The nation's three-week sporting obsession called March Madness is prime time for fans to embrace their schools' cartoonish team symbols — there are Terrapins, Jayhawks, Ducks and Wildcats.
The leading sports brands are betting that fans also heed the subtler images displayed on the uniforms of NCAA men's and women's basketball tournament teams: Under Armour's interlocking "UA," Nike's swoosh, the three stripes of Adidas.
March Madness is a time when Under Armour and other fitness apparel and footwear companies battle for the reflected glow of fans' intense college loyalties. The tournaments attract even casual fans following their schools or entering office pools, and the length of the events provides broad exposure for companies that provide uniforms and equipment.
"The universities allow us to really talk to a huge audience," said Ryan Kuehl, vice president for sports marketing and sponsorships at Under Armour. "You don't see a lot of grown men or women with grown kids wearing jerseys of athletes. But you do see men and women wearing their university sweatshirt or wearing a hat or beanie or whatever it may be."
That's especially true during the men's NCAA tournament, which Kuehl said can attract more eyeballs than even a big postseason football game because teams can play as many as a half-dozen times.
The Baltimore-based company is trying to chip away at Nike's long-held advantage in university partnerships. Under Armour outfitted 10 teams in the men's field of 68 (and nine in the women's tournament).
Nike provided uniforms for 41 of this year's entrants, Adidas for 14 and Russell Athletic for three.
"The NCAA tournament is quite simply beachfront property for apparel companies," said T.J. Brightman, president of A. Bright Idea, a public relations and marketing firm with offices in Bel Air and Sonoma, Calif. "Big ratings [and] ravenous young fans translate into big bucks for both the schools' athletic programs and companies — Under Armour, Nike, Adidas — who cash in on merchandising rights and getting their brand in front of millions of fans for 31/2 weeks."
Two Under Armour teams survived the opening weekend— Maryland and Notre Dame — to enter the men's Sweet 16 beginning Thursday night. Nike has nine teams left and Adidas five.
"While Nike still dominates, the rise of Under Armour is significant as it continues to build momentum as a highly respected and extremely cool brand," said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
"Both Nike and Under Armour have their alpha schools — Oregon and Maryland — still alive in the Sweet 16," he added. "Wouldn't that be the ultimate finals matchup for these brands?"
As the men's tournament opened last week, Under Armour staff gathered near the company's "Make You Famous" wall, a giant bank of televisions in the Cascade Building at the company's headquarters.
"The primary game is blown up and there's always an Under Armour school playing," Kuehl said. "My office is right next door and there are about 18 people sitting there. I hear cheers when our team does well."
Under Armour, Nike and Adidas are in a seemingly endless competition to sign schools.
Under Armour has 19 agreements with universities to outfit all of their teams, plus another 50 or so partnerships with schools across various sports.
UCLA, Pittsburgh and Rutgers are among the universities with expiring endorsement deals in 2017 that put them in play for new bids.
In October, Under Armour signed Wisconsin, a Big Ten Conference member that advanced to this year's men's Sweet 16. The deal, which doesn't start until July, is worth $96 million, plus licensed sales royalties of $4.5 million, according to Wisconsin's athletics department website. Wisconsin is wearing Adidas in this year's tournament.
But Nike claimed a prize last year — Michigan — that appears even larger. The school, currently an Adidas partner, has a long March Madness history. Like Wisconsin, Michigan was coveted because it competes nationally in the marquee sports of football and basketball.
"For whatever reason, there are very few schools that excel at both football and basketball," Kuehl said.
In response to a request for comment about its March Madness teams, Nike referred a reporter Monday to a pair of news releases.
"Nike basketball rules March Madness past and present," one said. The release featured photos of Nike athletes in the NBA wearing their college uniforms. The promotion includes Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors (Michigan State) and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers (Duke).
During the tournament, Nike has distributed warmup shirts to its schools that bear the message "Always Reppin'" — slang for "representing."
Under Armour gave its schools shirts with "Play for More" in bold across the front.
Nike, Under Armour and Adidas have promoted their March Madness partners heavily on social media, and Adidas debuted new tournament uniforms for some of its schools, including top-seeded Kansas.
The Adidas uniforms are notable for colorful waistband designs that have attracted mixed reviews among fans online. The company says the patterns highlight a special characteristic of each school.
Under Armour is seeking to make a westward push. It has signed Hawaii and Utah, among other schools, but Oregon-based Nike has an advantage in the western conferences.
"We want to make sure regionally that we're relevant," Kuehl said. "Not only are we growing internationally, but we feel we still have a lot of white space here in the country west of the Mississippi. We continue to look out there."
And it's looking for its first national champion in men's basketball.
"That will come one day — there's not a doubt in my mind," Kuehl said. "Just like it came when Auburn won a national championship in football."