How Nike lost Stephen Curry to Under Armour
Joyce Park stashed this in The Sporting Life
How Kent Bazemore and his toddler daughter influenced Steph Curry to endorse Under Armour in a landmark deal for both sides.
Wow, there is more to Kent Bazemore than meets the eye!
Since he entered the league, "Bazemore style," has also meant being swaddled in Under Armour apparel. "He's like the biggest spokesperson for the brand," says Curry, the actual biggest UA spokesperson. "Always wears new stuff, wears my stuff." You can often see Bazemore wearing Curry's signature shoes. Increasingly, America's youth are joining in that predilection.
Steph's father Dell encouraged him to walk away from Nike.
In the meeting, according to Dell, there was never a strong indication that Steph would become a signature athlete with Nike. "They have certain tiers of athletes," Dell says. "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 makes an analogy back to the past, when Dell's alma mater, Virginia Tech, offered his son the mere opportunity try out as a walk-on. This was familiar territory for a player who'd long prevailed over projections. "Wasn't highly recruited, wasn't highly respected, wasn't highly thought of," Dell says. "It was kind of like that, you know?"
Dell's message for his son was succinct: "Don't be afraid to try something new."
The reason Steph Curry was ignored is the reason he's so popular.
As someone familiar with Nike's marketing operation says, in regard to Curry: "Everything that makes him human and cuddly and an unlikely monster is anathema to Nike. They like studs with tight haircuts and muscles." This, then, is the paradox of Steph Curry: The reason he was ignored is the reason he's so popular. Nike looked past him for the very reason so many fans now can't look anywhere else.
"He went to Davidson," Vaccaro says. "He was always overlooked. He was skinny, he was frail, he was all the things you weren't supposed to be. He never got his due. All of a sudden, like a bolt of lightning, Steph Curry is on the scene. And this is the hardest thing for Nike to swallow right now."
Vaccaro says, "What you're witnessing is a phenomenon. This is like Michael signing with Nike in '84. He's going to morph into the most recognizable athlete. And why is he going to be that? Because he's like everybody else."
Nike, to be fair, can't be faulted for failing to foresee the current Steph Curry reality. That reality is just too surreal. Few predicted anything like last year's MVP and championship season. And so far this season, he's making those numbers look quaint. Even Curry's confidants confide they never saw this coming.
I like this phrase: "The Bazemore Largesse".
AT THE GRASSROOTS level, the sneaker business is a turf war. And so it was that in the 2012 offseason, with Brandon Jennings as its top basketball spokesman, Under Armour needed any territory it could get. This is how it came into the orbit of one Kent Bazemore. As an undrafted rookie on the Warriors, sneaker companies had little reason to throw money Bazemore's way. Hell, there was no guarantee Bazemore would even make the team. His agent, Austin Walton, had an idea, though. He contacted Under Armour. "I sold them on having a guy on the West Coast, having a presence there," Walton says. "I sold the fact that they had a couple other guys with shoe deals up, Klay and Steph, that maybe, you know, he can get some other guys on board if he makes the team."
Walton made that pitch to "Stoney," Kris Stone, a former high school teammate of Jason Kidd's and current director of sports marketing at Under Armour. Stone had coveted Curry's business long before, leading up to the 2009 draft. "The year [Curry] was drafted, we were actually making shoes for him, getting ready to pitch. But he had already signed with the other guys."
A tentative plan was put into motion: Demonstrate what UA could do for a star by proxy, lavish Bazemore with the kind of attention that would earn notice from Curry and other higher-profile players. Or, as Walton puts it, "They sent him a s--- ton of gear."
In the summer of 2012, a shipment arrived at Bazemore's tiny bachelor pad in downtown Oakland. "Under Armour sent me, like, 19 boxes in the first shipment to my apartment," he says. "I didn't even have furniture at the time; I just had a ton of UA boxes and an air mattress at my place. I was under a non-guaranteed contract my rookie year, so I didn't even have a deal. If I wouldn't have made the team, I didn't know what I was going to do with all the stuff."
But sure enough, an ascendent teammate took notice of the Bazemore shoe deluge. "He was a rookie for us, and he got more gear and boxes in front of his locker every day than anybody else on the team," Curry says. The gear was ubiquitous around the Warriors' practice facility; even Golden State staff members were wearing free clothes from the Bazemore largesse.
"I think Bazemore had more player-exclusive footwear than any other guy on that team," Stone says. "And he probably was playing, at that time, two, three minutes a night." Bazemore put a number on it, saying, "I had a merchandise deal where they would send me 60 pairs of shoes for the season."
THIS WAS A longshot approach for Under Armour, but Bazemore -- a natural salesman with a ready smile -- had the personality to give it a chance. He boasts the kind of energy that takes him on 40-mile cycling jaunts. If Bazemore is selling you something, it won't be a subtle pitch. And he just so happened to befriend Curry.
They're both North Carolina guys, both Carolina Panthers fans. It didn't matter that one grew up wealthy in Charlotte and the other grew up poor in tiny Kelford, struggling through winters without heat. "We're people," Bazemore says. "Sometimes you meet someone for the first time, you're like, 'OK, this guy's a great dude.' "
The friendship was facilitated by Bazemore working late after practice in an effort to remain in the league. Curry, though playing big minutes, kept these kinds of hours, as well. "I wasn't playing at all, and this guy's playing like 35 minutes a night," Bazemore says. "He's in there getting up shots, just as many shots as I am."
Friendship begat business. "I'll shout anything out," Bazemore boasts. "Yeah, I have no shame when it comes to branding. I'll throw Under Armour's name, anything I'm a part of. I'll speak so highly of it. And Steph's like, 'My deal is up.' " Bazemore seized the opening. "I'm like, 'Man, come over here, get your own shoe.' I hadn't talked to anybody at Under Armour about this. I was making all these promises, like 'Get your own shoe, you're the face of the game,' sending out all these hypotheticals. I haven't talked to anyone over there."
Perhaps this is how Nike missed. Years of promoting Michael Jordan descendents made them oblivious to a player who shot the ball over that whole paradigm. It left them vulnerable to Kent Bazemore, and a company with less than 1 percent of the sneaker market. The next frontier of flight didn't happen to be the next frontier of basketball. The next frontier happened to be Steph Curry, whose launches aren't leaps, yet whose range commands a zeitgeist.