Under Armour will become Major League Baseball’s official uniform provider beginning in 2020. MLB owners recently approved the switch from Majestic Athletic to Under Armour. (Baltimore Sun video)
Under Armour will outfit all Major League Baseball players starting in 2020 in a 10-year deal announced Monday, the Baltimore-based brand's first uniform agreement with an American professional sports league.
The sports apparel and footwear maker will supply all 30 MLB clubs with uniforms. Under Armour's partner in the agreement, sports merchandise retailer Fanatics will have licensing rights to manufacture and distribute fan gear.
Kevin Plank, founder and CEO of Under Armour, called the agreement "a massive statement for our company."
"This deal for us is one where we really get to lock arms, dig our heels in and say we're going to fight for this sport," he said.
Plank appeared Monday evening with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and several players at National Harbor in Prince George's County, where team executives have gathered for baseball's winter meetings.
He said the deal is an opportunity for Under Armour to play a role in shaping professional baseball beyond what players wear, to help them play the game better, and attract a new generation of fans and athletes.
Manfred noted the appeal of the 20-year-old brand among youths.
"When we started talking about this deal with the owners, one of the single biggest themes that came back from them was they wanted the game associated with a young brand," he said. "To grow the game with young people, you have to have athletes and products young people want to wear, and we think Under Armour is uniquely situated to provide those products."
Sources with knowledge of the agreement confirmed the partnership in October and the league's planned switch from uniform supplier Majestic Athletic after 2019. Under Armour did not comment at that time.
"My first cleats in baseball were Under Armour," said Clayton Kershaw, the three-time Cy Young Award-winning pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. "To see where it's come from to where it is now, to be taking over the game — it's a surreal feeling."
Cal Ripken Jr. said he "was just wondering where was Under Armour when I was playing."
The Aberdeen Ironbirds, his minor league team, was the first professional baseball team outfitted with Under Armour uniforms, in 2009.
"It almost feels like Under Armour is taking over the world in some ways," the Oriole great said. "Being from Baltimore, seeing the brand develop and evolve — it seems like it's already all places — why not baseball?"
Industry analysts say such licensing agreements can bring hundreds of millions of dollars per year if extended for the long term. The league can benefit, they say, by affiliating with a brand with strong recognition and customer loyalty.
"This is a major milestone for the brand," Peter Murray, Under Armour's vice president of global sports marketing, said Monday. "Our opportunity is to engage with millions of Major League Baseball fans, not only to provide them with new fan gear options, but also to engage them on our other products," such as in the training and footwear categories.
Under Armour, which now makes some cleats, batting gloves, compression sleeves and catcher's gear for major league players, will design and manufacture all components of on-field uniforms, including jerseys with prominent Under Armour logos.
The company will supply base layer undershirts — now provided by Nike — game-day outerwear and year-round training apparel. It plans to continue a tradition of making league uniforms in the United States, Murray said. He declined to say where the uniforms would be produced.
Matt Saler, vice president of sports marketing for the Baltimore-based agency Imre, said forging a strong affiliation with Major League Baseball will expand the brand's relationship with MLB audiences and has value beyond helping sell Under Armour cleats and other gear.
"Under Armour has established itself as a mammoth in the sports apparel industry," Saler said. Baseball "is America's pastime, and it is a global sport with athletes influencing purchasing decisions."
Bob Leffler, president of the Baltimore-based advertising and marketing firm the Leffler Agency, said Under Armour's brand exposure could grow exponentially because each of 30 teams plays 162 games a year, also generating highlights of games and pre- and post-season coverage, both digitally and on local and regional television networks.
All this comes at a time of high viewer interest in live sports, he said.
"What affects people is repetition of logos and brands, and brand repetition is what gets people brand acceptance, and then you've got interest in brand purchase," Leffler said. "This is through the roof.
"The real payoff ... it's incalculable now," he said.
Baseball's international appeal also plays into Under Armour's strategy of expanding through global growth, he said.
Plans to stamp Under Armour's logo on the front of jerseys rather than hiding it is another big win, said Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst for New York-based The NPD Group.
"Moving the logo to the front of the uniform is a big deal," Powell said. "Every time there's a photo or video of a player, and you see the Under Armour logo, that's where there's a lot of money."
The brand can also benefit from "significant" marketing opportunities through the league and individual teams.
The league likely is counting on Under Armour's "prowess in marketing" to promote MLB's image, Powell said — an area where uniform provider Majestic might have fallen short.
MLB partners with several apparel and sporting goods companies. The league contracts with Rawlings for baseballs, New Era Cap Co. for hats and Schutt Sports for bases.
Majestic's parent company, Greensboro, N.C.-based VF Corp. said Monday "it is in ongoing, productive talks with Major League Baseball with a collective goal to ensure that VF's Easton, Pa., facility continues to produce on-field uniforms for MLB for a very long time."
A VF spokesman said he could not elaborate.
The factory, which employs 600 workers, makes all on-field uniforms for MLB under the Majestic brand.
VF had said in March that it was exploring alternatives for its licensed sports group, which includes Majestic. That division also makes apparel and fan wear through licensing agreements with other U.S. and international professional sports leagues.
Under Armour's involvement with MLB dates to 2000, when it became an official base layer supplier. It began supplying cleats in 2011, just five years after launching its first baseball cleat collection.
Under Armour's current agreements with MLB have been extended, Murray said. He did not provide details about those agreements.
Many MLB players are under contract to wear Under Armour cleats or catchers' gear. The company has more than 400 athlete endorsement deals in the major and minor leagues, including with Buster Posey, Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper, Eric Hosmer and Rick Porcello.
Fanatics began licensing gear to sell to fans in 2001.
The partners promised a more responsive and significant assortment of merchandise for baseball fans. New fan gear, including jerseys, name and number products and postseason apparel, are to be available prior to the 2020 season.
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The licensed apparel business in the United States has seen slow growth for about the last decade. Fans wear jerseys to games but not necessarily for everyday use, Powell said.
But he believes the category is poised for a resurgence on which the Under Armour/Fanatics partnership can capitalize, as sports as entertainment has increased and the athleisure wear trend has gained in popularity.
Fanatics sells hundreds of thousands of licensed items through its Fanatics, FansEdge and Kitbag brands and sports memorabilia through Fanatics Authentic. It runs 300 online and offline stores, operates the online business for all major professional sports leagues in the United States and sells licensed merchandise at sporting events.
Under Armour said it plans to tap into its Connected Fitness digital community and link MLB teams with technology through fitness applications designed to track and strengthen player performance.
Baltimore Sun reporters Natalie Sherman and Sarah Gantz contributed to this article.