Plank’s re­cent ties haven’t been a Trump card for Un­der Ar­mour

The Washington Post Sunday - - PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL - Sports@wash­post.com

One of the top high school bas­ket­ball re­cruits this sea­son is a 7-foot Ba­hamian, DeAn­dre Ay­ton. He once played for a Ba­hamas na­tional team, which Nike out­fit­ted. He en­rolled last fall at Hill­crest Prep in Phoenix, where Nike dresses the bas­ket­ball team. In Septem­ber, he ac­cepted a schol­ar­ship from Ari­zona, where, not co­in­ci­den­tally, Nike out­fits the team.

In fact, I read a lot about him on a sports news Web page spon­sored by, yes, Nike.

The brand of bas­ket­ball shoe — or foot­ball cleat — is like a gate­way drug for col­lege athletics, in­flu­enc­ing where the best play­ers ma­tric­u­late. A Louisville Courier-Jour­nal story a few years ago found that over half of the top 10 boys’ bas­ket­ball re­cruits be­tween 2011 and 2014 played for Nike­out­fit­ted youth teams and more than two-thirds of them wound up com­mit­ting to col­lege teams dressed in Nike gear.

All of which un­der­scores a ma­jor rea­son Un­der Ar­mour founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Kevin Plank bought a full-page ad in the Baltimore Sun on Wed­nes­day in yet an­other at­tempt to mit­i­gate the crit­i­cism he re­ceived af­ter he voiced his sup­port for Pres­i­dent Trump’s “Amer­ica First” agenda last week on CNBC. His praise for Trump, who has earned the high­est dis­ap­proval rat­ing for a new pres­i­dent in Gallup polling his­tory, ig­nited a #Boy­cottUn­derAr­mour so­cial­me­dia protest and re­buke from Un­der Ar­mour’s su­per­star en­dorsers, in­clud­ing bal­le­rina Misty Copeland, movie star Dwayne “The Rock” John­son and, most wor­ri­somely for Plank’s sports ap­parel com­pany, NBA MVP Steph Curry.

Af­ter all, teenage ballplay­ers want to be like their pro­fes­sional idols. That means wear­ing their kicks. Col­leges, which are the best bill­boards for gear, want to be as­so­ci­ated with the cool fac­tor of the hottest brands. And no brand in the past few years heated its im­age and in­flated its bot­tom line more off that equa­tion than Plank’s Un­der Ar­mour.

One of the cogs in Un­der Ar­mour more than dou­bling its rev­enue to be­come a bil­lion­dol­lar cor­po­ra­tion dur­ing the eight years Pres­i­dent Obama was in of­fice was its en­try into the col­lege ath­letic uni­form mar­ket. It be­gan out­fit­ting Mary­land, North­west­ern, Navy, Texas Tech and a few oth­ers. Since then, it has flipped Notre Dame and a num­ber of other well-known schools.

The col­lege game got so good to Un­der Ar­mour the past few years that last May it agreed to pay UCLA a record $280 mil­lion over 15 years to dress the Bru­ins in ap­parel made by Plank’s Baltimore-based man­u­fac­turer.

“Ev­ery week­end it’s on tele­vi­sion — ev­ery Satur­day in foot­ball sea­son,” Sam Poser, an in­dus­try an­a­lyst, told the Los An­ge­les Times upon that deal’s an­nounce­ment. “It’s ex­pen­sive, but those deals re­ally en­hance the brand that’s do­ing the deal.”

Of­fend­ing the lifeblood of that in­dus­try could be costly.

What ma­jor school go­ing for­ward, save maybe Plank’s alma mater of Mary­land, where he has in­vested heav­ily, would want such an as­so­ci­a­tion at what­ever re­mu­ner­a­tion if Curry is un­com­fort­able with the brand be­cause of Plank’s em­brace of Trump? What if young bas­ket­ball and foot­ball re­cruits and their par­ents — most of whom are peo­ple of color like Curry who find so many of the poli­cies and of­fi­cers Trump is try­ing to em­ploy to be anath­ema — start turn­ing away from Un­der Ar­mour schools and to­ward schools pinned by Adi­das and in­dus­try leader Nike?

