Depending on who you ask, Kobe Bryant was basketball’s greatest hero or its greatest villain. Either way, today has become a huge push for Nike Basketball as it attempts to fend off the increasing influence of Under Armour at the AAU, college, and pro levels. UA's league poster boy - Steph Curry - goes for 73 wins tonight.
Kobe Bryant is a divisive figure in sports. Usually, athletes want to be the 'good guy' but Bryant has taken pleasure in being remembered as the villain who woke up before his enemies, each day. He wants to be hated. The odd thing about a person like him is that history ends up loving him.
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On Kobe, Steph, Nike, and Under Armour.
To better understand Nike vs. Under Armour and Lebron vs. Steph Curry, we have to travel back to 2003, a simpler time. That was the year that Adidas could have permanently reduced Nike to second place in the hoops world. Can you even imagine that, 13 years later? Adidas had Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady on the roster. Fueled by a combination of soccer, hoops, and football - the brand boasted a $36B market cap, whereas Nike was growing at an enormous pace, trailing at a $16B cap. The ace was in the deck. A high school-aged Lebron James was Adidas head-to-toe while attending Akron's Saint Vincent - Saint Mary prep school.
Every week, you'd see high school basketball's best uniforms on ESPN via live coverage of SVSM's basketball games. This was the era of the vaunted ABCD hoops camp, sponsored by Adidas. The sky was in reach for the Adidas brand. And then Adidas bucked Sonny Vacarro's recommendation to offer Lebron $3M upon turning pro. Nike signed Lebron for $90M, one week later.
Following this move, Kobe eventually jumped ship and joined Lebron (and Jordan) under the Nike umbrella. Kevin Durant joined the gentlemen and as a result, Nike's market cap has 5x'd in 13 years. Adidas is currently third in market share behind...Under Armour.
In 2013, Nike wouldn't pay Steph Curry's $4M for three years. He signed with Under Armour for a rumored $17M/year, just a week later. In 2015, Steph Curry outsold Lebron's signature shoe while accounting for $14B of UA's marketing and sales.
In both cases, one athlete changed the course of the sports marketing game. Today, on the day that Kobe plays his last and Steph plays his most symbolic, we may witness the acceleration of the Under Armour hoops era.