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“If I can say the leadership is not in line with my core values, then there is no amount of money, there is no platform I wouldn’t jump off if it wasn’t in line with who I am.” That’s Golden State Warriors’s superstar guard Steph Curry responding to pro-Trump sentiments voiced by Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, the brand Curry is paid to rep.
Plank spent the last week walking back those comments, culminating in a full-page ad in The Baltimore Sun in which he disavowed his support for Trump. Probably not coincidentally, Curry says he spent hours on the phone with Under Armour. Other Under Armour athletes, including ballet dancer Misty Copeland and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, voiced similar concerns.
The incident clearly demonstrates the sway athletes hold in an increasingly politicized world that won’t let brands hang out in an apolitical gray area. And shifting out of that gray area into a more blatantly progressive space may just be the savviest move a brand can make.
Take Nike, which, in contrast to Under Armour, has empowered its athletes to make a strong statement with a new commercial titled “Equality.”
The commercial, or “film” as Nike calls it, stars Nike athletes like the Cleveland Cavaliers’s LeBron James, tennis star Serena Williams, and soccer player Megan Rapinoe. Some of the key lines from narrator Michael B. Jordan: “Equality should have no boundaries.” “Opportunity should not discriminate. The ball should bounce the same for everyone.” “Worth should outshine color.”
In the era of Trump, Nike’s progressiveness — and including its athletes in sharing its progressive message — is an undeniable asset. While Under Armour struggles to figure out its position after pissing off one of its key talents, Nike is getting ahead of the issues and making its spokespeople part of a message they’re already eager to share. Curry’s response is a sign that athletes may consider a company’s political stances before signing with them, in which case Nike just made a strong case for some future player’s checkbox.
It’s also crucial for keeping the athletes they already have. These guys are signed to big, big deals — LeBron James, for example, is signed to a massive lifetime contract with Nike allegedly worth over $1 billion. Curry is the closest thing Under Armour has to James, as one of the league’s most popular players and a back-to-back MVP winner. He’s one of Under Armour’s highest-paid endorsers and a huge business driver: ESPN reported that Curry brought in $200 million for the brand last season, and Barrons reported that Under Armour’s footwear business grew 42 percent in the most recent quarter.
Partnering with NBA athletes in particular may bring companies like Nike face-to-face with progressive politics. James, who most consider to be the best in the league, stumped for Hillary Clinton and stood on stage with other players in support for the Black Lives Matter movement during ESPN’s award show, the ESPYs. The NBA’s leadership is equally forward-thinking; for example, the league moved its All-Star weekend from North Carolina after the state enacted a law eliminating anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. TL;DR: This isn’t the kind of league that’s going to embrace Trumpers with open arms.
And neither are customers. As Eric Levitz points out on NYMag.com, the demographic that Nike and Under Armour are after doesn’t quite fit the Trump voter profile. “While [young urbanites] have disproportionately weak influence over the policies of their government, they enjoy disproportionately strong influence over the messaging of their brands,” notes Levitz. Young progressive shoppers are probably the reason Under Armour hired Curry in the first place — and it’s a good bet their politics align with his.
That said, an athlete’s threats of cutting ties only go so far. Matt Powell, the sports industry analyst with NPD Group, is dubious of athletes’ influence, saying he “doesn’t see brands responding to what their paid endorsers say.”
“Athletes are paid to wear a brand’s product and are under contract,” he adds. “Not much leverage there.” Curry is signed with Under Armour through 2024 (he’ll be 36 and well past his prime by the time it expires), so he might be bluffing when he says there’s no amount of money to keep him. “I have not seen the contract, but I doubt if he could walk away over a concern like this,” Powell says.
But even if Curry can’t walk, he can speak out. And based on Under Armour’s reaction over the last week, he and his fellow athletes will be heard by customers and CEOs alike.