Steph Curry’s Rise to Stardom And Nike’s $14 Billion Mistake
Steph Curry has always been overlooked. The friendly, sharp-shooting point guard from Golden State, the son of an NBA star, grew up with enormous shoes to fill. Even as he became a star in his own right, his struggled extended to sneaker deals where he, a shooter, needed to prove himself among a league full of slashers. Here’s how sneaker giant Nike failed to retain one of the league’s most prolific and marketable players in NBA history. Here’s how a series of blunders cost the company billions and tarnished their reputation.
Who is Stephen Curry
Steph Curry is more than a 3-point specialist. He’s one of the league’s most lovable players, and he easily is one of the most electrifying, albeit in a unique way that suits his game like no player before him.
He holds four of the NBA’s top five spots for three-point shots made in a season. He has two league MVPs, one of them unanimous — the only such instance in league history. And he has guided Golden State to four straight finals, winning three of them. At the moment, the NBA has never seen, and likely will not see, a player of Curry’s caliber. Combine that with his unique, low-flash personality and you have one of the world’s most popular athletes and marketable players.
So why on earth would anyone with a modicum of common sense not want Steph Curry to market and represent their brand?
Growing up in the Game
To understand where Curry got his sweet stroke, one must look at his father. This mystery isn’t that hard to solve, in case you were curious. Dell Curry played for five NBA teams throughout his career, but Charlotte was the franchise where he really left his mark. It was in Charlotte where the elder Curry set the franchise mark for points, and it was in Charlotte where Steph grew up.
While growing up, Steph was almost as much of a fixture at NBA games as his dad playing in them. Most home games, a young Steph could be spotted on the court practicing shots and working on his moves while the Hornets warmed up.
Needless to say, having a father in the NBA was advantageous to Steph’s development.
A Nike Man From the Start
And just like basketball was an integral part of his life, so was sneaker giant Nike. Steph grew up around the game and was surrounded by the brand. For starters, his Godfather, Greg Brink, is a Nike employee. On top of that, Curry wore Nike for his three years at Davidson College. It was there at Davidson where Curry really broke through to stardom. He guided Davidson, a small school lacking the prestige and tradition of other major schools, to the NCAA Tournament three consecutive years (2006, 07, 08). In his junior year, 2008, Curry led the NCAA in scoring and was named a first team All-American.
After three stellar years, Curry and his sweet stroke declared for the NBA. But the road ahead wouldn’t be so smooth for the 6-foot 3-inch guard.
A Young Warrior
Drafted seventh overall by the Golden State Warriors in the 2009 NBA Draft, Curry entered the league with big expectations. He was a proven winner and a great shooter, two important things for a Golden State Franchise struggling to win and find their identity.
Curry’s NBA career got of to a good start and the pick looked like a genius move by the front office. He finished second in NBA Rookie of the Year voting, played in 80 games, and averaged 17.5 points- all while repping the swoosh.
His sophomore campaign (2010-11) was just as impressive and Curry began garnering more attention and attraction for his outgoing personality and exciting style of play.
But during his third year (2011-12), hearts stopped and the critics voices loomed large over Curry. His ankles were always a point of concern for teams and this was the year that the concerns turned into reality. Devastated by ankle injuries and multiple surgeries to heal tendon issues stemming from severe sprains, Curry managed to play in only 26 games. His scoring fell and questions whirled regarding his durability. Could he lead a franchise or was he a shooter made of glass, destined for the bench and injured reserve?
The next season, in 2013, still just doing it in Nike, Curry reinvented himself. On February 27, 2013, Curry dropped 54 points on the New York Knicks wearing Nike Zoom Hyperfuses and finished the season averaging 22.9 points in 78 games played. More importantly, Curry broke the NBA record for three-pointers made in a season, surpassing Ray Allen.
With his shoe deal set to run out, the ball was squarely in Nike’s court. Would they make Curry a signature athlete or cast him to the wolves?
Nike’s Dominance in the Sneaker Game
If you had to make a bet on whether or not Curry would be draining threes the following season in Nike shoes, the safe bet would be to say yes. First off, Curry was already a Nike athlete, and loyalty in the shoe game runs deep. Most players tend to stick with the shoe sponsor that first hooked them. LeBron James, for instance, began his sponsorship with Nike before stepping foot on an NBA court and signed a lifetime deal with the company that could be worth over a billion dollars.
Second, the NBA sneaker-scape is dominated by Nike. Over 75 percent of the league wears Nike or its subsidiary brand Jordan, and in the basketball world outside of the NBA, that number is even larger. According to Forbes, Nike controls 95.5 percent of the basketball sneaker market.
The 2018 NCAA Final Four, won by Villanova, had three out of four teams rocking the Swoosh. Kansas, outfitted with Adidas, was the only school not with Nike.
Yet Nike wasn’t sold on the man. He was injury prone. He was more one-dimensional than other signature athletes, and people didn’t fill up arenas to see him play.
