Steph Curry is a superstar of the court. The Golden State Warriors point guard is a three-time NBA Champion and two-time Most Valuable Player (MVP), and he is widely regarded as the finest shooter in the history of the game. In addition, he is friends with ex-U.S. President Barack Obama and stands as one of the most recognizable and influential athletes on the planet. And he’s also the man who slipped through Nike’s fingers.
Nike doesn’t often get things wrong, especially when it comes to basketball. The company’s collaboration with another superstar of the court, Michael Jordan, is still the most lucrative deal for any sportswear giant in terms of shoes sales. And that’s 16 years after the NBA great retired. Arguably the greatest current player, LeBron James, is another megastar whose Nike sponsorship handsomely rewards both parties.
James is far from the only modern-era basketball star signed to the sportswear giant. The roster of players currently affiliated to Nike reads like a Who’s Who of current NBA royalty: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Paul George. And then there’s King James, of course. But one particular name is conspicuous by its absence: Steph Curry.
It’s a considerable omission. In recent times, after all, Curry is the only player to have got near to the levels of personal glory achieved by James. And in terms of team success, Curry has surpassed his rival. The Golden State Warriors have been the most successful team of the last decade or so, with three finals wins and two further finals appearances. In that time, Curry – along with James – has been the face of basketball in the United States.
But it’s not just in basketball where the Oregon-based company rules the roost. In soccer, the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are signed with the brand, while golfers Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and tennis players Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are all part of the Nike stable. The company also has a major sponsorship deal with the NFL and is set to embark on a similar partnership with MLB starting in 2020.
But it’s also true that one sportswear giant can’t have the full roster of sporting talent. Modern NBA superstars James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid are, for instance, signed up with Adidas, New Balance and Under Armour, respectively. In the case of Leonard, though, Nike let the player slip through the net after he failed to re-sign his contract. Indeed, the Los Angeles Clippers star is now embroiled in a bitter trademark dispute with his former sponsors.
As Leonard is one of the NBA’s highest-profile stars, this situation was seemingly a major headache for Nike. Yet the company had been through a similar situation in 2013 with another NBA player – albeit one who had yet to scale the heights at that particular time. If subsequent stories are to be believed, in fact, Nike didn’t even put up much of a fight for that particular player. And this should perhaps go down as one of the most expensive mistakes the company has ever made.
That player was Steph Curry, who at the time was yet to make his major breakthrough in the professional ranks in terms of becoming an All-Star. Certainly, his profile was much lower back then. Nike’s loss, however, was Under Armour’s gain, with Curry signing to the Baltimore-based brand instead. It is a partnership which has reaped major dividends for both parties.
Let there be no shadow of a doubt, Curry is now basketball royalty. Born in Ohio, but a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, Stephen Curry was raised to be a basketball player. His father, Dell, played in the NBA for 16 seasons between 1986 and 2002. It was Dell’s stint at the Charlotte Hornets that coincided with Curry’s birth.
Curry’s younger brother, Seth, is also a professional player, currently rostered to the Dallas Mavericks. The Currys are a basketball dynasty. Curry himself was earmarked as a special talent from his high school days at Charlotte Christian School. From there he attended Davidson College, where the elder Curry went on to achieve notable successes.
Ultimately, Curry’s college exploits led him to be picked as the seventh overall selection in the NBA draft of June 2009. The Golden State Warriors – based in San Francisco, California, as of 2019, but then of Oakland – won his signature. The rising star went on to make 80 appearances for the team in his debut season, finishing runner-up in the NBA Rookie of the Year Award in the process and posting some impressive numbers along the way.
Curry’s eight 30-plus-point games that season was the most achieved by a rookie since LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony had posted 13 and ten consecutively in the 2003/04 season. And Curry’s feat of notching up 30-plus points and adding ten or more assists on five occasions had only been bettered once by a rookie. It also tied Michael Jordan’s mark from 1984/85. These were significant names with whom Curry was keeping company.
Perhaps even more telling was Curry’s achievement that season of ending up with 166 successful three-pointers. That was the most by any rookie in the history of the NBA, and it was a scoring shot with which Curry was about to become synonymous. And all these feats of his rookie season were achieved while wearing Nike shoes. Curry had signed with the sportswear giants upon entering the big leagues, as nearly three-quarters of all players do.
