Stephen Curry is the reigning MVP and his Warriors are the reigning NBA champs. And they’re both the odds-on favorites to repeat this year. Curry broke his own record for most 3-pointers in a season early this season and the team is set to beat the Michael Jordan led Chicago Bulls team record for most wins a season.
Curry is ascendant. He is everything that Jordan was to the game and to the wider culture. He’s dominant on court, plays the game with his own distinct style that kids want to emulate, and is, by all accounts, a really nice guy off the court. He has a great wife and his 3 year old daughter, Riley, is so charming that she might actually have more internet memes than her Dad. All of them positive.
So how did Nike let the game’s most dominant player and brightest star slip through their fingers and sign with upstart rival Under Armour? It would be like Curry’s Warriors losing to the hapless 28-53 Minnesota Timberwolves – which they did recently. Between it’s Nike and Jordan brands, Nike controls over 95% of the market for basketball shoes in North America. To put that in perspective, Nike’s basketball sales are greater than than all of Under Armour’s sales combined. But – and it’s a big but – just like David slew Goliath, Under Armour figured out how to sign Curry. Morgan Stanley analyst Jay Sole says that it’s a $14 billion win for Under Armour.
That number comes from the value Morgan Stanley believes Curry will add to Under Armour as a company over the life of his deal. Basically, he thinks Curry is Under Armour’s Jordan who, as the face of the brand for decades to come will propel them from also-ran to a powerhouse that rivals Nike. And he’s probably right. Sole says:
“UA’s US basketball shoe sales have increased over 350% YTD,” the note said. “Its Stephen Curry signature shoe business is already bigger than those of LeBron, Kobe, and every other player except Michael Jordan. If Curry is the next Jordan, our call will likely be wrong.”
Nike’s $14 Billion Mistake
The amazing thing about how Under Armour got Curry is that he was under contract with Nike at the time and Nike had the right to match Under Armour’s offer but passed. Let that sink in: Nike had Curry under contract and let him go. Let. Him. Go. Ouch. Somebody didn’t get a Christmas bonus.
Just like on the court, hustle counts for a lot. And Under Armour out-hustled Nike at every step along the way. At the same time Nike was committing some unforced errors. Curry had been a Nike athlete for years and his godfather, Greg Brink, works for the company. It was there game to lose. But when it came time to renew Curry’s deal, Nike was focused on Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis. Both are great players but neither has performed to expectations and today neither has Curry’s record or star power.
Nike was so blase about re-signing Curry – viewing him as good, but not one of the elite players who would get a signature shoe and his own high-profile summer camp for rising stars – that they left Kevin Durant’s name in one of the Powerpoint slides during their presentation to he and his father, Dell Curry. ESPN reports it this way:
“The pitch meeting, according to Steph’s father Dell, who was present, kicked off with one Nike official accidentally addressing Stephen as “Steph-on,” the moniker, of course, of Steve Urkel’s alter ego in Family Matters. “I heard some people pronounce his name wrong before,” says Dell Curry. “I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised that I didn’t get a correction.”
It got worse from there. A PowerPoint slide featured Kevin Durant‘s name, presumably left on by accident, presumably residue from repurposed materials. “I stopped paying attention after that,” Dell says. Though Dell resolved to “keep a poker face,” throughout the entirety of the pitch, the decision to leave Nike was in the works.”
At that point Nike was done. But mostly because Under Armour was ready.
The Bazemore Connection
Competing with Nike isn’t easy – Under Armour was definitely the underdog. But they were hungry and they had a plan. They didn’t have a high-profile star on their roster, but they signed scrappy upstarts like themselves and then supported them to the hilt. One of those guys was Kent Bazemore. He’s currently having a standout season with the Atlanta Hawks but at the time he was playing with the Warriors. And he was an Under Armour guy.
UA signed Bazemore right out of college. He didn’t make a lot of money but they showered him with gear. Gear that he wore everywhere and shared freely with his teammates. Even guys with more lucrative Nike deals didn’t get half the gear Bazemore got from Under Armour.
“In the summer of 2012, a shipment arrived at Bazemore’s tiny bachelor pad in downtown Oakland. “Under Armour sent me, like, 19 boxes in the first shipment to my apartment,” he says. “I didn’t even have furniture at the time; I just had a ton of UA boxes and an air mattress at my place. I was under a non-guaranteed contract my rookie year, so I didn’t even have a deal. If I wouldn’t have made the team, I didn’t know what I was going to do with all the stuff.”
But sure enough, an ascendent teammate took notice of the Bazemore shoe deluge. “He was a rookie for us, and he got more gear and boxes in front of his locker every day than anybody else on the team,” Curry says. The gear was ubiquitous around the Warriors’ practice facility; even Golden State staff members were wearing free clothes from the Bazemore largesse.
“I think Bazemore had more player-exclusive footwear than any other guy on that team,” Stone says. “And he probably was playing, at that time, two, three minutes a night.” Bazemore put a number on it, saying, “I had a merchandise deal where they would send me 60 pairs of shoes for the season.”
Curry and Bazemore were more than teammates, they both grew up in North Carolina, and they were friends. Still are. So when Nike dropped the ball, Bazemore called Kris Stone, senior marketing director for pro basketball at Under Armour, and told him they had an opportunity. The rest, as they say, is history.
Stone and his team at UA rolled out the red carpet for Curry. It wasn’t just about getting a prestigious youth camp for up and coming talent with his name on it or even a signature shoe. He got both. But Under Armour saw the big picture – they saw the future. They told Curry that he would be their guy – the face of the brand, their Jordan. Curry jumped at the opportunity. As one executive put it:
“On the court, he plays basketball like it’s a video game and someone young players can, and want to, emulate because of his size, handle, shot, strong work ethic, and basketball IQ,” an executive said. “Off the court, his humility, authenticity, and leadership style are qualities that fans of all ages appreciate and respect.”
Curry is a great player and an all around good guy. But there was some risk for Under Armour. They made the deal before Curry’s MVP season. People are quick to forget that when Nike signed Jordan in 1984 he was at a similar place in his career and Nike’s original contract gave them an out if they didn’t earn $3 million in the first year. They sold $185 million of Jordan shoes in 1985 and looked like geniuses. This time it’s Under Armour’s turn. And if Moragan Stanley is right, they’re $14 billion ahead of the game because of it.
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