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 more than meets the eye, and his impressive three-point shot is just the tip of the iceberg in Curry’s bag of tricks.
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.
Not Reggie Miller, not Ray Allen, and not even Michael Jordan. Curry is his own breed, sitting in a class of his own. Everyone else is a Porsche, Ferrari, or Lamborghini. Classic and impressive, yet established and predictable. Curry is a Tesla. New, equally impressive, and one of a kind, blazing a path not seen before in history.
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. He also helped the Warriors establish the best regular season record in NBA history.
At the moment, the NBA has never seen, and likely will not see, another 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, a shooting guard who played college ball at Virginia Tech, 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 record for points, and it was in Charlotte where Steph grew up. If you think Steph has lost his connection to the Queen City, he hasn’t. In fact, he wants to someday own a part of the Carolina Panthers and is frequently seen around the team.
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. Although he was too short to suit up, everyone could tell the passion was there. Soon the size would be too.
He wasn’t in the NBA yet, but his destiny certainly was being molded and shaped from a young age. Needless to say, having a father in the NBA was advantageous to Steph’s development. Some say it’s in the shoes, others would say it’s in the genes. Either way, Steph was born into the game and was made to play it.
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.
Nike’s slogan is “Just Do It,” and Curry’s motto with the brand was “Just Wore It.”It was there at Davidson, a university located in western North Carolina, 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. With his remarkable run in the NCAA Tournament, many NBA analysts projected Curry to be a lottery pick in the upcoming draft, should he declare. But the temptation to return the Davidson, where he was the school’s hero, was also pulling at Steph.
After three stellar years, Curry and his sweet stroke declared for the NBA Draft. He and his arsenal of offensive moves were ready for the next level, but the road ahead wouldn’t be so smooth for the 6-foot 3-inch guard. He’d be going from the big fish in a small pond to the small fish in a vast ocean.
A Young Warrior
Drafted seventh overall by the Golden State Warriors in the 2009 NBA Draft, Curry entered the league with big expectations and big shoes to fill. He was a proven winner and a great shooter at the college level, two important things for a Golden State franchise struggling to win and find their identity.
Two important factors that made Curry the Warriors’ highest pick since the 2002 NBA Draft. Two important factors that helped Curry be the highest drafted Davidson player ever since the NBA merger, and the only active Davidson player in the league. Curry’s NBA career got of to a hot 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 loveable personality and exciting style of play. The Warriors weren’t the team to beat, but they were on the right track.
The Warriors, anchored by Curry, were a team on the rise, a team looking primed to win. But during his third year (2011-12), hearts stopped and the critics’ voices loomed large over Curry. The echoes of doubt became a lot louder negativity crept into Curry’s world. Maybe, after all, Curry wasn’t the man destined to save Golden State.
His ankles were always a point of concern for the Warriors and this was the year that the concerns turned into reality. This was the year where it was more common to see Steph wincing and groaning on the ground clutching his fragile ankles. Even with a young Klay Thompson taking scoring pressure of Steph, he just couldn’t stay healthy.
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? Would Curry ever have enough power and stability to drive into the lane and play sound defense?
The next season, in 2013, still just doing it in Nike shoes, Curry reinvented himself. He responded to the critics and proved he was capable of recovery, he was capable of playing at a high level once again. On February 27, 2013, Curry dropped 54 points on the lowly New York Knicks wearing Nike Zoom Hyperfuses. He 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- one of the NBA’s most legendary shooters. With that he also surpassed the great Reggie Miller, the notorious Knick killer. He was officially a star, a record breaker. Steph Curry was officially back and on a path that would crush expectations and shatter record after record.
But what about his feet? After all, they were the second most important part of his game after his right arm that launched those devastating, deep threes.
With his shoe deal set to run out, the ball was squarely in Nike’s court. Curry, a point guard with great handles, had no control over this situation.
Would Nike, the company Curry grew up with and loved since his childhood and college days at Davidson, make Curry a signature athlete, like LeBron or Durant, or cast him to the wolves? Would Curry stay styling in the Swoosh or move elsewhere? And if he stays with Nike, would all of his needs and wants be met?
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. Loyalty may not necessarily transcend to the teams, but definitely for shoes. 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. Kevin Durant has been a Nike man since his college days at the University of Texas. Interesting to note, players at the next level tend to wear the same brand that they wore in college. Not always, but often.
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. Good luck finding a team or even a gym in America where the floor isn’t dotted by Nike shoes.
If Nike could have a sound effect associated with their brand, the squeak heard from players in fresh sneakers changing directions on the basketball court would be in contention for the top spot. Just look at the picture above for evidence on the NBA’s sneaker landscape. There isn’t a shoe in site that doesn’t have the Nike swoosh visible.
According to Forbes, Nike controls 95.5 percent of the basketball sneaker market. The market is theirs, and that isn’t up for debate. When there’s a game on television, what are viewers going to see? Athletic plays, clutch shots, and lots of Nike. From the shoes to the shirts, from the towels to the sweatbands. Nike is everywhere.
They start at the top and their sphere of influence works its way down to the ground level of youth basketball. At the college, level, nearly every major program has contracts with Nike, and players often choose schools that wear the Swoosh. 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. Lastly, nine of the last 10 NCAA champions have been outfitted by either Nike or Jordan. Utter dominance. And what does Nike get by having the majority of college kids wearing Nike? Years and years worth of loyalty and sales. If they go to the NBA, they stick with Nike, but for free. If they don’t, they stick with Nike, but pay for it.
