Under Armour makes high-school push in its 'backyard'

Archbishop Curly football coach Sean Murphy, left, wears Under Armour sunglasses, cap and shirt.
Archbishop Curly football coach Sean Murphy, left, wears Under Armour sunglasses, cap and shirt. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

As they have for years, Archbishop Curley High School's football players wore Nike-made jerseys last season, the swoosh clearly visible below their left shoulders.

But for the first practice of this season last week, coach Sean Murphy donned a black T-shirt with the white interlocking Under Armour logo front and center above "Curley Friars." His matching ball cap also featured the "UA" symbol.


There was not a swoosh on him as he greeted his players, who must wait for the arrival of their own Under Armour-branded uniforms.

The Catholic boys' school is joining hundreds of high schools nationwide whose teams are outfitted by Under Armour. The Baltimore-based sports apparel and footwear company is intent on getting area schools into the fold — protecting its local "house" — and building brand loyalty among the region's youths.


"First and foremost, we want to outfit the teams in our hometown of Baltimore," said Ryan Kuehl, the company's vice president of sports marketing. "Owning our backyard is frankly a top-line priority."

Nationally, Nike far outpaces Under Armour in combined apparel and footwear sales. Under Armour topped $3 billion in revenue for the first time last year — a little more than one-tenth of archrival Nike's figure. But Under Armour surpassed Adidas last year to become the second-biggest sports brand in the United States, and founder Kevin Plank's long-stated goal is to some day surpass Nike.

Nike isn't ignoring Under Armour's threat. Just last week, Nike announced a new showcase high school basketball event in the Bahamas that coincides with the established Under Armour Elite 24 All-American Game in New York City later this month.

Not only does the Nike event overlap, but it's attracting players who participated in the Under Armour game last year.


Neither Under Armour nor Nike responded to questions last week about the suddenly competing events.

Winning over the youth market is seen as key to each company's future.

"For an athletic apparel brand, building a high performance brand image and loyalty throughout consumers' life span is critical," said Dae Hee Kwak, a University of Michigan assistant professor of sports management. He said Under Armour and Nike want "to build that relationship early so that consumers are locked-in with either [the] swoosh or the UA logo."

Under Armour's high-school strategy is broadly aimed at growing the brand from the bottom up and generating familiarity and even loyalty among athletes.

At the high school level, Under Armour uses Baltimore as an incubator, signing schools and often asking their athletes to test cleats, gloves, socks and other gear, and to provide feedback.

Like a presidential campaign ensuring that it avoids the embarrassment of losing its home state, Under Armour partnered with 25 more Maryland schools in 2015. Among the Baltimore-area teams wearing the company's logo are the Gilman School, Calvert Hall College High School, and Dunbar and River Hill high schools. In the Washington area, it counts Good Counsel, Friendship Collegiate Academy and St. John's College High School, which Plank attended.

Under Armour would not say precisely how many high schools it outfits nationally.

"We currently have hundreds of high schools on our roster," Kuehl said. "Our brand awareness is much greater on the East Coast, given our corporate headquarters location in Baltimore, but our brand is growing rapidly across the globe and our business categories at every level are following suit."

The school district in Lubbock, Texas, signed with Under Armour in 2010 after high school athletes there became enamored of Under Armour, partly because they noticed the company's uniform designs for Texas Tech, their hometown university, said Mark Ball, the district's executive director of athletics.

"This is just me, but I think five years ago Nike was dominant. I think Under Armour and Adidas are cutting into that. It's very similar to a district doing a drink deal with Coca Cola or Dr Pepper," Ball said. "They think if they can get the kids using that product and they like it, they're going to continue to use that product for the rest of their lives."

Lubbock's Under Armour deal encompasses four high schools and nine junior high schools. Elsewhere, individual schools often go their own way. In addition to Nike and Under Armour, Russell Athletic and other manufacturers also compete for high school uniform business.

"The local schools have their budgets and there are different ways that each school goes about it," said Andy Warner, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.

While Under Armour's college endorsement deals typically span 10 years, its high-school contracts are shorter — three or five years, the company said.

In many high school contracts, schools receive deep discounts — perhaps 40 percent — on Under Armour equipment. Depending on the type of sponsorship, the school also may receive a specified amount of free gear based on the amount it purchases in a year.

Such relationships can means thousands of dollars a season for schools. At Archbishop Curley, Murphy estimated that game day football uniforms could cost as much as $12,000 for the team. That doesn't include practice jerseys, which the school supplies, or cleats, which the players buy from a specified vendor.

College endorsement deals are far more lucrative. The 10-year contract signed by Under Armour with the University of Maryland last year guarantees nearly $33 million in rights fees and athletic apparel to the school, according to a copy of the document obtained under a public records request.

At the college level, such companies as Under Armour, Nike and Adidas reap the benefit of teams' national television appearances showcasing their products.

If college sponsorship is an investment in the marketing present, high school sponsorships are an investment in the future, building loyalty in young athletes who may become the next Michael Jordan or Stephen Curry.

That gold rush is behind Under Armour's and Nike's sponsorship of special events for high school all-stars. Those showcases demonstrate the companies' focus "on getting the top athletes who have a chance to play for one of their colleges or in the pros in their shoes as early as possible," said Jonathan Jensen, a sports marketing consultant and assistant professor in the Girard School of Business at Merrimack College.

Nike has also made deep inroads in basketball through its ties with Amateur Athletic Union teams and coaches.

While Under Armour is working to lock up its backyard, Nike retains a presence in Baltimore-area schools.

Under Armour recently made a presentation at a meeting of Baltimore County athletic directors, but the decisions are up to each school, said Dave Scrivener, the athletic director at Franklin High School, where most teams will wear Nike this fall.


Scrivener said he recently met with many of his coaches to discuss equipment and uniform brands. "I brought it up with them, and the overwhelming opinion is they don't want to sign an exclusivity contract," Scrivener said. "They want to have the ability to buy from whom they want."


But Under Armour's strategy seems to be paying off, wrote Paul Swinand, an equity analyst with Morningstar, in a report last month.

"Although Nike remains dominant in certain categories such as basketball and running, Under Armour's popularity among high school team sports athletes continues to strengthen, in our view, which has fostered longer-term brand loyalty (and has been at the root of recent collegiate sponsorship deals)," Swinand wrote on Morningstar's website.

Young players pay attention to the look of their equipment, said Vinnie Shaffer, a junior defensive lineman at Archbishop Curley.

"Uniforms are a big deal," he said. "If you look good, you play good. You have a lot of people who like to go to Oregon because of their uniforms."

Oregon has a close relationship with Nike, and the football team is known for splashy uniforms designed by the home state company.

Under Armour, too, is known for dynamic uniforms such as the all-green "Shamrock Series" design for Notre Dame or the multicolored "Pride" uniforms for Maryland that met with mixed reviews at their debut in 2011.

The new Curley uniforms from Under Armour won't be available until later this fall, but the players await their arrival with a giddiness that teenagers normally reserve for receiving new cellphones.

"Everybody is ecstatic," said Theo Devine, a senior linebacker and fullback.


Recommended on Baltimore Sun