After a record-setting regular season performance, Golden State star Stephen Curry reached the peak of NBA popularity. He led the league in jersey sales, received the highest amount of All-Star Game votes and became the NBA’s first unanimous MVP in May. There is one thing about Curry that people seem undecided on, though: Are his shoes cool?
The basketball world’s reaction to Under Armour’s Curry 2 Low “Chefs” has been documented. The white colorway instantly produced memes comparing the sneakers to shoes one’s dad may lace up for a family barbeque, a comparison at odds with what is typically associated with a basketball shoe. Curry’s other shoes, similarly, have been met with negative reaction on social media.
Though the jokes on Twitter would suggest otherwise, Curry’s partnership with Under Armour has been incredibly fruitful. NPD Sports Industry Analyst Matt Powell called Under Armour’s success with Curry a “phenomenon,” noting that Curry’s line will come close to what Kevin Durant will sell with Nike this year. If the current growth continues, Powell says Curry could potentially outsell LeBron James’s Nike shoe in 2017. For context, Nike made $340 million in sales from James’s shoes in 2015, almost twice as much as Durant.
“He’s selling a pretty remarkable amount of shoes, much faster than it took LeBron or Durant to get to this level,” Powell said.
Curry is reportedly worth up to $14 billion to Under Armour, according to Business Insider. Under Armour’s growth is currently outpacing Nike and Adidas, and some projections suggest Under Armour could be the third biggest sportswear brand by 2030.
By all meaningful measurements, Under Armour is doing well, and it’s largely because of Curry’s popularity. So why can’t Curry’s shoes catch a break on Twitter?
It takes time to build brand recognition, according to Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California and expert on American popular culture. Boyd, who has written extensively about the NBA and shoe culture, said Under Armour is the new kid on the block in a shoe culture that has been dominated by Jordan and Nike, and to a lesser degree, by Adidas, Reebok and FILA, for decades.
“There’s the athlete and their own personal identity as a brand, and then there’s the brand of the sneaker,” Boyd said. “At some point those things may merge, at some point they come together. I think the challenge for Steph, if it is a challenge, is the fact that first of all, Under Armour is relatively new. It takes time to build up the recognition inherent to a brand like a Nike or Adidas.”
Nike’s rise to prominence is closely tied to Michael Jordan’s rise as a cultural icon in the 1980s and 90s. An entire generation of sneakerheads have grown up with Air Jordan—and by extension, Nike—being the gold standard in shoe culture. It’s by that standard that other shoe brands are measured, and Under Armour, which entered the basketball shoe market in 2008 and has only gained traction during the previous two years, has yet to earn a similar level of traction in basketball shoe culture.
Under Armour was founded in 1996, the same year Jordan won his fourth championship and released his eleventh shoe, the Jordan XI.
“They really haven’t had time to develop a distinction,” Boyd said. “People are familiar with it, but when you think of Under Armour, what do you think of? If I ask you about Nike, Brand Jordan, even Adidas, you have some ideas about those brands because they’ve been around a long time.”
Boyd noted that Curry is different from other NBA superstars, who were big names in high school and were either drafted straight into the league or attended a big name college, Curry hasn’t created a significant level of hype until recently. He wasn’t highly recruited out of high school, attended a mid-major school in Davidson and wasn’t expected to be a star when Golden State took him with the No. 7 pick of the 2009 draft.
It took Curry several years to establish himself in the NBA. When Golden State signed Curry to a four year $44 million extension in 2012, it was considered a risk due to his injury history. When Curry met with Nike in 2013 to re-negotiate his deal with the company, it was clear that Nike considered Curry an afterthought, ESPN reporter Ethan Strauss reported in March. Nike held the right to match an Under Armour offer to Curry of $4 million per year but declined.
“It feels like people are trying to catch up, if you will,” Boyd said. “That’s because traditionally we’ve known these athletes a lot longer. Steph came up and really surprised a lot of people. His play was unique. This guy comes out of Davidson, who’s ever heard of Davidson before Steph Curry?”
Curry, like Under Armour, is establishing himself as a brand name. Sole Collector Editor in Chief Gerald Flores said that Curry’s shoes have been a hit with a demographic that isn’t represented on the Twittersphere—children.
“When you think about where those memes start, they’re coming from people who grew up in that generation in the 90s where, the thing about Under Armour is that it’s only been in footwear for what, like five years? Six years or so?” Flores said. “They sell well because they resonate with kids rather than someone older than like, probably 18 or 20 years old because I feel like Curry’s fan base is more of the younger generation.”
In June, Under Armour marketing executive Kris Stone told ESPN’s Darren Rovell that the demand is bigger than the supply for kids’ sizes of Curry’s shoes.
"We're making them in infant for the Curry Threes next year,” Stone told ESPN.
Curry is one of the most imitable superstars ever. His trademark—his quick, seemingly automatic jumper—is easier to replicate on the court than, say, Jordan’s in-game dunks or Iverson’s crossover. Curry’s accessible game and family-friendly image has endeared him to kids across the country, to the dismay of some. ESPN analyst and former Golden State head coach Mark Jackson made waves last Christmas when he said that Curry has hurt the game of basketball because high schoolers are now pulling up for 30-foot jumpers instead of showcasing an all-around game.
