The bold black lettering stretches 4 feet high on a wall of Under Armour’s design studio: “No Art for Art’s Sake.”
It’s not that the Baltimore-based company doesn’t want stylish fitness apparel and athletic shoes. Rather, the slogan speaks to its ambition to infuse its products with meaning — with stories about the histories and traits of the celebrity athletes they were created for — in hopes of deepening its connection to the athletes and inspiring customers to buy more gear.
So it is that Bryce Harper’s black Camaro, Stephen Curry’s beloved sour candy, Cam Newton’s favorite college football rivalry and the University of Maryland’s ties to Francis Scott Key all have been reflected — or soon will be — in shoes or uniforms.
Two different shoes designed for Curry, the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, reference Bible verses for the deeply religious star, while another displays a color pattern that is a nod to his father. Another shoe variation is the bright yellow, green and red “Candy Reign,” hinting at the player’s love of Sour Patch Kids.
For Under Armour, the goal is to establish emotional connections with the company’s athletes and to engage their fans in the marketplace.
“We always strive to tell a story,” said Adam Clement, the company’s senior creative director for team sports.
Nike also aims to link its products to compelling back stories. More than ever, analysts say, the two companies are vying not only to sell apparel and shoes and to sign elite athletes but — like documentarians — to uncover inspiring, evocative narratives.
Telling a story “puts you more in touch with the consumer,” said George Kiel III, editor-in-chief of NiceKicks.com, a sneaker blog.
“When I played basketball, we all had to wear the same team shoe,” Kiel said. “Now athletes express themselves through their footwear. It’s kind of a competition to see who brings the best footwear out.”
Nike has shoes called “Aunt Pearl,” whom basketball star Kevin Durant wanted to memorialize after her death from lung cancer about 15 years ago. Nike also makes a Durant-themed “Weather Man” shoe — with Doppler radar-inspired graphics — because of the Oklahoma City player’s interest in meteorology.
The Oregon-based athletic apparel maker did not respond to requests for comment.
Under Armour often couches itself as an underdog in telling its own story. Better-established Nike far outpaces the Baltimore brand in combined apparel and footwear sales, but Under Armour is growing rapidly, with a goal set by founder and CEO Kevin Plank of reaching $7.5 billion in revenue by 2018. It had $3 billion in sales last year. Footwear, international sales, sales to women and online fitness applications are all driving the company’s growth.
The popularity of Curry — who is also marketed as an underdog because he is not big for his position and was bypassed by many college recruiters — has been a boon.
“Stephen Curry definitely has propelled them to new heights,” Kiel said.
Some members of the Maryland and Notre Dame women’s basketball teams wore the “Candy Reign” — a variation of the Curry One style — during last season’s Final Four. Other team members wore more conservative Under Armour shoes.
“They get to choose between the collection of shoes that are given to me,” said Terps coach Brenda Frese.
And the players don’t make their choices lightly. “It’s all about the hot gear,” Frese said.
With Curry and others, Under Armour “goes deeper into the story than I’ve seen other brands do,” Kiel said.
In September, Curry extended his sponsorship deal with the company through 2024 and said he looked forward “to being part of the brand’s story for the rest of my playing career and beyond.”
Sometimes, the allusions in Under Armour’s designs can be subtle. Not everybody would know why a specialty basketball uniform worn by the Northwestern University men in 2014 adopted pinstripes on the shorts (modeled after the Chicago Bulls) or depicted images of spaghetti (the team’s traditional pregame meal) among other hand-drawn designs.
Next season, Harper — the Washington Nationals’ star — will debut a black baseball shoe signifying his devotion to his custom-built black Camaro, the company said. Harper is from Nevada, and the gold-colored shoes he wore during the 2013 Home Run Derby depicted the Las Vegas skyline.
“We did a quick flash sale and it sold out within minutes,” said Josh Rattet, Under Armour’s vice president for footwear.
Newton, the Carolina Panthers quarterback, wears pregame football cleats highlighting pet causes such as breast cancer awareness (pink) and military service (camouflage). Newton, who attended Auburn, plans to wear an Auburn-themed shoe to mark the Nov. 28 “Iron Bowl” game against Alabama. The company said it has designed cleats for Newton in traditional Christmas colors for the holiday season and in colors that are a nod to his Georgia upbringing.
Once his games begin, however, Newton is limited to wearing approved shoe colors tied to his team.
“The (in-game) shoe he is currently wearing now is the shoe we’ll sell” to fans, Rattet said.
Other NFL players’ shoes may vary in important ways from the commercially available versions. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, for example, wears a stiffer shoe than the public would want.
“When we signed Tom (in 2010) his foot was broken so we had to build essentially a cocoon for his foot,” Rattet said.
Under Armour had success earlier this year selling a No. 199 Brady shirt. Brady was selected 199th in the 2000 NFL draft — a draft position that rarely yields a player of Brady’s caliber. It’s a number that Brady finds motivating and reflects the overcoming-odds-through-hard-work narrative that Under Armour embraces as its own.
The company’s designs don’t always get favorable reviews.
“Under Armour is trying way too hard to be cool,” was the headline on a Deadspin column earlier this year proclaiming the company has “ugly shoes” and “dumb slogans.”
After the first generation of loud, multicolored Maryland “Pride” football uniforms debuted in the 2011 season opener, NBA superstar LeBron James tweeted “#Ewwwww!” and Hall of Fame basketball player Bill Walton tweeted: “I hope someone pays Maryland to never wear these horrid uniforms again.”
Shortly afterward, Clement said a worker involved in refinancing his home told him: “You work for Under Armour, right? The only thing I can think about is the guy who designed those is on drugs.”
Clement said he replied: “Well, you’re looking at him, and I’m not.”
Under Armour filed for a trademark last year (it is pending) for the slogan “No Art for Art’s Sake.”
“If you design something just because it’s on trend or different or cool — or because black is what everyone’s wearing — it’s not going to stand the test of time,” Clement said.
But he said concepts are enduring.
For the Naval Academy men’s basketball team’s recent season opener, Under Armour designed custom uniforms featuring “Don’t Tread on Me” on the shorts and jersey. The uniforms were inspired by the First Navy Jack flag with a snake above a red-and-white stripe field, and symbolize the American fight for freedom.
Last season, Navy’s football team wore a specialty uniform inspired by the “summer white” military style and featuring a gold buckle, white gloves and white cleats.
For one game in 2014, Maryland wore “Star-Spangled” uniforms, which celebrated the bicentennial of the poem by Francis Scott Key that became the national anthem. The cursive writing on the jersey sleeves, helmet and shoes was intended to look like parchment and an ink pen.
By showcasing the state flag, the idea behind the “Maryland Pride” uniforms was to strengthen the association between the state and the university, and raise the school’s profile. Since the uniforms’ debut, Clement and others say the connection has become more popularly ingrained.
“We’ve now been able to pull it back to the point where the flag is used in a much more minimal way and becomes digestible,” Clement said.
The key, Under Armour officials say, is to unearth themes that athletes and teams — and their fans and consumers — feel viscerally connected to.
In 2013, Under Armour was developing attire for Natasha Hastings, an American track star.
“The cheetah is her favorite animal since it’s the fastest animal,” Clement said. “So we decided to go very overt and bold with a representation of it on the uniform. We placed the cheetah on the back so all those behind her would know the race leader couldn’t be caught, that the cheetah was out in front of them.”