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Two players walked off the court last night, headed in opposite directions. Kobe Bryant did so for the final time, scoring 60 points as his Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz in the season finale. There will be no last playoff run. Meanwhile, 350 miles north in Oakland, Steph Curry scored 46 points, hit 10 threes, and accomplished two things that had not been done before: 400 three-pointers in a season (no one else has even hit 300) and 73 wins. His, and their, work is not quite done. Kobe Bryant will never play another NBA game. Curry has one this weekend.
But this isn’t about NBA legacies, or even final games. It’s not even about could-have-beens, although in a different universe, Curry could be picking up the mantle Kobe has left, with #MambaDay serving as his Nike swan song, at least as an active player. His sneaker line will continue—still driven by his exacting demands for performance product—but on-court signature product remains primarily to those players who are still on-court themselves. Curry could have been the next great Nike signature player. Instead, he is Under Armour’s best hope.
Let’s stop right here for a second. Many have compared Under Armour now to Nike now, which seems patently unfair. Nike not only has had a 30 year head start in the sneaker game, they essentially wrote the blueprint that Under Armour is following, with Air Jordan as the standard bearer. No one in their right mind should expect Under Armour to be challenging Nike in the footwear department anytime soon, if at all. The foundation of sneaker sales continues to be retro product, and given that Under Armour only entered the footwear market in 2008, they have no such history to draw on. But, if the market continues to operate that way in the future, that history is being made right now. If you compare Under Armour now to Nike in even 1999, they’re doing pretty well for themselves.
It’s right to wonder whether that will even make much of a difference in the long run. If history is a story written by the victors, Nike has won over and over and over again. They not only won the game, they obliterated it. Adidas, its closest competitor, has a fraction of their market share, especially in basketball. Reebok, who had some of the best players of the ‘90s, doesn’t even try to compete in basketball anymore. Converse, who had nearly ALL of the best players of the ‘80s save Jordan, is a Nike subsidiary.
Under Armour is merely the latest David to take on Goliath. And last night should be very instructive—on a night that their marquee athlete was doing things no one had ever done before, the social media landscape was dominated by #MambaDay, celebrating history. Steph Curry could do a lot of things, but he couldn’t be Kobe Bryant. Under Armour can’t change the past, so they have no choice but to look to the future.
Nike grew unfettered, in a far different landscape, where ad-agency-dream storylines could blossom in a world free of early leaks, social media snark and a ravenous 24-hour news cycle in constant build-up, teardown mode. The ‘80s and ‘90s were controlled environments, compared to today’s lawless wilderness. It would be a lot more difficult for one brand to become so powerful amidst all this noise. And, if that’s the case, it makes it that much harder for it to be dethroned now—or ever. Remember, Nike is playing a game that they created. Of course they’re the best at it.
Just one thing, though. How Nike views their competitors now is probably similar to how adidas and Converse viewed Nike in the early ‘70s, never imagining that things would unfold the way they did. They hate Under Armour, but it’s highly unlikely they fear them. It’s probably similar to how guys like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James saw Steph Curry when he was drafted out of Davidson, never thinking this small, slight player would one day shift the entire NBA landscape. That’s the thing about the future—we tend to think things will continue to slowly unfold in much the same way they always have, although that’s almost never the way it works.
So, this moment. Two players walking off the court into extremely different futures, one done and one not. Nike let Curry walk, not realizing that he would become the player he has. He’s already changed one game. Let’s see whether he can change another.