Under Armour's newest football commercial begins with high school players rushing to a practice field set beneath the Baltimore skyline.
Some carry their gear through subway turnstiles. Others pedal furiously on bikes. A few jump into the bed of a pickup truck that halts just long enough for them to settle in for the ride.
Ray Lewis, the retired Ravens linebacker, suggested that last scene based on his own memories of finding his way to practice long before he thought about a pro career that ended this year with a Super Bowl championship.
Lewis worked as executive producer on what Under Armour considers its most ambitious football advertising campaign since 2006. He helped a small creative team expand on an idea originally floated by founder and CEO Kevin Plank to bring the Baltimore-based sports apparel maker back to its gritty football roots with a look at the lives of inner-city players.
"Ray really added the raw, emotional feel that you see," said Steve Battista, Under Armour's senior vice president for creative. "That's obviously been a recurring theme for us, but he helped bring that to a new level."
Lewis, who was forced to abandon plans to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for charity last week because of a foot injury and fever, began working with Under Armour's creative team in April to help shape the commercial, and had further discussions during Preakness weekend in May. He attended the shoot — spread over three days in early June — and gave speeches between takes to the local players and coaches recruited as actors.
The spot, dubbed "Ready for August," was posted online Monday and will premiere on television Monday during Major League Baseball's Home Run Derby. Its debut marks the launch of Under Armour's second "brand holiday," a concentrated marketing push based around its slogan, "I Will."
Under Armour declined to disclose how much the spot cost to produce.
Local advertising executives believe the commercial will resonate with consumers.
"I think the spot is terrific," said Chris Denney, creative director for IMRE. "I love the fact that it starts with the anticipation for practice. It hits the mark emotionally and gets to the heart of what high school football is really about."
There is a risk in making the spot specific to an urban experience, said David Wassell, senior vice president and associate creative director for the MGH agency.
"I think if you're a Nebraska Cornhusker playing in the middle of the fields, it might not mean the same thing to you," he said. "But that anticipation is there, the feeling of getting ready for a great challenge. That will reach people."
During the 60-second commercial, new products such as Gameday Armour, the UA Highlight MC Football Cleat and UA Highlight Football Gloves flash by, worn by the players. But the ad is less about specific products than it is about the brand and its story.
Once the players arrive at practice, the ad focuses on two players vying against each other. One, in the company's Alter Ego Baselayer Superman shirt, beats the other, smaller player in a foot race. But when they take part in a drill later, the underdog delivers a crushing hit and is surrounded by celebrating coaches and teammates. That sequence was inspired by Lewis' memories of his own career, when he was told he was too small to make it in football.
A 30-second version of the spot and a longer video that tells more of the characters' story will be released next week.
Athletes and coaches from Dunbar, Gilman and St. Frances high schools worked on the spot, which was filmed entirely in Baltimore. The players play for a fictional team called the East Pirates, who practice at City Springs Park. Under Armour again hired Los Angeles filmmaker Eliot Rausch, known for evoking strong emotional responses with raw, sentimental works, as director. Rausch previously directed the company's commercial for its line of women's exercise apparel.
Battista sought that sort of impact when he planned the spot. Under Armour has gained market share in its competition with brands such as Nike and Adidas in part because of endorsement deals with the likes of Lewis and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. It has created buzz by having its gear show up in both the movie and television versions of "Friday Night Lights," and by outfitting more than 60 college teams.
Ultimately, though, the brand needs to stand for top performance during practices far from the crowds and lights, Battista said.
"There's really that feel that we want to appeal to those who need to fight for it," he said. "That's a big part of our brand, the underdog proving the naysayer wrong. Ray told us a lot of stories about people who told him he couldn't do it, and we soaked that in.
"The idea of being ready to fight for your spot, that emotion defines our company."
Under Armour embraces the role of the underdog, aiming to take on athletic apparel giants such as Nike and Adidas. It has grown into a $2 billion-a-year enterprise, but it's still dwarfed by its rivals. In February, it sued Nike for allegedly infringing on its "I Will" slogan, which it began emphasizing in ads this year.
While investors push Under Armour to evolve from its rugged roots in football to gain more market share, the company remains committed to marketing the brand as if it were a disrespected or overlooked competitor.
"Nike tended toward the aspirational," Wassell said. " 'Just Do It' could apply to anybody, in a lot of different ways. Under Armour is more about competition, about prevailing."
Watch the commercial
To see a video of Under Armour's new football commercial, go to baltimoresun.com/followthemoney.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun