SBJ/Feb. 14-20, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Under Armour leads off as MLB footwear supplier this month

Under Armour is pushing its first products to market based on a deal signed last year naming it MLB’s official performance footwear supplier.

Cleats with MLB’s silhouetted batter logo should be at retail this month, and Under Armour will support with point-of-sale, print and digital ads featuring lead baseball endorsers Jonathan Papelbon of the Boston Red Sox, Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants and Washington Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, appearing in publications including ESPN The Magazine, Little League Magazine and the Eastbay catalog.

Matt Mirchin, senior vice president of sports marketing, said Under Armour will have about 100 MLB players under contract this season, including former No. 1 overall pick Bryce Harper of the Nationals.

“We always look brand first when we do anything, but associating with leagues like MLB just adds that Good Housekeeping seal,” Mirchin said. “There’s a great opportunity for us in baseball, but we think consumers are already seeing us as more than a football brand.”

While Under Armour built its equity on an edgy, not-your-father’s-Nike brand positioning, MLB is its second league deal, having acquired NFL rights, and it signed NFL icon Tom Brady late last year. Nike’s success as a brand has always been based on its ability to remain relevant to its core youth consumer, even while growing to a $20 billion company. It’s a common marketing dilemma, growing the brand without alienating core customers, and it will be interesting to see whether Under Armour can replicate Nike’s success.

“It’s a double-edged sword for Under Armour,” said Ed O’Hara, chairman at SME Branding, which has worked for Nike. “They want to grow, and league affiliations help there. But you don’t want to throw away what you have as far as cool and edgy.”

Making Under Armour a licensee means MLB has all three major athletic footwear/apparel brands as rights holders. Nike has underlayer rights, additional apparel and headwear rights, and the ability to use MLB intellectual property, including uniformed players, in ads. Reebok has the rights to do off-field MLB-branded athletic footwear. Allen Edmonds also holds an MLB license for men’s leather shoes.

“Getting all these companies using our rights and using them profitably was something I’d have told you wasn’t possible five years ago,” said MLB licensing chief Howard Smith. “By now, we’ve achieved a good balance, so we’ve got three competing brands marketing our game.”

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