Under Armour taking heat from two sides
Animal-rights activists, hunters clash over spear hunting
The hunter doused the Under Armour T-shirt with lighter fluid and set it ablaze, before repeating the act with an Under Armour cap.
“You go against the hunters, the hunters are going against you,” said Craig Bell, looking into the camera for the video, posted widely on hunting sites.
Under Armour, the Baltimore-based athletic apparel brand, found itself caught up in a social media uproar over its deep involvement with hunting when it dropped its sponsorship of hunter Sarah Bowmar after she posted a video showing her husband spearing a bear in Canada. Wearing a camouflage jacket with a prominent Under Armour logo, Josh Bowmar exults by raising his arms after the kill, which was filmed partly by a GoPro camera attached to the spear.
Images of the baiting and apparent suffering of the bear angered thousands of people who spoke out in petitions and on social media, prompting Under Armour to terminate its partnership with Sarah Bowmar.
Animal-rights activists demanded the brand denounce practices such as spear hunting and baiting, as well as captive Craig Bell burns an Under Armour hat in protest of the company severing sponsorship of hunter Sarah Bowmar.
hunting, where hunters pay to kill animals kept in a confined area.
Then came an intense reaction from hunters, who criticized the brand for failing to back what was a legal hunt that reflected how humans have hunted for millennia. Some called for boycotts. Ohio-based Sarah Bowmar, who runs Bowmar Fitness with her husband, a former competitive javelin thrower, took to Twitter and Instagram to defend the hunt as legal and ethical.
With its celebrity athletes, Under Armour has built a reputation as an urban, aspirational brand for the young, athletic and health-minded. Hunting, a passion of one of its founders, has been an important, if lesser known, category for the brand for more than a decade.
The dueling backlashes Under Armour now faces partly reflect the nation’s divided sensibilities about hunting.
“You’re going to upset one group, one way or the other,” said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. “You have to decide which market and which demographic is more important. It’s very hard to appease both sides on such a hot issue and such a sensitive issue.”
The company declined to comment beyond the statement it issued saying it had ended the relationship with Bowmar.
“The method used to harvest this animal was reckless and we do not condone it,” it said. “Under Armour is dedicated to the hunting community and supports hunting that is conducted in compliance with applicable federal, state and local laws and hunting practices that ensure a responsible and safe harvest of the animal.”
Sarah Bowmar blamed international pressure from “anti-hunters,” for the termination, adding, “We did nothing wrong.”
“It really breaks my heart,” she said in an August post after the June video surfaced. “We lived and breathed the brand for years and gave them everything that we had.”
Josh Bowmar, in an interview posted on Twitter by his wife, said he’s been unfairly cast as unethical and argued that the animal suffered no more from a spear than it would have from an arrow.
“This animal ran on adrenaline and died very quickly and humanely,” he said.
After seeing the video, one animal-rights activist from the Chicago area began calling and emailing Under Armour executives. Kelsey Brickl’s Change.org petition called the hunt “sickening” and said the Bowmars took “particular pleasure in the blood and gore left behind by the bear, who staggered off with a terrible wound and wasn’t found until the next day.”
“There are not that many sportswear companies that try to target tennis players and golfers and European soccer fans and football fans and also hunters at the same time,” Brickl said. “A lot of times those markets are not just unrelated but hostile to one another.
“This is a no-win situation for Under Armour. Now they’ve got hunters mad at them.”
Brickl buys Under Armour’s University Josh Bowmar, seen here at left in a still image made from video on YouTube, displays the spear with which he killed a large black bear, which resulted in a public backlash. of Notre Dame fan apparel as an alumna of the university, and expects her son will wear the brand when he starts playing sports.
But, she said, “I would prefer to buy fan apparel from Notre Dame from a company that doesn’t have a hunting division.”
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of Humane Society of the United States, argues that businesses should run their operations in alignment with their customers’ values.
“A lot of Under Armour customers are quite surprised and a bit startled by the company’s very close commercial relationship with the sport- and trophy-hunting communities,” Pacelle said. “You just don’t think of Under Armour and think of hunting bears or lions or other creatures.”
While praising the decision to terminate its relationship with Sarah Bowmar, the humane society asked Under Armour to take a stronger stand on practices such as baiting. Pacelle said most states ban baiting of deer, a federal law bans baiting of waterfowl and only a handful of states allow baiting of bears.
“It’s one thing to sell products that are going to be used by hunters. It’s another thing to be an active promoter of recreational killing of wildlife,” Pacelle said.
“You don’t see Nike doing it, and many mainstream brands would absolutely steer clear of this sort of display of and promotion of killing wild animals for recreation.”
Under Armour expanded into hunting around the time it went public in 2006. The company started marketing ColdGear and HeatGear products in brown, green and camouflage for hunting and other outdoors sports.
The brand became “huge” in the hunting community, signing celebrity hunters such as Cameron Hanes, Tiffany Lakosky, and Jim and Eva Shockey, said Bell, who owns an Indiana-based antler hunting and apparel company called Shed Heads. Hanes is a celebrity bow hunter, and Lakosky is on Outdoor Channel’s “The Crush with Lee and Tiffany.” Jim Shockey’s hunting show on the same channel also features his daughter, Eva.
Under Armour occasionally sent Bell discount cards, he said, but now “the real true-blue hard-core hunters like myself, they wouldn’t be caught dead in a picture with that stuff on.”
Under Armour, he said, “just stuck the biggest knife in the back of every hunter possible. … I believe in hunting with a spear, knife, gun, bow. If it’s legal and it’s a clean, ethical way to hunt, that should be supported.”
Bell’s video, posted on his company’s Facebook page, has more than 114,000 views.
Hanes, one of Under Armour’s longestsponsored athletes, has appeared with Under Armour co-founder Kip Fulks in episodes of “Ridge Reaper,” which aired for three seasons on the Outdoor Channel and launched a fourth season last month on YouTube.
“I partner with them because they believe in me and I believe in them,” Hanes said in a recent Facebook post about the controversy, adding that Under Armour has been one of hunting’s biggest proponents for years.
“I don’t know of any other companies that are as successful that would even mess with the hunting minefield.”
Hanes added that he has no problem with spear hunting but has refrained from posting his own hunting photos or videos.
“What might seem perfectly fine to us as hunters isn’t perfectly fine with people on social media,” he said. “Millions of people saw the spear kill and simply didn’t get it, to them it seemed inhumane, unnecessarily brutal and unjustifiable. ... to hunters, killing is part of the hunt.”
Under Armour had to make a calculation after the video surfaced. The company certainly knew it would face pushback from hunters, analysts said.
But the number of people concerned about the way the bear was killed may outweigh the offended hunters, said Matt Powell, global sports industry analyst for The NPD Group in New York.
“I would suspect that there are an equal if not greater number of people who were outraged by the slaughter,” Powell said.
Jason Moser, an analyst with the Motley Fool’s Million Dollar Portfolio, believes as an investor that Under Armour responded to a polarizing episode in the best possible way.
“They’ve drawn their line. We know where they stand,” he said. “The key is to remain consistent. Going forward, the opportunity is far greater for them beyond just this hunting population and this niche subsection of the hunting population.”