That’s one storyline playing out since Auburn University vanquished the University of Oregon, 22-19, for the NCAA college football championship.
To locals, the backstory is pretty well known, but many sports fans nationally may not have been aware of Baltimore-based Under Armour’s rivalry with athletic shoe and apparel giant Nike.
I started covering Under Armour a bit in 2005, right around the time the company was thinking of going public (they executed a well-received IPO that November, raising about $120 million). No one at Under Armour at that time would speak on the record of any rivalry with the Swoosh — because the company was on an SEC-mandated quiet period, and by that point many of Under Armour’s top executives, including CEO Kevin Plank, were no longer making themselves very accessible to the local business media.
But, in conversations at the time with industry analysts and market watchers, it seemed to be all anyone could talk about. I remember one local attorney, over lunch in Fells Point, remarking that, IPO or no, he expected one day soon to see “the Nike Death Star” hovering over Under Armour’s Tide Point campus, ready to buy the upstart.
Under Armour today is a company with $1 billion in sales and a stock price that’s jumped 80 percent in the last year. Its compression gear — specially designed T-shirts and other apparel that “wicks” moisture from the body — sets the trends in that market, and its footwear sales are growing.
And that’s where Auburn comes in. Under Armour inked a deal in 2005 to outfit the Tigers, one of 10 deals — the University of Maryland, where Plank played football, was the first — the company has signed. So Monday night’s championship game gave Under Armour a golden opportunity to showcase its new Micro G cleat (not available until spring), on the feet of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton.
Under Armour had to love that Newton and the Tigers were facing the Ducks of Oregon. One of Oregon’s most prominent alums is Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. He’s reportedly given Oregon’s athletic department hundreds of millions of dollars. The football team’s seemingly never-ending number of uniform combinations — either edgy or garish, depending on your tastes — draw scrutiny from even casual sports fans.
Nike was in no way dethroned — the company does rack up $20 billion in sales and dominates its shoe and apparel categories.
But CEO Plank conceded in a CNBC interview Monday that the exposure would give his company a bounce as it seeks to take on the top dogs in other footwear categories, especially running and basketball shoes.
And sports business commentators couldn’t help but score one for Under Armour. USA Today compared the company to David knocking off Nike’s Goliath. SB Nation had a nice breakdown of the “corporate clash subplot” complete with photos of cleats personalized with the interlocking UA logo, as well as the bright yellow socks worn by the Ducks that might have made Bronko Nagurski hang up his leather helmet. CNBC sports business correspondent Darren Rovell, meanwhile, counted the number of logos on Newton’s uniform — 17 — and calculated the amount of “equivalent advertising” the teams would get from the broadcast.
Under Armour releases its fourth quarter 2010 earnings Jan. 27. We’ll find out then if it beats the Street.