Exclusive: Steph Curry on Why Everything — From Shoes to Games — Is a Competition

Stephen Curry Under Armour Curry 4
Stephen Curry in the Under Armour Curry 4, shot exclusively for FN.
Cody Pickens

Two-time NBA champion Stephen Curry is lacing up his Under Armour Curry 4s, the newest model from his line. He’s methodical yet jovial with the kids around him, some of the country’s most promising high school basketball players, who were invited to the star’s SC30 Select Camp in San Francisco and Walnut Creek, Calif.

Even though Curry should be in offseason mode this August day, Under Armour’s marquee ambassador is ready to compete.

He walks onto the court to match up with Jordan McCabe, a point guard from Kaukauna, Wis. On the offensive end, the two-time league most valuable player passes more often than he shoots — until McCabe drills a three-pointer in his face, a move Curry uses to demoralize pro players. The next two possessions, Curry shows no mercy against the high school standout, scoring consecutive three-point shots.

From his intensity, you would think it was the NBA Finals.

“Everything’s a competition to me. It’s something in my blood when it comes to anything — selling shoes, winning games, playing golf, board games at the crib,” Curry said in an exclusive interview with Footwear News (FN and several NBA scouts were the only ones allowed inside the camp).

Stephen Curry Under Armour Stephen Curry, shot exclusively for FN. Cody Pickens

To prove his point, after the scrimmage, Curry accepted a challenge from Kris Stone, Under Armour’s senior director of basketball sports marketing: score from half-court, win $100. Curry obliged — and missed.

“Double or nothing,” Curry said, gesturing for Stone to pass him the ball. He didn’t miss again.

Curry never backs down from a challenge — whether it’s to own the top spot in the sneaker business or take on the U.S. president. On Sept. 22, the Golden State Warrior told reporters he’d rather not accept an invitation to visit the White House because of the current administration’s policies and rhetoric. Within 24 hours, President Donald Trump tweeted that he was revoking the invitation, a move that put one of the sports world’s most reserved players in the center of a political firestorm — again. Earlier this year, Curry called out Under Armour founder Kevin Plank for what appeared to be pro-Trump comments. The exec, however, recently distanced himself by stepping down from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council.

Politics aside, Curry is keeping his focus on the sneaker business.

“I want to have the best-selling shoe in the NBA. That’s something we’re working toward, and I think that’s very possible and attainable,” Curry said. “You want to see your name at the top of the list, and we’re all aware of where we fall when it comes to those metrics.”

But having a shoe that outperforms all others in retail isn’t easy, especially since Curry’s brand partner, Under Armour, is relatively young in a market dominated by bigger athletic companies.

According to data from The NPD Group Inc./Retail Tracking Service, Under Armour is ranked third in domestic basketball sales, trailing Nike and its Jordan Brand offshoot.

And industry experts said Curry’s biggest opponent in footwear isn’t another star in the league with his own shoe.

“I don’t think you can fight the fashion headwinds,” said Matt Powell, VP and sports industry analyst with NPD Group. “What’s selling in footwear today is retro and casual athletic. But the Curry product has improved from where it was, and some of the buzz has certainly been positive.”

Stephen Curry Under Armour Under Armour’s Stephen Curry in action during his FN photo shoot. Cody Pickens

However, the NBA guard does have popularity on his side. His jersey has been the league’s best-selling for two consecutive seasons. And Curry, an underdog who rose from obscurity at Davidson College to become a top-tier talent in the NBA, is unfazed by the challenge.

Because we’re the new kids on the block, we fight an uphill battle in trying to gain people’s brand loyalty and trust that we can actually put great product out there,” Curry said. “We’re not going to come in and topple the giants right away. We’re just chipping away and getting better. That’s the goal, and we’re accomplishing that.”

Despite his popularity among fans today and a strong debut signature sneaker worn during his first NBA title run, the Curry franchise — especially the Curry 3 — has received its fair share of criticism. But the baller doesn’t look at less-than-favorable responses as a bad thing.

“I definitely heard feedback, positive and negative. It’s hard to avoid pretty much anything these days,” Curry said. “But I don’t mind; it doesn’t bother me one way or another. When your shoes are talked about, that means people are looking at what you’re putting out there, and that’s a good sign. If nobody said nothing about my shoes, that would be a problem.”

Although the critics don’t upset Curry, Under Armour is taking steps to appease consumers and avoid a lackluster retail showing. With the Curry 4, the brand will deliver a sleeker, faster-looking shoe atypical to the Curry franchise.

“We wanted to have a fresh look, make it look a little different. Proportionally, it’s extremely different,” said Kort Neumann, senior footwear designer at Under Armour. “We wanted this shoe to have its own identity and be a clear refresh from where we were.”

The shoe is set to hit stores this month, and retailers are expecting a favorable response from consumers.

“Every athlete, including Michael Jordan, has models that have hit with the consumer better than others,” said Jake Jacobs, EVP and CEO of Foot Locker’s North American division. “[The Curry 4] is more unique from a design standpoint, and the social chatter is positive, so obviously people like the aesthetics more than the previous model.”