The next season saw Curry continue where he had left off. He led the league in free-throw percentage and won the Skills Challenge at the All-Star weekend. However, this was the season that saw the beginning of some ankle concerns, which led to the player requiring surgery at the end of the campaign. These ankle problems were to follow him into the next season, which was also truncated due to a player lockout.
The start of the 2012/13 season saw Curry sign a contract extension with the Warriors worth $44 million to the player. Considering his recent injury concerns, it was seen as a risky move by the franchise, but the player immediately began to repay his employers’ faith. The season was the best of Curry’s professional career to date – and perhaps the first sign of what a truly special player Curry could be.
It was in the 2012/13 campaign that Curry and teammate Klay Thompson were coined the “Splash Brothers” for their startlingly regular ability to hit shots from beyond the arc. Indeed, Curry’s 272 three-pointers that season saw him set a new NBA record. This was also the first campaign in which Curry would progress to the playoffs – and the first time the Warriors had done so since 2006/07.
But it was also at the end of that sterling 2012/13 season that Curry signed with Under Armour after failing to renegotiate terms with Nike. At that point it was a major coup for the company, based out of Baltimore, which had so far not been able to attract a lot of major talent to its sponsorship stable. And it was even a major surprise to see a player seemingly on his way up in the game leaving Nike.
Enlisting Curry into its ranks has been a major fillip for Under Armour, and the success of its Steph Curry shoe line has been intrinsically linked with the company’s stock prices almost ever since. Yet the story of how the soon-to-be shooting legend came to sign with, at the time, a relatively insignificant player in the basketball shoe market is an intriguing read.
It seemingly all began with another NBA player, although one whose profile has never been on the level of Curry’s. Yet Kent Bazemore, now of the Portland Trail Blazers, was a one-time teammate of Curry’s and he proved to be Under Armour’s secret weapon in securing an endorsement deal for the Warriors’ point guard.
How so? It seems much came about due to the shrewdness of Bazemore and his agent – and a leap of faith made by Under Armour. The year was 2012 and Curry was still 12 months away from his deal with Nike expiring. Bazemore was then a rookie who had been picked up by the Warriors, although he hadn’t actually been added to the active roster. Instead, he spent the majority of the next two years in the NBA Development League with the Santa Cruz Warriors, an affiliate of Golden State.
But Bazemore, or perhaps Bazemore’s agent, had a cunning plan. The duo noted that Curry, and his influential teammate Klay Thompson, had endorsement deals that didn’t have long left to run. Bazemore managed to get a deal with Under Armour. And with it came a heap of free merchandise as part of the package. It was all part of a ploy designed to bring the brand’s merits to the attention of Curry and Thompson.
As a result, Under Armour clothing and footwear became ubiquitous around the Warriors practice facility. And before long, Bazemore and Curry, as natives of North Carolina, bonded over their shared origins and struck up a friendship which was to have huge repercussions for the brand. Indeed, it’s had huge repercussions for Curry and Bazemore too.
So it was Bazemore who persuaded Curry to talk to Under Armour at around the time the latter’s Nike deal was expiring. There was still a lot of work to be done, but Bazemore had brought Curry to the table – and for that the company owed the rookie a huge debt of gratitude.
And according to Ethan Sherwood Strauss, writing for the ESPN website, it is a debt that Under Armour has repaid to Bazemore several times over. “As a result, Bazemore has a six-figure deal with the company, an unusually high amount for a player of his stature in the league,” Sherwood Strauss wrote in 2016.
The rewards didn’t stop there for the brand’s not-so-secret agent. “The company also recognized Bazemore’s role in luring Curry by signing an apparel deal with Old Dominion [Bazemore’s college] for seven times the amount that the school had previously received from Nike. His deal with Under Armour enabled him to provide most of the funding for ODU’s [Old Dominion’s] new basketball practice facility,” Sherwood Strauss added.
The legitimate kickbacks that Bazemore has received from Under Armour certainly seem to have been an investment well made by the brand, as their business relationship with Steph Curry has become one of the most profitable in basketball history. In 2016 Morgan Stanley analyst Jay Sole made a note on Under Armour’s prospects with Curry. That note was subsequently published by Business Insider, an online financial and business news site, too.
And Sole’s prediction of the value of Curry to the brand was eye-watering to say the least. A cool $14 billion was Sole’s figure. “UA’s U.S. basketball shoe sales have increased over 350 percent YTD. Its Stephen Curry signature shoe business is already bigger than those of LeBron, Kobe and every other player except Michael Jordan. If Curry is the next Jordan, our call will likely be wrong,” the note read.