What if some ma­jor schools then be­gin to re­think their as­so­ci­a­tion with Un­der Ar­mour be­cause the coaches of their rev­enue-gen­er­at­ing teams start find­ing re­sis­tance in re­cruit­ing young­sters who look up to Curry and de­cide to imi­tate his con­cerns about Plank’s em­brace of Trump like they do Curry’s an­kle-break­ing drib­ble?

That con­cern is am­pli­fied at a time when ath­letes, buoyed by the com­fort found in the com­mu­nity of so­cial me­dia, are voic­ing po­lit­i­cal stances in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively and some­times act­ing upon them. The ef­fects in some in­stances proved dam­ag­ing to their tar­gets, such as long­time Clip­pers owner Don­ald Ster­ling, who was forced to di­vest his team af­ter NBA play­ers de­manded his ouster fol­low­ing the rev­e­la­tion of big­oted pil­low talk with his mistress.

Against that back­drop, it was not sur­pris­ing that Plank’s full­page ad didn’t men­tion the new pres­i­dent by name or even by of­fice. In­stead, he an­nounced in bold let­ters, “We are pub­licly op­pos­ing the travel ban,” which was Trump’s ma­jor ini­tia­tive re­jected by peo­ple in the streets and judges in the courts for be­ing, in part, con­trary to democ­racy.

While Plank found him­self en­tan­gled with Trump, Nike de­buted an ad cam­paign called “Equal­ity” dur­ing the Grammy Awards tele­cast. In black-and­white footage, it fea­tures LeBron James, who fa­mously had his team­mates in Mi­ami take a photo in hood­ies to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin. It shows Me­gan Rapi­noe, the soccer star who knelt dur­ing a play­ing of the na­tional an­them in sol­i­dar­ity with Colin Kaeper­nick. It vis­its Dalilah Muham­mad, the Mus­lim Amer­i­can who in Rio be­came the first U.S. woman to win Olympic gold in the 400-me­ter hur­dles.

And the voice-over is by Michael B. Jor­dan, who played Os­car Grant in the film “Fruit­vale Sta­tion,” which dra­ma­tized the po­lice killing of Grant in the Bay Area. Trump ran for the White House as a law-and-or­der can­di­date, the an­tithe­sis to the #Black­LivesMat­ter move­ment born out of the epi­demic of ex­tra­ju­di­cial killing of black men such as Martin and Grant.

“On this con­crete court. This patch of turf,” Jor­dan’s voice says. “Here, you’re de­fined by your ac­tions — not your looks or be­liefs. Equal­ity should have no bound­aries … Op­por­tu­nity should not dis­crim­i­nate. The ball should bounce the same for every­one. Worth should out­shine color.”

Plank hasn’t gone so far as ex­tri­cat­ing him­self from Trump’s in­for­mal man­u­fac­tur­ing ad­vi­sory board, some­thing Uber chief ex­ec­u­tive Travis Kalan­ick did from Trump’s in­for­mal eco­nomic ad­vi­sory board fol­low­ing a tor­rent of crit­i­cism from cus­tomers and driv­ers. But Plank may have to make that his next step.

Un­der Ar­mour stock al­ready was down sig­nif­i­cantly this year, and Poser down­graded the stock to “neg­a­tive,” cit­ing “sloppy man­age­ment com­men­tary in a po­lar­ized po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment.” Kevin B. Black­i­stone, ESPN pan­elist and vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Philip Mer­rill Col­lege of Jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, writes sports com­men­tary for the Post.

ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IM­AGES

Un­der Ar­mour founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Kevin Plank re­cently voiced sup­port for Pres­i­dent Trump’s “Amer­ica First” agenda.

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