Here, Curry shares how he rebounds from shoe criticisms, the inspiration behind his latest iteration and wanting all sneaker fans to own a pair.

How big could the Curry sneaker franchise become?
“It could be one of the mainstays when it comes to the signature athletes in the NBA. I’m going into my fourth edition, so it’s still early and young in the process, but it’s picking up a lot of momentum. And I think our business as a whole is definitely improving from year to year. We’re in a good place right now. I never try to put limits on it; I just want to keep growing it every year.”

Do you track sales?
“I’m not into the weekly sales, getting reports and all that kind of stuff, but I ask questions and understand trends and the performance of the product. I have a clear understanding of what a successful shoe is and all the different metrics you could look at. But I want to keep my participation in the shoe to product and leave the rest to the people smarter than me on that front.”

Under Armour Curry 4 Under Armour Curry 4 Under Armour

Your sneakers have increased in price with each model, but the Curry 4, at $130, is less expensive than your last shoe. What’s the pricing strategy?
“I want to make sure the product is top-notch and top-quality, so you feel like you’re getting your money’s worth, but still keeping it at an accessible level so we’re not alienating part of the market and the consumer. There’s a balance to it, and I think we’re at a good place with our price point with putting tech and love and inspiration into each shoe we put out there.”

What did you request of the Curry 4 when Under Armour’s design team began working on the shoe?
“Just to try something new — that was a big thing. From a design standpoint, it’s a step in a totally different direction from the Curry 1, 2 and obviously the 3. It’s more of a futuristic look, very sleek and minimal, which is something that’s huge for me on the court. Whether you look at it from the top floor of the Oracle [Arena] or courtside, it’s something that could stand out. And we’re getting more in tune with the colorways and telling more powerful stories around those. We’ve cut back on some of the colors we’ve been putting out there, so that’s a big step for us.”

Aside from aesthetics, what makes the Curry 4 different from your past signature shoes?
“It’s just a totally different feel. It feels a lot lighter than the 3s, it’s sleek, it’s minimal, it’s form-fitting, it’s lightweight. I want to feel stable and locked in but also have flexibility and movement to play like I do, and it caters to all those aspects really well.”

Consumers were far more critical of the Curry 3 than the two other models. Did that bother you?
“This game we’re in is tough, and it’s all a learning experience. I definitely heard the feedback, positive and negative. But thinking about how many shoes have been designed in history, we want to push the envelope, take chances and put our best foot forward when it comes to design. The [Curry 3] shoe still sold and was a solid run for me on-court, but moving forward, we’re excited about the differences we’ve been able to accomplish and execute [with the Curry 4].”

Why is it so important to you that your sneakers are universally accepted?
“The versatility of sneakers is huge. You want to cater to athletes when they’re on the floor, making them better with the performance of the shoe on-court. For me, that’s of the utmost importance. But with the way culture is moving, you have to have versatility. People want to wear them with jeans, wear them with joggers, wear them out to dinner, to the club, to church, wherever. You’ve got to find that nice balance. It’s a tough game because of how many options are out there, but I think we’re doing a great job of keeping that at the forefront of our design conversations. You’ll see that not only with the Curry 4 but in other products going forward.”

Do you help Under Armour recruit athletes?
“Yeah, when necessary. I think just creating a culture around Under Armour Basketball is my biggest input, from a product standpoint and a mission standpoint of what we’re trying to accomplish on and off the floor. Playing in the NBA Finals wearing Under Armour shoes and winning championships, that’s never been done before, so that speaks for itself. I want to keep working on that front. But if I have to make a phone call or two, or meet with some guys and tell them the dream, I can do that, too.”

Dallas Mavericks Dennis Smith Jr. Under Armour sneakers Dallas Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. in Under Armour sneakers at the team’s media day. Rex Shutterstock

Does your SC30 Select Camp attract players to the brand?
“For sure. We’ve got Dennis Smith, Josh Jackson, Terrance Ferguson — three guys who came to my camp and wore the UA logo and learned about the game and about themselves and got better in the process. That’s the culture we’re trying to create around Under Armour Basketball. The camp definitely helps.”

Other brands like Infiniti and Chase also back you. How do you balance your time being such an in-demand brand ambassador?
“I have a great team that I’ve put together in the last 12 to 18 months that’s helping me make decisions and balance the obligations I have — and obviously to protect my family time and protect the priority, which is to be a great basketball player. Designing and producing shoes and the whole product line is a learning experience, and this area of my life is also a learning process, trying to understand how to best go about the off-court opportunities that success on the court has granted me.”

How do you deal with the fame and the pressure to stay on top?
“It’s part of the job, man. It’s so hard to just make it to the NBA, but when you taste a little bit of success, you always want more. [But] I don’t have pressure from outside forces; I’m all about my own expectations, holding myself to [high] standards so I could look myself in the mirror and say I’m getting better every year.”

Stephen Curry Under Armour Stephen Curry lacing up his Under Armour Curry 4. Cody Pickens