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Under Armour in tussle to try to pull NBA's Kevin Durant away from Nike

Under Armour is working to land NBA superstar Kevin Durant as a pitch man — a sponsorship deal that could be one of the largest ever signed and give the Baltimore company a major inroad into the lucrative basketball marketplace.

Signing the popular Oklahoma City Thunder forward, who grew up playing basketball in Washington and Maryland and still has family in the region, would be a coup for Under Armour as it tries to build its shoe business and boost its stature internationally.

Durant has long endorsed Nike shoes and apparel.

No deal had been completed as of Thursday, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions. But the prospect of such a deal has created buzz for days, and speculation grew Thursday when ESPN.com reported that Under Armour had offered Durant a package worth as much as $285 million over 10 years.

According to ESPN.com, the offer included Under Armour stock and incentives such as a community center built in his mother's name.

A deal that size "would be one of the biggest ever for an athlete, not just for Under Armour but for sports as well," said Matt Powell, a retail analyst and owner of Princeton Retail Analysis.

The deal would be the latest salvo in a battle between Under Armour and Nike, which could have the right to match the offer.

Under Armour is "trying to establish a beachhead in basketball," Powell said. Nike controls 96 percent of the U.S. basketball market. Under Armour's share is estimated at less than 1 percent.

"Nike is still far and away the leader," said Marc "Blue" Bluestein, president and chief executive officer of Aquarius Sports and Entertainment, a marketing firm. "Under Armour is in their infancy stage and is trying to go to toddler and kids' stage in the basketball market. Somebody like Durant would help them advance."

A spokeswoman for Under Armour said Thursday that the company doesn't address "speculative stories and rumors."

Durant is one of the world's most popular and marketable athletes. He has been one of Nike's later-generation success stories, following the extraordinary and continuing appeal of the now-retired Michael Jordan.

While Nike bills Durant's KD7 basketball shoe as "the baddest," he also appears friendly and accessible to his fans. In an emotional speech after he won the NBA's Most Valuable Player award in May, he called his mother "the real MVP." Wanda Pratt raised Durant as a single parent in Prince George's County. And Nike has a T-shirt that depicts Durant wearing his signature oversized glasses with the words: "This is not a nerd."

He becomes an NBA free agent in 2016, and there has been speculation that he could return home to play for the Washington Wizards.

Those who know him say the pull of community is important to Durant. He played at Montrose Christian School in Rockville and in the American Athletic Union locally.

"He's always told me has two homes," said Stu Vetter, his coach at Montrose Christian. "He loves the atmosphere at Oklahoma City — he's described it to me as a college atmosphere with the enthusiasm and just having a good time. But obviously he's got the family ties and is from this area.

"His dad is still here and his mom is in Oklahoma City. With LeBron [James] going home [and signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers], that's fueled the speculation."

Vetter called Durant "the ideal spokesperson."

"He's one of the most recognizable people in the world," Vetter said, "but he also knows how to handle himself on and off the court."

Bluestein said Durant's personality "is a huge part of it. With Kevin Durant there's never been a worry or a concern that he is going to disrupt a brand's integrity and show up in the police blotter."

Under Armour, which became known for athletic performance apparel, is a relatively new player in footwear. It got its start in that category with football and baseball cleats.

But basketball and running, another key focus of the brand, are much larger markets. Basketball is the second-largest athletic footwear category in the United States, with $4.5 billion in retail sales last year, after running, a $7 billion category in the U.S. last year, Powell said.

"They're looking to try to gain share by signing an important athlete like this," Powell said. "He's one of the premier basketball players in the country. Having him on board would give them additional credibility in their basketball category."

Under Armour already has signed Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, also a former Nike athlete.

Calls to Nike on Thursday were referred to a spokeswoman who was not immediately available to comment.

Durant shoe sales brought Nike an estimated $95 million at wholesale last year, Powell said. At Under Armour, that number would boost the category by five times compared to last year's amount, he said.

The reported amount of the endorsement deal would represent about 10 percent of Under Armour's annual marketing budget.

Durant would join New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, Orioles catcher Matt Wieters and swimming superstar Michael Phelps, among others, as well-known Under Armour endorsers.

jebarker@baltsun.com

lmirrabella@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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