A Different Kind of Star
At the time of Steph Curry’s negotiations with Nike, Curry wasn’t the prototypical NBA star. He was a skinny kid who shot threes. He wasn’t ripped or aggressive. Wasn’t prone to high-flying dunks that brought the stadium to its feet. He was just Steph Curry. Kind of goofy, in a league of his own, playing basketball a different way. He was just a kid from Davidson lingering beyond the three-point arc chomping on his mouthguard.
But despite the record breaking season and upward trajectory Curry was on, Nike wasn’t enthralled with him. They had their signature athletes in LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Durant. These were the players who repped the Swoosh and everyone knew it. These were the players whose signature shoes could be spotted on basketball courts across America.
Nike also had Kyrie Irving, their brand’s signature point guard. Drafted two years after Curry, Irving was more popular and more marketable. Irving had the flashy handles and the Duke pedigree. It was Irving who starred as Uncle Drew in the Pepsi spots. And it was Irving, who despite not being healthy and failing to finish a full 82 games of basketball, had a wildly-popular signature Nike shoe.
With all of that in mind, it was clear Nike wouldn’t make Curry a top priority. In sneaker-deal terms, he’d be a tier-two athlete. Someone sponsored by the brand but not given all of the grade-A perks of being in the top tier.
But loyalty runs deep, and a Nike guy through and through, Curry was optimistic about re-signing with the Swoosh.
The Disastrous Day of the Pitch
Going into the pitch, Curry felt a bit off. “I was with them for years. It’s kind of a weird process being pitched by the company you’re already with. There was some familiar faces in there,” Curry told ESPN. Nonetheless, Curry and some lower-level Nike representatives sat in the Oakland Marriott to discuss a shoe deal that would end up causing a seismic shift in the shoe industry.
From the get go, the meeting got off to a rocky, turbulent start.
One of the main points of contention would be whether or not Nike would give Curry a summer basketball camp for kids. These camps are a point of pride for players, who as children themselves often attended Nike camps run by their favorite players. As a kid, Curry attended a Chris Paul camp and the experience was formative. He wanted to run a camp. He wanted to help shape the future generation of basketball players, but all indications pointed towards no camp for Curry. Nike already chose two upcoming stars, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving, to host Nike Camps. Curry was the odd man out and was blocked by his brand from giving back to his community in the way that was most meaningful to him. However, the camp turned out to be the least concerning issue of the meeting that day.
The meeting really took a turn for the worst when a Nike official mispronounced Curry’s name. The Nike official called the emerging star “Steph-on” rather than “Steph-en,” and although the mistake was minor and relatively common, it went uncorrected. No one interjected and the meeting carried on as usual, but the disrespect towards Curry kept snowballing.
On Nike’s Powerpoint presentation, a slide featuring Kevin Durant was shown to the group. In all likelihood, Nike didn’t take the time to customize their pitch for Curry and simply re-purposed slides from a prior pitch to one of their favorite athletes, Durant. It was at that point that Curry’s father Dell tuned out Nike and decided that his son would be leaving the brand.
Yet the Currys respectfully sat through the rest of the meeting while Nike continued to bumble the pitch.
Guided by Faith
Everyone knows Steph Curry is a religious guy. Watching him play says everything. He points to the sky after he shoots and has bible verses tattooed on himself; he’s no stranger to putting religion first.
Fittingly, Curry wanted a shoe that would have his signature bible verse inscribed somewhere on the design, and Nike wouldn’t budge. It was too polarizing of a move, it was too controversial, and it was too dangerous for a brand who wants to stick to basketball, not religion.
A mispronounced name. A Powerpoint featuring the wrong player. A shoe that wouldn’t feature the player’s key design element. Steph was leaning away from Nike and his daughter, Riley, sealed the deal.
Riley, sitting at a table featuring a pair of Nikes, Adidas, and Under Armour shoes, picked up the Nike shoe and threw it off the table. Adidas was tossed next. But Under Armour wasn’t thrown. It was picked up and handed over to Steph. The deal was done, at least in Steph’s mind.
Nike still had the chance to match Curry’s $4 million-per-year offer from Under Armour but declined, giving Curry the freedom to move on and carve out his own path.
Curry’s Multi-Billion Dollar Impact
When Curry decided to sign with Under Armour, no one could have guessed how big of a financial and cultural impact he’d have on the brand. According to Business Insider, “Curry’s potential worth to the company is placed at more than a staggering $14 billion.” The article continues, saying Under Armour’s “shoe sales have increased over 350 percent YTD. Its Stephen Curry signature shoe business is already bigger than those of LeBron, Kobe and every other player except Michael Jordan.”
What turned out as a sloppy mistake turned into a multi-billion dollar catastrophe. After signing with Under Armour, Curry became the alternate face of basketball. In a game ruled by LeBron James, Curry began an underdog run at being the world’s most popular player. People wanted to emulate his deep shots. His warm up routine is legendary and his presence is global.
He’s a soft-spoken MVP, an underdog who is both the league and people’s champion. Curry is the hero for every skinny kid who has rebounded from injury. He’s the hero for everyone who prefers to sink a deep three rather than drive into the lane and bully defenders for two hard points, and Under Armour is the brand behind the movement.