20160328-featured-ua-story
David Sonntag
CEO
28 Mar 2016

What Event Producers can Learn from Basketball’s Buzziest Coup

You into basketball? If yes, check out this in-depth piece on ESPN by Ethan Sherwood Strauss, “You won’t believe how Nike lost Steph to Under Armour”. For those of you who aren’t keeping tabs courtside, a quick summary of the story: then-up-and-coming player Stephen Curry signs a shoe contract with Nike, Nike kinda marginalizes and undervalues the guy, Under Armour entices Curry away, Curry goes on to superstardom, Nike bawwwws. It was indeed a loss worthy of some hand-wringing: Morgan Stanley estimates Curry’s post rise-to-fame value at $14 billion. The coup is all the more impressive considering that Under Armour lays claim to “less than 1 percent of the sneaker market”.

Maybe this is arrogance, maybe it’s just that everyone fancies themselves the underdog, but from a personal perspective, the story resonates with the folks here at Decibel. We’ve always prided ourselves on being the scrappy little guy getting big things done, taking the lean approach to project execution. It’s nice to be reminded that most of the time, it just comes down to who cares more.

The Pitch is Everything

And nothing says “I don’t care” like a shoddy pitch. Read the story, and you’ll see there was no one factor that decided Curry’s defection, but the fumbled pitch meeting reads like a real turning point:

“Famed Nike power broker and LeBron James adviser Lynn Merritt was not present, a possible indication of the priority — or lack thereof — that Nike was placing on the meeting. Instead, Nico Harrison, a sports marketing director at the time, ran the meeting … The pitch meeting, according to Steph’s father Dell, who was present, kicked off with one Nike official accidentally addressing Stephen as ‘Steph-on,’ the moniker, of course, of Steve Urkel’s alter ego in Family Matters. ‘I heard some people pronounce his name wrong before,’ says Dell Curry. ‘I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised that I didn’t get a correction.’

“It got worse from there. A PowerPoint slide featured Kevin Durant’s name, presumably left on by accident, presumably residue from repurposed materials. ‘I stopped paying attention after that,’ Dell says. Though Dell resolved to ‘keep a poker face,’ throughout the entirety of the pitch, the decision to leave Nike was in the works.”

*wince*. Look, Nike doesn’t need a lesson in running meetings – they know better. They just got complacent, easy to do when you’re at the top.

Good Word-of-Mouth is Worth More than Money

A clever strategy does things money never can. Instead of courting Curry directly, Under Armour courted one of Curry’s teammates, very publicly deluging him with tokens of appreciation. In the end, it was that same teammate that pushed Curry to make the switch. Throwing money at something won’t buy you that kind of loyalty, and won’t inspire spontaneous recommendations. Treating your people right, though? That will.

Brand and sponsor value alignment is crucial

As some ESPN commentators noted, it’s also possible that Curry simply wasn’t right for Nike in the first place. Nike, they point out, likes their athletes larger-than-life. Curry, more zip than brawn, is almost too relatable. Yeah, maybe that was all, but it sounds like there was a mismatch of values as well: Nike values raw power, Curry values smart plays; Nike values big and flashy, Curry values small but special. This holds true in festival and event sponsorships as well: the most mutually-beneficial partnerships are born of shared values and shared goals.

Under Armour is kind of Badass

The gutsy play is a little less surprising considering that UA started out as a one-man, one-trunk operation:

“Working from his grandmother’s basement in Washington DC’s Georgetown neighborhood, he traveled up and down the East Coast selling his revolutionary new product out of the trunk of his car. By the end of 1996, Plank made his first team sale, and Under Armour generated $17,000 in sales.”

Lots of respect for Under Armour.

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