On Thursday, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will meet in the NBA Finals for the third year in a row—the first time that has ever happened.
As you might expect, the grudge match is a dream come true for the NBA, and for ABC, which airs the Finals (it’s expected to be the most-watched NBA Finals ever), and for ESPN and FS1 and other sports talk programs, which have lots of story lines to discuss and debate.
But it’s also a prominent face-off between Nike’s biggest active star, LeBron James, and Under Armour’s biggest star, Steph Curry.
NBA’s 2 biggest stars: one reps Nike, the other Under Armour
Nike signed James to a long-term deal back in 2003, when he was 18 years old, and has never let go. Other than Michael Jordan, whose Jordan Brand alone enjoys bigger US sneaker share than all of Adidas, James is Nike’s biggest active star in any sport.
In 2015, Nike extended James to a lifetime deal, reportedly worth as much as $1 billion over time. Such things are virtually unheard of because it reflects a bet by the brand that the athlete is immune to scandal (and brands are especially wary of long-term pacts after the PR fiascos of Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and more).
As for Curry, Under Armour signed him in 2013, and in 2015 extended his contract through 2024. Curry originally had a (modest) deal with Nike, and his godfather works for the company. But in an embarrassing fumble, Nike lost Curry, ESPN reported last year, because of a botched pitch meeting in 2013 in which Nike executives mispronounced his first name and showed him a presentation that still had Kevin Durant’s name on it. “I stopped paying attention after that,” his father Dell Curry told ESPN. Ouch.
But Nike is far more dominant in the NBA
Even though Nike has the biggest star on one team and Under Armour has the biggest star on the other, there is no balance of brand representation in the series. Nike also endorses Kevin Durant, the second-biggest star on the Warriors (it just released his 10th signature shoe), Draymond Green of the Warriors, Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers (it launched his first signature shoe in 2014), and Tristan Thompson of the Cavaliers. Its NBA bench is deep.
In addition, there’s no question which brand has bigger stature in professional basketball. Nike and Nike-owned Jordan Brand, together, enjoy 51% market share in US athletic footwear, while Under Armour has 2.5% share, and has that much only thanks to Curry and the early success of his signature shoe line—success that has since waned as the entire basketball performance shoe category has gone cold.
Nike is also the new official outfitter of the NBA, a deal that begins next season when the swoosh will replace the Adidas three stripes on all jerseys. It is a privilege Nike will pay $1 billion for over eight years (did Nike overpay?), while Adidas did not even bid to renew its contract, deciding that it isn’t a valuable enough play.
You might think that any noise about Nike vs. Under Armour is silly in the context of the NBA Finals: does the average fan know or care, during a playoff series, which stars are endorsed by which apparel brands? Is there any effect beyond the elusive, hard-to-quantify sense of buzz?
Sometimes, yes. When Under Armour golf star Jordan Spieth choked on the final day at the 2016 Masters tournament, Under Armour’s stock dropped 6% the next morning, suggesting that investors do pay attention to the performance of a sports apparel brand’s marquee athletes. So even though Nike is the bigger brand in pro basketball, both Nike and Under Armour are about to enjoy two weeks of NBA Finals buzz and attention.
Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.