Golf has long had a Big Three obsession. Vardon, Taylor and Braid led on to Hagen, Sarazen and Jones who were followed by the great triumvirate of Hogan, Snead and Nelson who dominated the game in the 1940s and 50s. Jack, Arnie and Gary defined golf’s first TV fuelled boom while in the 80s and early 90s it was Seve, Greg and Nick who captured the imagination of a truly global audience. Today, Rory, Rickie and Jordan has a certain ring to it. And the next Big Three carry the hopes not just of golf fans but of the biggest businesses in sport, whose marketing budgets will ensure that the competition goes far beyond the fairways of the major championships.
Just as Rory McIlroy is Nike’s post-Tiger pitchman and Rickie Fowler comes clad head to toe in Puma, so Jordan Spieth is also being packaged for sale to the millennial generation. Through the gloom of St Andrews, brand savvy TV viewers could count 16 separate Under Armour logos on the player’s slender frame. From cap to sweater to belt buckle and shoes, Spieth was sporting the full range of what the company’s founder Kevin Plank called ‘Apple Pie Americana’.
Selling t-shirts with stories
Every great salesman is a storyteller. And make no mistake, Kevin Plank is a hell of a salesman. He founded Under Armour in 1996 and last year the company outsold Adidas in North America for the first time. Only Nike stands ahead of them in the sports shoe and apparel market and golf has become a key battleground. The company’s creation sees Plank as a promising young college American footballer who created a new type of t-shirt in his grandmother’s basement using money he had saved from a Valentine’s Day flower-delivery business he ran in his spare time. “I had this idea,” Plank said. “Why not make a better T-shirt? Why not make something that had synthetic properties, wouldn’t hold moisture, and, more importantly, wouldn’t hold THE moisture’s weight?”
Every message since then has talked to Under Armour’s backstory, which is humble but ambitious, building the company “brick by brick, and one day at a time”. What worked for American footballers was applied to other sports, from baseball, lacrosse and ’soccer’ through to marathon runners, tennis players and gym dwellers around the world. “The company just began to grow,” he said. “The first year we were in business, we did $17,000 in revenue. The second year, we did $110,000. By the fifth year, we were at $5 million; by our 10th year, which was 2005, the year the company went public, we were at just under $300 million.” That number has now reached $4 billion.
To build his golf business, Plank went in search of a public face for his brand. He first went after McIlroy, trying to pull a deal together that would see Rory in UA gear and playing Titleist clubs. When McIlroy chose Nike, Under Armour moved to up its existing deal with Spieth, who they had signed as a 19-year-old before his first PGA Tour event. At the start of this year Plank made his big golf play, with a statement deal that went further than just another player endorsement in favour of a 10-year arrangement which means the 22-year-old Texan will likely wear Under Armour for the rest of his care.
Creating the anti-Tiger
It was appropriate that Spieth was announced as an Under Armour player on the same day that Nike went global with the news they had written a huge cheque for McIlroy’s services. The spotlight is not Jordan’s natural habitat. In the hands of Kevin however, this apparent shortcoming is being turned to his advantage. Jordan’s quiet demeanour is being packaged as the anti-Tiger. A fresh-faced all-American boy, the type beloved of grey haired grandmothers from Illinois to Wisconsin, the embodiment of Under Armour’s humble and ambitious brand position. In terms of sports marketing, there are two types of golfer. The vast majority are signed to endorse a particular brand of clothing or to play a type of club. They walk the fairways badged like formula one drivers, with logos on their sleeves and caps, and are essentially walking billboards for whoever pays them a cheque. They are a useful brand awareness tool but not transformative.
Then there are a rare few who are brands in their own right and are so famous that they become the global face of a corporation. Tiger and Nike is the definitive case study and it is what Nike are trying to do with Rory and Puma with Rickie. This requires a different type of strategy and costs a great deal more money to achieve. Under Armour does not want other brands cluttering up the marketing space around Spieth and so have paid him more money to have him delivered ‘clean’ from the logos of his other sponsors such as AT&T, Titleist, Rolex, Perfect Sense Digital, NetJets and SuperStroke Grips. Spieth’s 10-year deal assures no other company logo appears on his clothing or his shoes until after the 2025 season, leaving plenty of room for the distinctive UA badge: three of which are on his hat, three on his shirt, one on his trousers, one on his belt and eight are crammed on to his shoes.
Risk v reward
Like a 2-iron second shot over water, golf marketing is a risk/reward play. The all-encompassing nature of Under Armour’s relationship with Spieth has reaped a small fortune in terms of awareness for the brand. During the final round of The Masters the TV exposure of UA’s logos was measured to be worth $15.2 million in equivalent advertising time, which is how sponsors analyse the value of their investment. Over the course of the event, one analyst suggested UA would need to spend in the region of $35 million to achieve a comparable level of coverage via advertising alone. “Their logo was seen all around the world for four days,” said Drew Hawkins, managing director of Morgan Stanley Global Sports & Entertainment.
