UA Enters Basketball Arena

NEW YORK — After Under Armour unveiled its much-anticipated basketball line earlier this month, analysts and retailers were upbeat on the launch, but said there will be hurdles ahead.

“There are three keys to the basketball market,” said Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource. “Being authentic, and they are; being scarce, and they will be in the beginning; and being fresh — and that’s the hardest one.”

Updating the product each season with significant new models and styles, not just colors, will be crucial, Powell said.

“They’re handling this absolutely correctly: The product looks great and the distribution looks appropriate,” he said. “But in the long term, it’s to be determined [if they’ll be successful]. The biggest pressure is how to stay fresh.”

Todd Kirssin, DMM for footwear at Baltimore-based DTLR, said the Under Armour name is a pull with his core shoppers, and he is waiting to see how customers in his six best basketball doors will react to the product.

“The brand resonates so strongly with the kids, and there are a ton of [people] rooting for them,” said Kirssin. “It’s a hometown brand. In Baltimore, everyone wears Under Armour.”

The Baltimore-based athletic brand will enter the market with four styles rolling out to a limited distribution this fall. But according to Under Armour SVP of footwear Gene McCarthy, this is just the beginning.

“I’m trying to build basketball as a sustainable business,” he said. “We’re not calling this a launch. In fall ’11, we will declare ourselves a member of the basketball community. This we’re calling a ‘taste.’ It’s a new consumer for us, it’s a new channel of distribution and it expands our voice as a brand.”

The basketball shoes will be available in Milwaukee and in what McCarthy termed the “I-95 corridor,” between Washington, D.C., and New York. The collection will retail for $80 to $110 at regional sporting goods accounts, including Modell’s, DTLR, Villa and Jimmy Jazz, as well as at Foot Locker, Finish Line and other national sporting goods chains. McCarthy said marketing around the collection will kick off closer to the Oct. 30 launch date, and will include store partnerships and displays and digital messaging.

The basketball sneakers will showcase some of the changes McCarthy has made at Under Armour since taking the SVP slot a year ago.

“We recalibrated, cleaned up our inventories and worked with our partners to do the right type of business,” he said. “We completely overhauled our manufacturing base, and within the team internally in Baltimore, out of 93 people, there were probably 60 changes.”

While the basketball line will be the first collection to reflect the new attitude at Under Armour footwear, McCarthy said there is more to come, including changes in the running line for fall ’11.

“Running is a tough code to crack, nobody doubts that,” McCarthy said. “We tried to fit into the category rather than engage with our core high school-age consumer to let them help us determine our direction. So there will be a shift in gears. I believe there is room for Under Armour, but we have to have a distinct point of view.”

And McCarthy hinted that the brand will enter more categories going forward. “We will be exploring the entirety of an athlete’s life,” he said. “It’s been an exhausting year, but I believe you’ll get a glimpse of the fruits of our labor with basketball, you’ll get another glimpse in fall ’11 with running, and then after that, I’m going to zip my lip.”

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