Why Under Armour couldn’t ‘just do' a deal like Nike and Kaepernick

Under Armour’s lineup of marquee-worthy athletes includes five-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, three-time NBA champion Stephen Curry and golfer Jordan Spieth, winner of three majors.

It’s a trio with unassailable athletic credentials. But edgy? Not particularly. Risky? Barely at all.


Nike’s decision to partner with activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in marketing campaigns points to differences between the athletic brand and Under Armour, its Baltimore-based rival, analysts say.

They say Under Armour is smaller and less established — it is 32 years younger than Nike — and can’t afford to take risks of that magnitude. After years of rapid growth, the company is seeking to regain its footing following closures of key retailers and changing consumer tastes in the sports apparel category.


“Probably only Nike could pull this off,” sports industry analyst Matt Powell said of the Oregon-based company’s decision to sign a deal with Kaepernick on the 30th anniversary of its Just Do It campaign. The former San Francisco 49ers player led a movement of players taking a knee during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest racial inequity and police brutality. Kaepernick says his decision prompted the NFL to blackball him, and he has accused the league of collusion. The anthem protests he spawned have become talking and rallying points for President Donald Trump and his supporters, and appear to have contributed to a decline in the league’s television ratings and a rise in no-shows at games. In a letter sent to season-ticket holders last December, Ravens president Dick Cass acknowledged that a protest by players before a game against Jacksonville led to some fans staying away from later games.

Kaepernick has been hailed as a civil rights hero. But in some areas of the country, Nike shoes and apparel have been burned or the Swoosh cut out of socks and other clothing in response to the company’s decision to sign him.

Nike could take such a calculated risk “not just because of its size but because of its DNA,” said Powell, a vice president and senior industry adviser for The NPD Group. “It’s always been provocative.” Also, he said, Nike “owns” the teen male market and two-thirds of people wearing Nike shoes are under 35.

Under Armour, founded in 1996 by former University of Maryland football player Kevin Plank, made an early splash with commercials containing a muscular sort of grit. Athletes trained in dark gyms and bellowed, “We must protect this house!” The company pushed the boundaries of uniform designs, attracting particular attention for the loud, multicolored "Pride" jerseys and helmets it debuted for the Terps football team in 2011. It has sought since then to carve out a space in wearable fitness and nutrition technology.

But after years of rapid growth, Under Armour stumbled in 2017 amid store closings by key retailers, intense competition and changing demand for athletic apparel.

“Under Armour made a strong impression for a time, but this was never very deep rooted,” said Neil Saunders, an analyst with the research firm GlobalData Retail.

“Now Under Armour is struggling to define itself in an increasingly crowded and competitive market,” Saunders said. “I think this comes through in a lack of directional and punchy marketing. Only a strong brand takes risks and puts out powerful messages. Nike has the confidence to do that, Under Armour less so.”

Under Armour officials declined to be interviewed for this article. The company has said it is in the midst of a restructuring to become more efficient. In July, it announced better-than-expected quarterly sales and said it is on track to strengthen its brand.


“It’s obvious that Under Armour is in a period of re-calibration,” said Jonathan Jensen, a professor of sports marketing at the University of North Carolina. He said he wondered whether the company’s spending on technology and athlete sponsorships has led to not enough investment in “powerful advertising that breaks through the clutter, and support for the brand itself.”

Nike’s Kaepernick announcement has generated buzz in sports and politics circles alike. “Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way?” Trump tweeted.

When the market opened Tuesday — after the campaign launch — the stock price immediately dropped from $82.18 to $79.01. It had risen slightly to $80.40 by the market’s close Thursday.

Several Ravens players applauded the partnership with Kaepernick, who had previously been sponsored by Nike. In 2017, the Ravens had considered signing Kaepernick as a free agent but passed; this spring, general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh sat for depositions in the collusion case.

Five minutes into a news conference this week, veteran linebacker Terrell Suggs, wearing a Ravens Nike sweatshirt, was asked about the ad. He grinned.

"I love it," he said before stepping away from the microphone.


“They’re supporting their guy,” said safety Tony Jefferson, who was wearing Nike tennis shoes and a Nike shirt. “Anybody who stands up and sticks up for their client, I think that’s a good gesture.”

Under Armour has been less overtly political than Nike.

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In 2017, Under Armour was thrust into a social media debate after Plank — who has contributed in the past both to Republican and Democratic elected officials in federal and state posts — said of Trump on CNBC that that having "such a pro-business president is something that's a real asset to this country."

A number of celebrity Under Armour endorsers — including Curry and ballerina Misty Copeland — released statements saying they did not agree with Plank's assessment.

Later in 2017, Plank quit a Trump manufacturing council he had joined to represent his industry. He resigned with others after the president was widely criticized for not quickly denouncing groups that marched at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

A statement released at the time said Under Armour “engages in innovation and sports, not politics.”


Such statements are not unusual in the corporate world.

“Most companies are risk averse,” said Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications. “Nike has made a very researched and calculated call. I believe Nike will be on the right side of history for this one.”

Baltimore Sun reporters Jonas Shaffer and Childs Walker contributed to this article.