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. At least not yet. Not yet was Curry worthy of superstar status. Not yet was he worth the brand’s time and energy like some other players.
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. If you asked anyone on the street who’d they rather see play, LeBron or Curry, the answer would be nearly unanimous. LeBron all the way.
Steph Curry 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. He was the one shimming in celebration from beyond the arc while other players roared and beat their chests following an athletic dunk.
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. Those were the athletes that attracted millions of fans, that filled up arenas, and sold thousands of shoes every year. Those were the athletes who meant everything to the brand.
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. And once a brand has their athletes like that, it makes it harder and harder to become a sponsored athlete. You have to be that much better, that much more marketable.
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. Irving had that ear-to-ear smile that caught people’s attention almost as the elaborate shoes he wore night after night.
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. He had the moves, the movie, and the shoes. Kyrie Irving, without doing too much damage on the court, nearly ruled the basketball world off it.
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. And there are tons of those players in the league, but Steph, at least he thought, was more valuable. He believed he was worthy of that top spot.
But loyalty runs deep, and a Nike guy through and through, Curry was optimistic about re-signing with the Swoosh. He felt comfortable in the shoes and, to date, made his entire life, his dreams, in those shoes. He set records and became a legitimate NBA star wearing Nike, so why would he willingly leave it?
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. Nike elected to keep their top-level salesmen and representatives at home, and the meeting reflected that almost instantly.
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. It was there he learned how to shoot so well and miraculously didn’t learn how to whine after every play. But Curry was dead-set on his goals. He wanted to run a camp. He wanted to help shape the future generation of basketball players. All indications, however, pointed towards no camp for Curry.
Nike already chose two upcoming stars, Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving, to host Nike Camps. Once again, Nike favored Kyrie Irving, a point guard who would soon be one of Steph’s greatest rivals in the NBA.
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. How on earth could a brand so powerful, a brand so respected and esteemed by players, botch the player’s name that they were pitching to? How could they not nail the most basic of things that day? Laziness or a lack of respect? Disentrest?
Regardless of how it happened, no one interjected, that is no one stepped up and corrected the egregious mistake. Not one person had the audacity to correct an insulting mistake and show Steph an ounce more of respect. The meeting carried on as usual. The Nike executives, either knowingly or not, didn’t give Steph the respect he deserved- and earned.
And the disrespect towards Curry kept snowballing. The lack of interest in the future star was alarming. The brand, a friend and partner to thousands of athletes, couldn’t have tried to offend or upset Curry any more than they already had. They couldn’t have acted, even if they wanted to, with less professionalism and respect.
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, Kevin Durant. It was at that point that Curry’s father Dell tuned out Nike and decided that his son would be leaving the brand. It was only a matter of time until Curry himself could no longer stand the disrespect.
Yet the Currys respectfully sat through the rest of the meeting while Nike continued to bumble the pitch. They patiently waited to exit the pitch where Curry’s favorite brand continued to show him and his dad that he wasn’t, nor would he be, a favorite son of Nike. He could be a number two or a number three, but never a number one. Never a gold medalist for the Nike dynasty.
Guided by Faith
Everyone knows Steph Curry is a religious guy. Watching him play says everything, even when he says nothing at all. And although religion and sports heavily intertwine and overlap, Curry is one of the more notable NBA players who puts faith first. Who puts his love of God over love of buckets.
He points to the sky after he shoots and has bible verses tattooed on himself; he’s no stranger to putting religion first. In postgame interviews, Curry always shouts out his Lord and Savior and makes sure everyone knows that all the glory go to him, not the basketball gods us plebeians pray to. Simply put, he’s holy, but not holier than thou.
Fittingly, Curry wanted a shoe that would have his signature bible verse inscribed somewhere on the design, and Nike wouldn’t budge- not even an inch. 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 and passion. Nike did everything in their power to offend and upset Steph. At the end of the day, 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. Apparently she was disgusted too and wanted nothing to do with the brand. Adidas was tossed next. James Harden and Steph Curry weren’t on the same level, and Riley knew it too.
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. Riley, it seems, was prescient in her decision. She knew if her dad chose Under Armour, he’d shake up the athletic apparel industry like never before. She knew he’d be the brand’s marquee athlete, the face of a much needed revolution.
Nike still had the chance to match Curry’s $4 million-per-year offer from Under Armour and retain him. But they declined, and it wasn’t because the financial burden was too great. It was a clear message that they didn’t value Curry or what he represents. Curry’s personal brand would not be a part of Nike’s corporate brand.
With that, Curry was given the freedom to move on and carve out his own path. A free agent, at least with his feet, Curry hit the market with eyes wide open, and with endless options and other brands salivating at the opportunity to sign Curry, the ball was back in his court.
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. No one could have predicted Steph Curry highhandedly changing the sneaker business. 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.” In his own right, Curry has changed the game of basketball just like those giants that have come before him. Jordan dunked from the free-throw line. LeBron went straight to the pros as an 18-year-old super star. Kobe won at an unprecedented rate and showed a competitive nature not matched in sports. Steph didn’t do any of those. What he did was sink deep shots like no other player in history. He put up threes from 30 to 40 feet and drained them with ease.
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 a dark horse 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.