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Under Armour announces deal with Muhammad Ali

Baltimore sports apparel company Under Armour said Wednesday it has formed a partnership with the firm that manages the Muhammad Ali brand to incorporate the pathbreaking boxer into its ad campaigns and products.

Muhammad Ali may be 73 years old, but Under Armour believes the iconic boxer's verve and sass transcend the years and will charm a new generation.

The Baltimore sports apparel company said Wednesday it has formed a partnership with the firm that manages the Ali brand to incorporate the pathbreaking athlete into its ad campaigns and products.

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Starting with a limited edition T-shirt that went up for sale on its website Wednesday, Under Armour said it plans to launch a full line of Muhammad Ali clothing, shoes and accessories this fall. Terms of the multiyear deal with New York-based Authentic Brands Group LLC, which also manages Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, were not disclosed.

"We have access to his name, image and likeness," said Glenn Silbert, Under Armour's vice president for men's outdoor and team sports. "We can have some fun, creative exploration with him as an icon."

There are no plans for Ali, who quit boxing in 1981, to appear in person for Under Armour. He struggles now with Parkinson's disease and suffered a mild case of pneumonia that hospitalized him briefly late last year.

He is among an elite class of celebrities whose brands endure long into retirement. To generations that followed, he might be best known for the 2001 film "Ali" starring Will Smith or for black-and-white photos and footage of him training, clowning or standing in the ring above a defeated Sonny Liston in 1965.

A more recent representation is at Baltimore's Center Stage, where "One Night in Miami…," about the day in 1964 that he became heavyweight champion, is on track to become one of the highest grossing plays in the theater's history.

The images emanate the sort of power and aplomb that Under Armour seeks to associate with its active athletes.

"Old icons generally work well in ads because they appeal to a broad audience, are inspiring personalities and are safe bets versus active celebs whose behavior is constantly under a microscope," said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco..

"Jack Daniel's is currently using Frank Sinatra to sell bourbon, Jockey recently used Babe Ruth in underwear ads, Dove used Audrey Hepburn to sell chocolate last year, Fred Astaire infamously danced with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner in a 1997 Super Bowl spot and the list goes on and on," Dorfman said.

Carnival, the cruise ship operator, aired a spot during the Super Bowl featuring a 1962 speech by President John F. Kennedy about the power and mystery of the ocean.

The T-shirt released Wednesday shows a young, fit Ali — who often boasted of being "the greatest" — in a fighter's pose on the front and the words "Will over skill" on the back. The company said the phrase is a variation of a quote widely attributed to Ali: "The will must be stronger than the skill."

On its social media pages, the company shared a video of Ali fighting, skipping rope and running down a road at night.

"You're going to see in the next few weeks a really cool collection of products that tap into quotes like, 'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,'" Silbert said. "You'll see graphics using some of his famous quotes."

A bigger release is planned in the fall of training gear, shoes and accessories featuring "some cool things with actual pictures of him," Silbert said. "We're kind of co-branded with him. There is Ali overlay, whether it be his name or whether it be a great image of him."

Ali previously appeared in an ad campaign for the German sporting goods giant Adidas, which Under Armour overtook in U.S. sales last year.

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"Particularly in light of previous comments by [Under Armour founder Kevin] Plank about his disdain for Adidas, I do find it interesting that they decided to follow Adidas' lead by signing Ali, who was previously featured in the 'Impossible is Nothing' Adidas campaign," said Jonathan A. Jensen, an Ohio State University sports marketing instructor.

"But when you look at how many top-tier athletes — Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez — have had issues over the past few years, it's not surprising at all that retired or even deceased athletes and entertainers would be utilized more frequently," Jensen said. "Sinatra, Ali, they're bulletproof. Even if they don't resonate as well with millenials as more contemporary athletes or entertainers, they're less of a risk."

The campaign will feature a heavy social media marketing component. Ali video clips and quotes will be available on Under Armour and Ali-trademarked social media outlets.

In his prime, Ali was hardly mainstream. Born Cassius Clay, his 1964 conversion to Islam alienated many fans, and his refusal to fight in Vietnam in 1967 cost him his heavyweight title.

Nick Woodhouse, Authentic brands president and chief marketing officer, said there is more to Ali than simply being a boxer.

"Ali was tough, unapologetic, and showed the world that he wasn't afraid to speak his mind. He was a man of conviction who proved athletes could discuss subjects outside the arena," Woodhouse said. "Muhammad Ali is one of the most recognized athletes in the world, and his legacy both in and out of the ring continues to inspire people everywhere."

Like Ali, Under Armour projects an upstart image as it battles industry leader Nike.

The company, founded nearly 20 years ago by Plank, reached $3 billion in sales last year and has expanded overseas. The brand recently reported its 19th consecutive quarter of sales gains of 20 percent or more and announced the acquisition of two makers of digital fitness applications.

Under Armour said it studied Ali and his legacy for months. The company said it sent a team to Ali's hometown of Louisville, Ky., last year "to really get a feel, to get a deeper dive, to capture his voice," Silbert said. He said the executives came away convinced they had found a fit.

"This is a partnership with a brand," Silbert said. "There is so much heritage and legacy there."

Ali's representatives could not be reached for comment. In a statement released by Authentic Brands and Under Armour, his wife, Lonnie Ali, said that Ali's and Under Armour's values align.

"We are truly flattered to have Under Armour pay homage to Muhammad in such a significant way," she said. "We see in the Under Armour brand a similar spirit and drive that pushed Muhammad to be such a groundbreaking force."

Under Armour said the Ali-themed products can be worn inside or outside the gym.

"Ali hits the lifestyle and fitness brand," said Matt Saler, director of sports marketing for Baltimore advertising and marketing firm IMRE. Under Armour's "become a lifestyle and performance brand. It's almost gone from a fitness-specific brand to lifestyle where you wear it day to day. It's becoming a fashion brand to a certain degree."

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