Kevin Durant allegedly cancelled a meeting with Nike and all hell broke loose. His sneaker deal with the Swoosh expired last week, and reportedly Under Armour is in the running for his services, complete with a massive offer. This is a big deal. Reigning NBA MVPs have switched sneaker companies before—Tim Duncan did it as recently as 2003 when he left Nike for adidas—but Durant’s defection would make Duncan’s (whose signature Nikes never really took off) seem insignificant.
This seems like the perfect time for Durant to switch sneaker companies, if he’s ever going to, and Durant would be the perfect player to boost Under Armour’s already burgeoning basketball brand. It’s one that’s been built slowly and steadily, starting with prep-to-pros guard Brandon Jennings and increasing via grassroots involvement. Steph Curry, who came over from Nike just last October, was the brand’s first major non-rookie signing — and their first All-Star when Curry was voted a starter in February.
Durant, who shares the same D.C./Maryland roots as the Under Armour brand and its founder, Kevin Plank, would represent a major step up even from Curry. He’s been an All-Star and First-Team All NBA the past five seasons, was the All-Star MVP in 2012 and is, as noted earlier, the reigning MVP. He’s already won four scoring titles, and doesn’t turn 26 until September. And even with all that, his career arc is still tracking upwards. There’s the little matter of an NBA championship, and the possibility of a D.C. homecoming in 2016 when his current contract expires. Durant is a marketer’s dream just entering his athletic prime.
The closest comparison to Durant’s going to Under Armour would be Kobe Bryant leaving adidas for Nike. But even that was different. Bryant had already won three championships, and spent a season in limbo (and in lots of different sneakers) as a footwear free agent. Following his legal troubles in Colorado, he didn’t get his first Nike signature shoe until 2006, two years after he signed on. And despite all that, Kobe was STILL a great get for Nike.
This, of course, is why—if rumors are true—Under Armour is prepared to make an over-the-top of over-the-top offer for Durant’s services, a reported $30 million a year. This would represent quite the raise from the seven-year, $60 million pact he signed with Nike as a rookie, and dwarf even Derrick Rose’s oft-mocked $200-odd million, 14-year adidas deal that he signed in 2012. But it’s probably the kind of offer Under Armour has to make to get Durant to leave the only sneaker company he’s ever been affiliated with as a professional. Adding equity, as they did for Patriots QB Tom Brady, could also sweeten the deal further.
If Durant did choose to make the leap, would Under Armour ever make that money back? Strictly based off sales of his presumed signature model (and apparel line, and off-court shoe), probably not. But if Under Armour is serious about becoming a player in basketball, this is a necessary step in their growth. Guys like Kemba Walker and Greivis Vasquez—and even Curry—are nice complementary pieces, Durant is a brand in and of himself. He’s tremendously likable and tremendously accomplished, and Nike (together with longtime agency Wieden & Kennedy and of course Durant himself) have already done the heavy lifting as far as making his name a household one.
“Most importantly, Durant would give Under Armour a much-needed boost in the international market.”
That’s not to say Under Armour wouldn’t have their work cut out for them. Stars have gone from large company to small before—think Kevin Garnett going from Nike to And1, or Dwyane Wade from Jordan to Li-Ning—but this would be different than either of those. The sneaker landscape was quite different when KG joined And1, and Li-Ning still hasn’t shown much interest in breaking into the U.S. market. Durant is an established star whose Nike signature models come in a vast array of makeups throughout the year, including a secondary “elite” model come playoff time. Under Armour has done some quickstrike-type product in basketball before, but not on the massive scale that a Durant commands. As of now they haven’t even given Curry a signature shoe yet (although one appears to be in the works).
Still, if any modern superstar is a seamless fit for Under Armour, it’s Durant. He’s from the DMV, he’s a team-oriented guy, and even his sneakers fit the Under Armour mold—his most successful shoes (including his current KD 7) have featured a low-ish cut and a midfoot strap not far removed from a football trainer. Aesthetics should be the least of their problems, although it wouldn’t hurt Under Armour to maybe use some of their would-be Durant budget to try and pry lead KD designer Leo Chang away from Nike as well—they’ve already hired several former Nike designers. Durant could make Under Armour’s basketball business rival their gear and cleated ones.
Most importantly, Durant would give Under Armour a much-needed boost in the international market. A billion potential Chinese customers don’t really care (or even know) about Cam Newton or Bryce Harper, Under Armour’s two superstar endorsees. Steph Curry could eventually become that guy, but Durant is already an established superstar with gold-medal cred and global name recognition. He could be their McGrady, their Kobe, their LeBron. And given that Under Armour’s annual profits—as large as they are—don’t even equal Nike’s marketing budget, they need to get a big-name player of their own if they’re going to make inroads.
The biggest risk to Under Armour, as much as there can be “risk” to an established multi-billion dollar company, is making the transition from the focus being on athletes, plural, to athlete, singular. New Balance learned that lesson in the ‘80s with James Worthy—while he’s back in the fold now for his retro product, they’ve not had a signature-level NBA athlete since—and And1 was really never the same after aligning with Garnett. Under Armour has established a seemingly comfortable niche at the college level, and signing Durant would blow them straight out of it. Everything, from their shoes to their ad campaigns, would be subject to more scrutiny. (It’s also worth noting that Derrick Rose has played in less than 30 NBA games since signing his own lucrative extension. Athletes get hurt, elite college programs don’t.)
But Under Armour hasn’t gotten to where it is—from nothing to $2 billion company in less than 20 years—by playing safe. Signing Durant would be a huge expenditure, but one that could pay off equally huge in the long run. And if Durant’s desire truly is to play for the home team, he doesn’t have to wait until 2016 to do it.
Russ Bengtson is a senior staff writer at Complex and the co-host of Quickstrike. Follow him on Twitter.