However, the flipside of building a business around one person is that there is more at stake if something goes wrong. Tiger Woods was inseparable from the Nike Swoosh, making the impact of his downfall all the more difficult to manage. Every negative headline has the potential to impact on the business in terms of reputation, sales and stock price. This talks to another issue, which is a hot topic in marketing these days and which Spieth appears to have in spades: Authenticity.
The real thing
We want our coffee to be sourced from a small farm in Colombia and our tuna fish to be caught using only a hook and line. Likewise, the next generation of sports stars will be held to a higher standard of behaviour. We feel a bit silly for buying into the whole ‘Tiger Woods Brand’ thing that was built and sustained over more than a decade, one in which he became the most commercially valuable athlete in the world. The problem was the gap between the perception and reality. “Brands should never be built with the intention of fooling the audience,” says Phil de Picciotto, head of Octagon sports marketing agency. “People are too smart for that. That gap created a risk that over time became exposed very dramatically.”
Many of sports’ most famous people – with some notable exceptions – stand for little more than consumerism, a point made recently when the Los Angeles Times carried a poignant reminder of what happens to even the greatest athlete brands: “By the time Joe DiMaggio had become a stooped, grey-haired man, more people knew him as Mr Coffee, spokesman for a home coffeemaker, than as the Yankee Clipper, one of the most graceful centre fielders in baseball history.”
Any attempt by Under Armour to ‘spin’ the Jordan Spieth brand will likely be judged very harshly by golf fans and early messages from the company suggest they are more than aware of this fact. “He was like apple pie with a golf club,” Plank told ESPN after The Masters. “There was nothing more Americana than Jordan Spieth this weekend.”
When he talks, Spieth exudes sincerity and his life away from golf appears from a distance to be that of a well-adjusted and considerate human being. During his down time he volunteers at a special-needs school attended by his 15-year-old sister, who was born with a neurological disorder. All of this lends his public persona an aura of substance, of someone of integrity who stands for more than selling t-shirts and shoes.
This is perhaps his greatest asset. At a time when global sports stardom reaps such huge financial rewards, the onus is on the lucky few to use their fame for good. His ability with a golf club has already made him rich beyond his wildest dreams, bringing a genuine freedom that few ever experience. Along with the two members of golf’s latest great triumvirate, Spieth has the power to be more than just another bland ambassador.
Why we signed Jordan Spieth
Under Armour Vice President Ryan Kuehl is the man who signed an amateur Jordan Spieth. He explains why to Golf World.
Your decision to take a chance on Jordan has worked out pretty well, hasn’t it?
Absolutely it has. He was a great junior and he’s been a great professional and he’s an even better person, so we’re very fortunate in that sense.
What prompted the decision to sign him?
It was getting to know him, his personality and how much he cares about being a great player. That came through from a young age and he’s always been mature. All in all, he’s one of those kids that you talk to and he convinces you he’s going to accomplish great things.
The character of a person is clearly a big thing for Under Armour. What shone through about Jordan Spieth’s character?
It’s how he treats people. He treats people in the right way and he’s remained very grounded, even coming out as the top junior. You can just tell when you looked him in the eye. I spoke to his dad and a few other folks to find out more about him. I’d watch him play and he just does things the right way. He’s been raised well and clearly he has a ton of talent.
How do you quantify his value to the brand?
There are a lot of different ways you can do it; from brand awareness to social hits when he’s mentioned, to sales at retail. He’s meant a ton to us for the brand globally and in the golf business. You can absolutely see a correlation between Jordan’s rise and our sales in golf.
You must be keen to keep Jordan as part of the Under Armour family for as long as possible then?
We signed a 10-year extension with Jordan in January that solidified our partnership. We feel really good about it and we think he does too. The best deals are where everyone feels good about it.
How important is the UK and European market for you?
The UK and Europe are both very important to us. And I think that in golf, that’s an extremely important market. Everyone comes to Europe and the UK to play and people want to play these old courses. But it extends out of golf. Andy Murray [in tennis] has been a big part of growing our brand awareness in Europe and the UK too.
What sets Under Armour apart from its competitors?
It’s the best, most technologically advanced product in the world. It’s as simple as that.
Is there any truth to the rumours that you’re looking to get into the hardware business?
No, there’s nothing on the horizon. We’ve talked about various opportunities that have come our way but nothing has fitted us at the time and we want to be really smart about how we grow into hard goods. It’s a timing and a partnership thing so we’ve got to make sure it’s right if we do go into it.