“People on playgrounds can imitate Steph Curry in a way that they never could imitate Jordan,” Boyd said. “There’s something about Steph I think that, if this makes sense, is more human. What Jordan was doing was not considered to be something that other people could do. Not that other people can do it as well as Steph, not even close. But you get what I’m saying. If you’re on a basketball court, you can shoot a 3. To be able to jump high enough to dunk the basket is something a lot of people can’t do, much less do it with style and finesse, etc. Steph to me is sort of like a basketball everyman, in a sense.”
The new generation of future sneakerheads can relate to Curry more than Jordan, and in that lies Under Armour’s potential for future growth.
“They’re not going to identify with a Jordan where they’ve never seen him play, they just know his mystique,” Flores said. “But they’ve had a personal experience with Curry. I think his value is going to be triple to the brand going forward and I think there’s upside for them.”
Barring injury, it’s safe to assume that as Curry continues to produce Vine-worthy highlights, Under Armour’s profile will continue to resonate with future sneakerheads. But Under Armour is still finding ways to connect with the current generation.
Powell wrote in June that only 25% of U.S. consumers wear athletic shoes for their intended purpose. The majority of basketball shoes are worn because they’re comfortable, or because they’re fashionable, or because they’re both. Jordan’s have long been a popular accessory within fashion circles.
“When you get into the sneakerhead culture, it’s not about practicality,” Boyd said. “It’s about wanting to create buzz, wanting to catch people’s eye, wanting to get attention.”
In sneakerhead culture, Nikes and Jordan’s became linked to the concept of social mobility, Boyd said. What separated Jordan from other brands in the 1980s is that they were more expensive than other sneakers on the market, and they were often difficult to acquire.
Under Armour is still finding its voice in the fashion world. They don’t have retro sneakers, one of the main drivers for both Nike and Jordan shoes and the secondary sneaker market, a billion-dollar industry according to Forbes. Under Armour also doesn’t have a lifestyle shoe on the market, though that will change once the Curry 1 Lux, a casual shoe with a leather interior and suede upper, hits stores.
From Hyperdunk to Roshe to Flyknit, Nike has a number of lifestyle shoe lines that have extended its reach beyond the basketball market. Nike, along with other shoe companies, have also had high-profile collaborations that have made waves. Nike teamed with Kanye West before the mercurial pop star left to collaborate with Adidas. Adidas has collaborated with fashion designer Jeremy Scott. It remains to be seen how the Curry 1 Lux will be received, or if Under Armour will make more deliberate attempts to appeal to appease those with a taste in expensive shoes.
Boyd, who described himself as old school, said he won’t buy a pair of Curry’s shoes. But he recognizes that this is a result of his perception of Under Armour and Nike. If Curry continues to perform at a high level, Boyd can see this stigma changing.
“It requires Steph to continue to rise, which there’s nothing to suggest he won’t. But the brand needs to rise as well,” he said. “Some of that, he doesn’t have any control over. I’m sorry, but maybe I’m an OG. I’ve been paying attention to and participating in this for a long time. I’m not repping Under Armour. There’s nothing you can tell me to make me rep Under Armour sneakers, it’s not happening. But maybe for younger people buying sneakers, maybe they can be persuaded otherwise.”
Under Armour likely isn’t too concerned by its perceived lack of weight in sneaker culture yet. Powell notes that sneakerheads amount to less than 10 percent of the overall shoe market.
“The most important thing to understand, is that sneakerheads are only a tiny slither of the marketplace,” Powell said. “Their voice is quite loud on the internet. Like a lot of voices, there’s really not much behind it.”
For Under Armour, publicity is publicity. At the 2016 Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in June, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank was quoted as saying, “I thought, “Oh my gosh, after 20 years in business doing this, people finally care,” in response to the reaction to the Curry 2 Low “Chef.” “That is everything you're trying to do in marketing…The worst thing in life is apathy; when no one cares if you show up or not."
Curry himself has also addressed the backlash. “We’re the new kid on the block when it comes to basketball, but we’re gaining that credibility,” he told Sole Collector earlier this year. “That fever throughout the sneaker crowd is growing. We’re making some good shoes that start with performance. It’s a good recipe and we’re just getting started.”
High-profile fans of the brand are beginning to emerge. Los Angeles-based rapper Earl Sweatshirt, who is 22, recently tweeted that he bought a couple pairs of Curry’s on July 9. And Chicago-based artist Chance the Rapper, 23, was recently pictured with Curry and Under Armour brand rep Kent Bazemore with a pair of Curry’s shoes in-hand. Bazemore, one of Under Armour’s first basketball signees, joked that Under Armour signed Chance the Rapper to a lifetime deal.
Under Armour has a ways to go before it is seen as a major player in the fashion world, yet made dramatic leaps in the last two years to establish itself as a threat in the basketball shoe market. Curry has proven himself as a capable shoe salesman. Jordan Spieth, Cam Newton, Tom Brady, Bryce Harper and Clayton Kershaw have given the brand additional credibility. Though sneakerhead culture hasn’t been as accepting yet, the future looks bright for Under Armour.