Under Armour, sponsoring NBA youth events, looks to make basketball inroads

Targeting rising stars, Under Armour is hoping its basketball business can soar

Michael Jordan played his last NBA game in 2003, but his Nike-trademarked "Jumpman" silhouette ball in hand, floating to the basket — still looms over discussion of the Nike-dominated U.S. basketball shoe market.

Targeting rising stars, Under Armour hopes its basketball footwear business can take flight as well, in the United States and overseas. In August, the Baltimore-based apparel and footwear company announced it was becoming the title partner of the NBA draft combine.

This week, a second piece of Under Armour's strategy will be on display — its multi-year partnership with the NBA's youth basketball program, which is staging more than 100 events around the country, including one in Baltimore.

Under Armour is sponsoring the inaugural Jr. NBA Week, which runs through Monday. In Baltimore, former NBA guard Muggsy Bogues will lead 150 children in a clinic on Thursday night at St. Frances Academy. Bogues played in 1982-1983 for an undefeated Dunbar High School team considered one of the city's best ever.

While Under Armour originated as a football apparel company, "American football is an afterthought outside of the U.S. and the revenues are so much greater in basketball shoes, given the size of the market vs. football/soccer cleats," said Jonathan Jensen, a sports marketing consultant and assistant professor in the Girard School of Business at Merrimack College.

Under Armour — which recently extended its sponsorship deal with Stephen Curry, the NBA's reigning Most Valuable Player — "will absolutely have to make progress and have focused growth in this area in order to succeed in their goal of increasing market share outside the U.S.," Jensen said. "Getting lucky with Curry was an absolute coup, but they will need to continue to outfit more college teams and NBA stars to make a dent at Nike's dominance."

Calls to Under Armour were referred to Peter Murray, its senior vice president for global brand and sports marketing, who was unavailable.

In the United States, Nike and its Jordan Brand claim more than 90 percent of the basketball shoe market, according to analysts.

Under Armour is eager to increase its ties with the NBA. Adidas holds the biggest prize, the principal outfitting deal with the league. But — after companies were invited to bid — Adidas decided earlier this year not to seek an extension of its apparel deal, and Nike won the rights to outfit the league beginning in 2017.

Under Armour is making inroads where it can. The league says the Jr. NBA program will reach 5 million kids ages 6-14 over the next two years. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank said in a written statement that the company was proud to help "grow the game of basketball for the athletes of the next generation and beyond."

In the meantime, Under Armour had success earlier this year with a Curry-themed basketball shoe, the Curry One, and quickly went to work on the Curry Two.

Plank said the company is expected to reach $7.5 billion in net revenues by 2018. It had $3 billion in sales last year. Footwear, international sales and online fitness applications are all driving the company's growth.

Under Armour's other NBA signees include Brandon Jennings of the Detroit Pistons and rookie Emmanuel Mudiay of the Denver Nuggets. However, Kemba Walker — who plays guard for the Charlotte Hornets, majority-owned by Jordan — recently switched to Jordan Brand when his Under Armour deal expired. Jordan Brand is a Nike subsidiary.

"Many could argue that Michael Jordan put Nike basketball shoes on the map when they struck their first deal in the early '80's," said T.J. Brightman, president of A. Bright Idea, a communications and advertising agency headquartered in Bel Air. "Air Jordan's have not only become part of our pop culture but a sub-brand for Nike."

While Nike has rights to outfit NBA players during games, Under Armour has "one of the greatest 3-point shooters in NBA history in Stephen Curry," Brightman said. "Sometimes it can be more valuable to have the player endorsements over the rights fee league deals because fans tend to relate to their favorite player over the league at large."

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