Moments before the teams took the field for Super Bowl 50, the figurative spotlight found Panthers super-fan Stephen Curry, who pounded the team’s enormous ceremonial drum four times. As upwards of 100 million American fans ritualistically watched at home, he triumphantly raised his arms and hollered, “Let’s go!”
That rally cry was the zenith of an exhilarating weekend in which–as usual–everything came up Curry. His hometown team, led by Under Armour brethren and freshly minted league MVP Cam Newton, happened to represent the NFC. The Big Game happened to take place in his Bay Area backyard. And most importantly, Steph happened to be in town after vanquishing the Thunder the night before.
Speaking of that Super Bowl eve showdown, an unexpected flourish awaited select fans at their seats: A signed pair of Under Armour Curry Two sneakers. This was an extra-nice touch, celebrating both the Golden State superstar’s coming-out party and the brand he has propelled to new heights.
Curry’s Super Bowl showcase was the latest high point in a calendar year full of them. Last season signified a genuine star turn for Steph, who enjoyed his first signature sneaker, first MVP award, and first NBA title. Thanks to his daughter livening up otherwise banal postgame press conferences, he also became sports’ most beloved family man.
And it was all made possible when his problematic ankles finally began to cooperate with him.
“Only two summers ago was the first he could spend time improving his game as opposed to rehabbing his ankle,” says Rich Twu, founder and editor of LetsGoWarriors.com. “His confidence buoyed his rapid development, and he was in the right place at the right time, as Warriors management found the right complementary pieces. So there’s a good portion that can be attributed to serendipity.”
Incredibly, things have only gotten better this season: Curry leads the league with 30 points per game, while the Warriors have been virtually unbeatable. Relying on a swashbuckler’s handle and a sharpshooter’s three-point accuracy, he routinely lights the Internet on fire with a highlight reel play, a 51-point game, or a combination of the two. Consider his 6-3, 190-pound frame, and he’s like a new and improved version of 2001’s world-beating Allen Iverson.
“Most of the stuff I try in a game, in the moment I have supreme confidence I’m going to execute it,” Curry recently told GQ. “You go back and watch it, and, [think,] Yeah, that was pretty cool. My favorite one is the one from the Clippers game last year, weaving through all the defenders. There’s no reason I should’ve tried that. And it just happened to work out.”
Add in an amazing supporting cast and it’s no wonder the Warriors have a real shot to best the 1996 Bulls’ 72-10 record, previously thought unassailable. Meanwhile, Curry has drawn comparisons both on court and on Madison Avenue to the star of that team, none other than Michael Jordan. These are truly heady times for Northern California fans, who have embraced their star–and his sneakers–in a major way.
“Under Armour’s signature Curry shoe certainly has seen a dramatic rise in the Bay Area,” Twu said. “I actually run adult basketball leagues, and I would say there is at least one pair of Currys on the court in every game, which in a Nike-dominated world really says something. That upward trajectory should continue as Steph further cements his legacy.”
Granted, it’s always a dicey proposition to juxtapose any player with Jordan, no matter how good he is. But marketing-wise, it’s hard to think of another player since M.J.–even LeBron James–who seemed to have had as big an impact on a brand he endorses.
Under Armour’s most recent financials painted a rosy picture, with fourth-quarter revenue rising 31 percent. There were obviously many factors involved, but UA gave a lion’s share of the credit to the Curry Two’s soaring popularity for the company’s eye-opening 95 percent improvement in overall sneaker sales. Nike’s basketball market share was an insurmountable 96 percent last year, but Under Armour is at least making its presence felt.
Emboldened by the Curry effect, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank has high hopes for his basketball division, which he views as a potential billion-dollar industry. NPD Group sports industry analyst Matt Powell believes that goal is a lofty one, but he nonetheless thinks both Steph and UA have a bright future together.
“Brands need athletes to perform at a high level in their products for authenticity. Curry brings that to UA,” Powell said. “But no brand can live off one athlete, as their individual impact on sales is limited.”
In that vein, Under Armour has amassed an impressive roster of signature athletes, including the reigning MVP’s of all four major American sports–Super Bowl lightning rod Newton, Nationals phenom Bryce Harper and Canadiens goaltender Carey Price. They also have top golfer Jordan Spieth, all-world quarterback Tom Brady, and top non-Mayweather boxer Canelo Alvarez. Most recently, megastar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson signed on to wear UA gear both in the wrestling ring and on the silver screen.
But make no mistake, UA’s primary difference-maker is and will continue to be Curry, whose surprising takeover of the nominal top spot in the NBA from more conventional superstar James has offered a spark for a brand known mainly for football. Curry’s ability to dominate despite his small-ish stature appeals to a new generation of fans, who appreciate his guile, talent, and work ethic.
“UA is known as a disruptive brand,” Powell said, “a brand that re-wrote the rule book. Curry is disruptive as well, so he is a good fit.”
All that said, so much of Under Armour’s recent rise is predicated on Steph’s resurgent ankles, which just a few years ago threatened to send him down the Grant Hill path. If he is to be UA’s version of Jordan, he needs to achieve staying power, and there are obviously no guarantees.
But for now, the diminutive dynamo is on top of the world, and there’s no reason to do anything other than take it all in and see where it ends up.
“The NBA is so fluid. We just want to enjoy what’s going on right now,” Curry recently told ESPN, “instead of talking about what might be.”