Yet Sole wrote that his value call could “be wrong” because – if the current Curry trajectory continues for Under Armour – that value could actually reach more than $28 billion. It is worth noting once more at this juncture that this was an athlete who had slipped through Nike’s fingers. Sole was also ready to make that point.
“UA’s total basketball business is probably double (in terms of retail sales) and even its non-Curry styles have grown at a super-high rate. The growth could be a result of UA taking share by underpricing its shoes. Or it could be a tipping point signaling the end of Nike’s basketball dominance,” Sole wrote.
Sole also wrote a little bit about why this phenomenon had occurred for Under Armour. “We also note Curry is arguably the NBA’s most popular player. Kids who are buying his shoes probably want to purchase a little piece of Curry’s greatness, no matter what brand he is associated with. They may not necessarily be buying his shoe because it is a UA shoe,” the analyst added.
But did Steph Curry really sign with Under Armour because his teammate had a lot of the brand’s clothing lying about the locker room? Was there not more to it? It seems that there was, and Nike doesn’t come out of the affair looking too good. Because when the time came to pitch to Curry during his existing deal, some spectacular errors were supposedly made by the sportswear behemoth.
As Curry’s existing sponsor, Nike had first option on re-signing the player. “I was with them for years,” Curry was reported as saying by ESPN in 2016. “It’s kind of a weird process being pitched by the company you’re already with. There was some familiar faces in there.” Indeed, Curry’s godfather, Greg Brink, even works for the company. And this was Nike, after all. Surely securing Curry to a new deal was inevitable?
The August 2013 meeting was set up in a hotel in Oakland. And conspicuous by his absence was Lynn Merritt, a Nike power broker who had been instrumental in securing LeBron James to his mammoth Nike deals. Curry quickly began to feel undervalued.
Incredibly, the pitch started with a Nike employee mispronouncing Curry’s first name. Not one person corrected the mistake. “I heard some people pronounce his name wrong before. I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised that I didn’t get a correction,” Curry’s father, Dell, who was present, was reported by ESPN as saying after the event.
But that was just the start. In fact, the presentation pitched to Curry still had the name of the player who had previously received the pitch emblazoned across it: Kevin Durant, who was later to become a teammate of Curry’s at Golden State. Again, not a good look for Nike. “I stopped paying attention after that,” Dell told ESPN.
In addition to the financial rewards offered by the deal, Curry was also eager to secure additional incentives. One such perk, as seen by some players if not others, was the awarding of Nike kids’ basketball camps in the name of their player. Curry was keen to secure and run such a camp, which had left a lasting impression on him growing up when he attended sessions run by Chris Paul. But Nike overlooked him in favor of two other star names: Kyrie Irving and Anthony Davis.
Once again according to Dell, it felt like Curry was an afterthought to Nike. “They have certain tiers of athletes. They have Kobe, LeBron and Durant, who were their three main guys. If he signed back with them, we’re on that second tier,” Dell said, as reported by Sherwood Strauss on ESPN. It was the final nail in the coffin for Curry signing with Nike.
The rest is history. Curry has gone on to secure three NBA championships and has been MVP twice. He is a six-time All-Star and a cultural phenomenon to boot. He plays golf with Barack Obama, and he sells shoes like no one else since Michael Jordan. And it’s Under Armour, not Nike, that benefits from his star shining so bright.
Certainly Curry’s preferred tale when it comes to why he ultimately chose Under Armour ahead of Nike back in 2013 involves his daughter. “My favorite story is Riley,” Curry said, as reported by ESPN. According to Curry, he was at the California home of his agent, Jeff Austin, and was presented with three shoes. “Riley, which one do you like?” he asked his one-year-old daughter.
After the first trainer – a Nike sneaker – had been thrown over her shoulder, Riley turned to the next option. “She picked up shoe two, threw it over her shoulder. She picked up the third shoe, walked over and handed it to me.” Shoe two was made by Adidas, while number three was the Under Armour Anatomix Spawn. “So I knew right then,” Curry added, again as reported by ESPN.
Curry was likely to have had his tongue tucked firmly into his cheek when recounting the story of his daughter’s selection, and indeed there seems to have been much behind his choice of Under Armour over Nike. What cannot be doubted is the value of that choice to Curry’s current sponsors – and the cost of that decision to his previous partner. So while Nike arguably doesn’t often get it wrong, it messed up spectacularly with Steph Curry.