SAN FRANCISCO — Trivia question:
When Cam Newton runs onto the Levi’s Stadium field for his first Super Bowl, what team will he play for?
Easiest “trivia” question in history, right? The Carolina Panthers, of course.
That’s the correct answer. But it is not the only correct answer. One could argue that it is not even the best correct answer. Newton will also play for Under Armour, Beats by Dre, L’Oreal and Dannon and anybody else who pours money into his bank account these days.
The modern-day superstar has several employers, and this means his loyalty compass can spin in every direction. As a fan, you might think of endorsement income as nothing more than the world’s greatest job perk—a nice bonus, but irrelevant to what you see on the field. It’s not that simple. Put yourself in a famous athlete’s signature shoes for a moment.
Just for example: James Harden. He is under contract with both the Houston Rockets and adidas. Let’s look at the terms of each deal:
Houston Rockets: Five years, $80 million.
adidas: 13 years, $200 million.
The Rockets can trade Harden and surely will trade some of his friends; adidas will not. The Rockets can demand he play defense, get on his case in practice, push him to be more of a leader and force him to talk to the media after a tough loss; adidas will not.
Again, Harden is just an example here. But if he wakes up some mornings and feels more loyalty to adidas than to the Rockets, that would only make him human.
And this brings us to Newton, and to one of his most prominent employers: Under Armour. You might not care about Under Armour. But whether you own Under Armour gear, prefer Nike or sit on your couch in your Old Navy pajamas all day, you have to admit: Under Armour has had a hell of a year.
In 2013, Nike decided to let Steph Curry go; reports indicate that they could have paid an extra $2 million per year to keep him. He signed with Under Armour, and now he is one of the most marketable athletes in history. He re-upped last fall and got a stake in the company.
Newton signed with Under Armour when he left Auburn in 2011 and re-signed in January 2015. Now he is the NFL’s MVP, it’s most talked-about player and a cultural phenomenon.
Jordan Spieth signed a 10-year contract extension with Under Armour in January 2015. It was an incentive-laden deal, but it’s fair to say Spieth would be a lot more expensive today. Since signing that extension, he has won two majors, contended in two others and looks like he will become the most popular American golfer of his generation.
Curry, Newton, Spieth. That’s quite a hat trick. But there is more. Under Armour outfielder Bryce Harper was the best player in baseball in 2015. Under Armour goalie Carey Price was the NHL’s most valuable player. Under Armour pitcher Clayton Kershaw nearly won another Cy Young award. Under Armour quarterback Tom Brady won a Super Bowl and nearly earned a spot in another.
Sitting in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel this week, Under Armour vice president of sports marketing Ryan Kuehl said, “We may not be as lucky in 2016.” Then again, who knows? Under Armour swimmer Michael Phelps could be the biggest star of the Rio Olympics.
Under Armour has a market capitalization of roughly $17 billion. So it’s not like this is a heartwarming story about a mom-and-pop shop. But if you’re a sports fan, it’s still worth paying attention, because Under Armour’s success is not just a lesson in selling sports apparel.
It’s a lesson about success itself.
Kuehl played for 10 years in the NFL. He was a lineman—a fringe player, the kind you wouldn’t really notice. But he paid attention. He saw what motivated players.
“Sometimes their goals are to be famous,” Kuehl said. “Sometimes their goals are to make a lot of money. Sometimes their goals are to win championships. None of those goals are wrong. But what’s important to us as a brand is winning championships.”
Of course he will say that. But Under Armour’s most popular athletes have lived it. Newton promised last year that his $100 million contract wouldn’t change his attitude, and this fall he showed it. Curry is as hungry now as he was when Nike let him go.
“No matter how much money you pay them, it doesn’t matter, because their will is to win championships,” Kuehl said.
Under Armour had an incredible year because it did what so many pro teams don’t do: It identified players who would not be changed by the money.
How did Under Armour know what it was getting? Well, here is a story: In the 2014 Masters, Spieth shot a final-round 72 to finish tied for second. It was an incredible achievement for a 20-year-old. Spieth had plenty of reasons to feel proud or exhausted, or to start counting his future earnings in his head. But that night, when Kuehl went over to the house Spieth was renting in Augusta, Ga., they did not spend the evening on the couch with six bottles of wine. They went to the garage to play table tennis.
“We played ping-pong for three hours,” Kuehl said. “He was still wearing the outfit he wore in the tournament on Sunday. His shirt was untucked. His hat was on backwards. We’re both sweating. He was wearing flip-flops.”
They stood in that garage, and Spieth kept extending the competition: best of five … best of seven … best of nine. He was going to keep playing until he won. It was the kind of story you hear about Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan.
When Under Armour signed Spieth to that 10-year deal, company execs did not know Spieth would win the next two majors. But they knew how hard he would try.
Spieth has another quality that often gets overlooked: Like Newton or Curry, he likes having eyeballs on him. It’s what separates him from, say, Sergio Garcia, who appeared to be on the cusp of a Spieth-like career at age 19, but couldn’t quite handle the stage.
“A lot of guys say they want the spotlight but they don’t really want the spotlight,” Kuehl said. “You’ve gotta be comfortable being The Man. As opposed to: ‘It’s cool if it works out,’ or ‘I’m going to stick my toe in, but I’m not going to jump in with two feet.’”
Kuehl remembers watching Newton at Auburn. Cam’s father Cecil was accused of soliciting under-the-table payments for his son’s services, a violation of NCAA rules. Whatever you think of that, you must acknowledge this: The scrutiny did not rattle Newton. He won the Heisman Trophy and led Auburn to a national championship.
Those are the qualities that attracted Under Armour to Newton, and those are the qualities we saw in Newton this season, as storylines (both real and manufactured) swirled around him. He does not shrivel under pressure. He loves this. And Newton understands that the way to make more endorsement money is to keep winning. Performance on the field always fuels success off the field. Some athletes think it is the other way around.
Newton and Peyton Manning are very different quarterbacks, but they have this in common: Money and fame have not changed them. Manning has been the NFL’s preeminent endorser for most of his career, but you never hear anybody say he is more worried about Papa John’s or Nationwide than the Broncos.
If you are a CEO, you can feel very comfortable handing a large endorsement deal to either quarterback in this game. Maybe that isn’t the story of the Super Bowl. Then again, maybe it is.