednesday that Nike and the NBA have agreed to an 8 year, $1 billion jersey deal that will begin in the 2017-18 season.
This deal will represent approximately a 245 percent annual increase from the previous deal that the NBA had held with Adidas. In 2006, the NBA announced an 11-year, $400 million deal with Adidas, who at the time had taken over for Reebok (a brand which it now owns). It was reported that Adam Silver and the NBA had become unhappy with Adidas after they fell to third in the United States in shoe and apparel sales, behind Nike and Under Armour. This past March, Adidas announced that they would not seek to extend its jersey deal with the league.
You might wonder why the NBA announced this so early in advance, as their current deal with Adidas is good through the 2016-17 season. The simple answer is that both sides have already mutually agreed to part ways at the end of the deal. Adidas still wants a return on their investment, so don’t expect to see any letdown from them in the coming years. They have done some new things, such as jerseys with sleeves and their special Christmas Day branded jerseys. With Adidas and the NBA coming to this decision to split early, there was no reason for the NBA to not go ahead and search for their next official jersey supplier.
A major win in this jersey deal for Nike is that the Nike Swoosh will appear on all NBA jerseys, a first for the league. Nike President and CEO, Mark Parker, is extremely excited about the deal, “In Nike, Jordan and Converse, we have three of the most connected brands in the world, and look forward to making the global growth of the game a successful strategy for both the NBA and Nike.” Since 1992, Nike has been a marketing partner of the NBA. At retail, they have been able to successfully produce replica NBA jerseys under their Swingman line. Furthermore, Nike and its affiliated brands, control more than 90% of the U.S. basketball shoe market at retail. The company holds endorsement deals with many of the league’s top stars: Lebron James, Kevin Duran, Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook to name just a few.
In 2012, Nike was able to win the bidding war for the official uniform deal of the NFL, and they have extended those rights until the end of the 2019 season. Most industry experts would agree that Nike has been relatively conservative with their NFL jersey designs, excluding a few franchises like the Jaguars, Buccaneers and the Seahawks. NFL owners tend to be more conservative businessman compared to those owners of NBA franchises. It is expected that Nike may have a little more creative freedom with these NBA jerseys. Having said that, with the limitation of space on the NBA jersey canvas (no sleeves, shorts and not pants, no high socks, required number on the front of the jersey), Nike’s design team will have to be resourceful to create a groundbreaking design.
One issue of debate with the new Nike NBA jerseys is whether or not there will be advertising on the jerseys. That question may largely be tied to the television deal with Turner Sports. ESPN Sports Business Reporter, Darren Rovell, says, “With such a large and lucrative ESPN/Turner deal getting done, it brought into question the worry that there might be some companies who might try to cannibalize the business of TV and not buy television advertisements. I think that’s enough of a concern to keep advertisements off jerseys until the end of the TV deal and maybe forever.”
Now, Adam Silver shares a much different opinion on the NBA’s jerseys than former commissioner David Stern maintained. Stern felt strongly that there should be no other competing brands on the NBA jerseys besides the team brands, which is what negated Adidas putting their trademark logo on the jerseys. Silver, however, not only feels strongly about putting the supplier’s brand on the jerseys, but is also pushing for corporate advertising on the jerseys.
This new deal will have no impact on a few teams who have new uniform designs coming out. The Philadelphia 76ers will be unveiling new uniforms next week; while the Toronto Raptors and Atlanta Hawks will be announcing new uniform designs later this summer as well.
Regardless, this is a huge win for Nike. Nike will now have the official jersey deals for the two US professional sports leagues with the widest global marketing reach.
The NBA Finals this year features perhaps the most entertaining matchup since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980’s. LeBron James, the 4-time NBA MVP and the 2-time NBA Finals MVP is considered the best basketball player on the planet and certainly has the personality to back up his game. His polarizing presence has made him hated by many and a villain looking to dethrone MJ as the best ever. On the other side of the court is Stephen Curry. The humble, soft-spoken kid who got passed over by all the top college programs, to later prove everyone wrong and become the best shooter of the game’s generation, and perhaps of all-time.
While Cleveland and Golden State are not exactly big market basketball cities, the matchup of James vs. Curry is making this Final one of the more hyped matchups in recent years. It is good versus evil. Two kids both born in Akron, Ohio; one of whom exploded as a youth, was a can’t miss athletic specimen, went from the preps to the pros, and was taken #1 in the NBA draft, while the other was a skinny lanky kid who struggled to make his High School basketball team, was overlooked by almost all big college basketball programs, surprised everyone in the NCAA tourney at Davidson, and then exploded to win the 2014-15 NBA MVP.
The story of these two could not be any more different. One is a pure athlete, the other is a pure shooter. Many dislike one, while the other seems to be loved by all. One is supposed to win everything, whereas the other wasn’t supposed to win anything. And yet both were born in the very same town of Akron, Ohio and they meet for the first time in the NBA Finals.
The NBA, as a whole, does an extremely good job at marketing. Their International Global Marketing division has greatly contributed to the league expanding to Latin America, Europe and Asia through various exhibition events, leveraging marquee foreign players, and developing key strategic global partners.
Moreover, the League tends to be opportunistic with moments like this one. Golden State and Cleveland are not exactly huge markets, and yet they have already strategically branded this Final as “James versus Curry.” James and Curry are 1-2 in jersey sales this season, while Curry edged James for the most All-Star votes. Between the two of them, they have been mentioned 28.8 million times since October on Twitter.
Both are marketing machines, as James has deals with Nike, Kia, Samsung, among several others, and has his own TV production company. Meanwhile Curry has become one of the most sought-after endorsers in the game today, as he has deals with Under Armour, Muscle Milk and Degree. The baby-faced 25-year-old has about a dozen endorsements that he didn’t have when he was left off last year’s All-Star team and is pulling in about $3.5 million a year off the court.
Simply put, LeBron James and Stephen Curry are the two best in the game today. For that reason alone, the NBA Finals matchup this year is special. On the surface, they are polar opposites: personality, playing style, their paths to this point. And yet here they are, pitted against each other on the game’s largest stage.
The NBA Finals Game 1 is on tonight … and you better believe, people will be watching.