Under Armour Has High Hopes for Stephen Curry Shoe Launch in Battle Against Nike

How the Marketer is Building 'Preheat' Before Curry One Hits Stores

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If you want to be a player in the basketball shoe business, you need a star. And Under Armour hopes it found its man with the NBA's Stephen Curry, who is about to lace up his very own Under Armour shoe.

The company, which only got into the basketball shoe business four years ago, officially announced the Curry One shoe on Thursday, marking one of Under Armour's first big plays in the signature basketball shoe game. The shoe -- which will sell for $120 and hit stores on Feb. 13 -- will make its on-court debut Friday night when Mr. Curry wears them for the first time as his Golden State Warriors take on the Cleveland Cavaliers at a home game on ESPN.

Cavs star LeBron James is a Nike endorser, so when the game was originally scheduled, it symbolically pitted Under Armour against its arch-rival. But Mr. James is not expected to return to the court due to an injury for a few days.

Fast-rising Under Armour, which was founded in 1996, has a goal of eventually toppling Nike to become the world's top retail sports brand. But to even come close, Under Armour must make up serious ground in its basketball shoe business.

The sector accounts for just $20 million to $30 million in sales for the company, according to a recent report by Canaccord Genuity. That amounts to a fraction of the $3 billion in revenue the company is expected to record for 2014. Basketball "remains a significant opportunity but also has the biggest competitive hurdles to overcome considering [Nike] owns 95% of the market," Canaccord Genuity stated.

The launch is "critically important to us," said Roman Vega, Under Armour's senior category director for basketball. "Basketball is a hyper-competitive market and we know that as a category we have to be successful in that space."

Under Armour first hooked up with a pro basketball player when it signed Brandon Jennings in 2008. In 2010, Under Armour came out with a signature shoe for the then-Milwaukee Bucks player that is no longer sold at retail.

By partnering with the sharpshooting Mr. Curry, Under Armour is hitching itself to one of the fastest-rising NBA stars. He currently ranks in the top 10 in scoring and is the second-leading vote getter for the All Star Game, trailing Mr. James. "He's having a phenomenal year and we're really excited about that. And it doesn't hurt that you see him on a nightly basis on TV on the highlights," Mr. Vega said. "When we are able to partner with an athlete of his caliber, that really helps brings some authenticity and credibility to us as a footwear provider."

Mr. Vega downplayed the potential Curry-LeBron matchup as a coincidence. Perhaps it is, but everything else about the launch appears to be carefully calculated to build as much buzz as possible before the shoe hits stores in mid-February.

An ad campaign for the shoe, including a TV spot, is expected to launch around the Feb. 15 All Star Game that will be played at Madison Square Garden. Before then, Under Armour is seeking to build what it calls "pre-heat." This week the company hosted an elaborate, multi-day press event in the Bay Area for influential shoe trade reporters, known as "sneakerheads." Invited guests included editors and reporters from such publications as KicksonFire, SneakerNews and WearTesters.

Press junkets are common in the shoe industry. But Under Armour dedicated considerable resources to its event in hopes of making as big a splash as possible. Appearances were planned for Mr. Curry and Dave Dombrow, Under Armour's VP-creative director for footwear, who led the shoe's design. To run the event, the company hired Narrative, a digital marketing, entertainment and technology agency co-founded by pioneering music executive Russell Simmons.

"We want to make sure we are coming guns blazing," Mr. Vega said. Because "quite frankly some [trade press] may be skeptical … We want to prove to them that yes, we are serious and we are here to stay and that we are going to be a vital competitor in this category for a long time."

Under Armour's Curry One
Under Armour's Curry One

The centerpiece of the event was scheduled to occur Thursday at a Bay Area high school gym that Under Armour transformed into a "Curry One design studio." Props included "a deconstructed Curry One," shoe sketches and a "giant mood board" of images that inspired the shoe's design, such as cars, rockets, animals and old photos of Mr. Curry, according to a schedule of events shared with Ad Age. The goal was to get away from "that typical press conference type of a setting," Narrative co-founder and CEO Tricia Clarke-Stone said in an interview earlier this week.

A so-called "editors huddle" panel discussion was scheduled to be attended by Mr. Dombrow and Mr. Curry and hosted by actor/comedian Mark Curry, former star of the TV show "Hangin' With Mr. Cooper" (no relation to Stephen Curry). The event included a "wear test" session in which the reporters could lace up their own Curry Ones, as well as other Under Armour basketball gear. Also scheduled was a basketball scrimmage in which the reporters could play alongside Mr. Curry.

The reporters were also given smartphones that included a Google Cardboard virtual reality attachment. The device could be used to take a tour through milestones of Mr. Curry's career, including his days at Davidson College and a look at the career of his father, former NBA star Dell Curry.

4:13 is a reference to Mr. Curry's favorite Bible verse
4:13 is a reference to Mr. Curry's favorite Bible verse

The shoe itself includes design details that reference Mr. Curry, such as a lace loop scripted with "4:13," which is a reference to one of Mr. Curry's favorite Bible verses: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

The smartphones were also loaded with an electronic agenda for the event and special Google Maps that highlighted some of Mr. Curry's Bay Area hangouts. The digital elements are a nod to the Bay Area's tech reputation, as well as "leaning into Under Armour's thirst for innovation," Ms. Clark-Stone said.

Even the food was branded: Under Armour planned to serve a "signature sandwich" named for Mr. Curry from Bay Area sandwich chain "Ike's Place" containing turkey, "Steph's Sweet Onion BBQ" and provolone cheese. Meanwhile, gift packs for the reporters included Sour Patch Kids, a favorite of Mr. Curry's.

Under Armour also planned to host the reporters at Friday's Cavs-Warriors game. There's only one thing the company could not guarantee: A Warrior's win.

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