Under Armour has college football 'zebras' on its side

Under Armour's zebra hunt – the company has signed game-day football officials from all the top conferen

When Oregon hosted Virginia in a college football game Sept. 10, it was in the most Nike of settings.

Both teams wore Nike-designed unifiorms prominently displaying the signature swoosh. Nike's headquarters was less than two hours away.

But Under Armour, which relishes tweaking its much larger rival, used a back door to give the national television audience more than a few peeks of its logo in another example of how the Baltimore-based company finds creative ways to get exposure for its brand.

During each of the game's 22 penalties, a referee in black-and-white stripes directly faced the camera to announce the infraction and on the front of his uniform, next to an American flag patch, was Under Armour's logo. The interlocking "UA" also appeared on the game officials' backs and caps.

Nicknamed "zebras" because of their uniform stripes, college football officials — referees, umpires, linesmen and judges — aren't nearly as riveting to fans as quarterbacks or receivers. But airtime is airtime, and networks almost always give the referee a microphone and a starring role, albeit a fleeting one, whenever a flag is thrown.

Under Armour has been zebra hunting in recent years, negotiating deals to outfit game-day officials working the Big Ten, Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and all the other seven conferences within the Football Bowl Subdivision, college football's top tier with 128 teams.

Analysts say it's a typical Under Armour move — opportunistically carving out less-traveled territory to compete with Nike, which is far more entrenched in the sport.

Because of digital video recorders and other devices, sports fans increasingly can skip through commercials. But referees — and the logos on their uniforms — command prime spots during games.

"With DVR penetration over 50 percent now, in-program brand exposure is becoming more and more coveted by advertisers, particularly when it's endemic to the event being broadcast," said Jonathan Jensen, a sports marketing consultant and assistant professor in the University of North Carolina's sports administration program. "So it's a savvy move by the folks at Under Armour in that respect."

Under Armour's pursuit began with a deal with the SEC — one of college football's marquee conferences — about four years ago.

"We did not make officials' shirts and pants at that time, so it was just a hat and footwear deal," Under Armour said in response to an email query. "We have gradually signed each of the other Division I FBS conferences, and this is the first year that we have deals with all 10 conferences — head-to-toe product. Every Division I FBS football official is outfitted in Under Armour."

Under Armour also sells officials' apparel, footwear and gear to youth and school leagues.

Neither Under Armour nor Nike outfits game-day officials in the wildly popular National Football League. Those officials' pants, shirts and jackets are manufactured by Ripon Athletic of Berlin, Wis. The company's deal with the NFL doesn't allow it to display its logo on the uniforms.

Nike holds a contract to provide on-the-field apparel for NFL players. Under Armour has a much smaller role with the NFL: outfitting players participating in the league's annual scouting combine. Under Armour also gets mileage as an official outfitter of gloves and footwear, and players such as quarterbacks Cam Newton and Tom Brady and receiver Randall Cobb wear their products.

One analyst likens Under Armour's deals with college football officials to the strategy employed in professional football and other sports by Gatorade, the sports drink.

"Outfitting the officials is a complement to the UA player gear which, in the end, provides more exposure for the brand," said Auburn Bell, an adjunct professor of marketing at Loyola University Maryland. "Essentially, it's going deeper against a very specific audience. An analogy would be Gatorade."

Gatorade is not only the official sports drink of a number of leagues, it also provides coolers and cups for sidelines and dugouts — akin to product placement in movies.

Before Under Armour came along, college football officials were outfitted by a variety of brands, including Adidas. Under Armour was seeking to expand its football imprint.

"Providing college football officials with game day apparel and footwear helps to increase the exposure for our brand on the field of play," said Nick Carparelli, Under Armour's senior director for collegiate sports marketing. "We are a brand that was born on the field and is authenticated by being a part of the game in every way possible."

Under Armour founder Kevin Plank is a former University of Maryland football player who helped build his business by giving samples of his sweat-wicking, compression T-shirts to players.

Maryland's conference, the Big Ten, said the decision to switch its officials from Adidas to Under Armour several years ago was made by the Collegiate Officiating Consortium, which oversees officiating for several conferences, including the Big Ten.

"We made the switch to Under Armour for the following business reasons: product quality, availability, pricing and our relationship with UA representatives and their executive team," said Bill Carollo, the organization's coordinator of officials.

The consortium's officials are independent contractors. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

In 2014, Under Armour overtook Adidas in combined apparel and footwear sales to become the second-biggest sports brand in the United States behind Nike. In college football, Nike holds outfitting rights for top teams such as Alabama, Michigan, Oregon and Florida State. Under Armour's schools include Notre Dame, Auburn, Wisconsin and Maryland, and it recently signed UCLA.

Nike may have college football's national champion (Alabama), but Under Armour can count the officials on its side.

"I'm sure it was not an expensive deal," said Matt Powell of sports industry analyst The NPD Group in New York. "Certainly not a big deal like signing a Division I team, but it will get the brand additional exposure."

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