Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank was among a select group of American CEOs that had breakfast with President Trump on his first Monday in office, Jan. 23. And in an interview this week with CNBC, Plank described Trump and his pro-business agenda as an asset: “To have such a pro-business president is something that’s a real asset for this country… There’s a lot that I respect there.”
Now his support of the president is causing problems for his company.
Under Armour’s athlete endorsers are a key element of its brand, its cool factor among young people, and even its bottom line. There’s no better example than NBA star Steph Curry, an Under Armour endorser who is such a big fish that he has a small equity stake in the scrappy apparel brand (as does NFL quarterback Tom Brady). And Under Armour’s success in basketball has lived or died by the popularity of its Curry basketball sneakers.
Curry did not like Plank’s comments about Trump. Speaking to the San Jose Mercury News on Wednesday, Curry said, “I agree with [Plank’s] description, if you remove the -et.” (You can deduce what “asset” without the -et spells.)
On Thursday, two more Under Armour athletes followed suit.
Curry, Copeland, and Johnson speak out
Professional ballet dancer Misty Copeland posted a long statement on Instagram saying in part, “I strongly disagree with Kevin Plank’s recent comments in support of Trump… I have spoken at length with Kevin privately about the matter, but as someone who takes my responsibility as a role model very seriously, it is important to me that he, and UA, take public action to clearly communicate and reflect our common values.”
Read between the lines there and you start to see how this could be bad for Under Armour’s business. Copeland called up Plank to express her disappointment, and, in her statement, she appears to demand that he retract or correct his comments.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who has an endorsement deal with Under Armour, also took to his Instagram account, where he has 76 million followers. He began by saying that Plank’s words “are neither my words, nor my beliefs,” which sounds at least somewhat less harsh than Copeland’s response.
But he continued: “His words were divisive and lacking in perspective. Inadvertently creating a situation where the personal political opinions of UA’s partners and its employees were overshadowed by the comments of its CEO… I partner with brands I trust and with people who share my same values. That means a commitment to diversity, inclusion, community, open-mindedness and some serious hard work. But it doesn’t mean that I or my team will always agree with the opinion of everyone who works there, including its executives.”
Johnson specifically said he is not ditching Under Armour: “I feel an obligation to stand with this diverse team, the American and global workers, who are the beating heart and soul of Under Armour and the reason I chose to partner with them.” Curry and Copeland did not make any such affirmation, but also did not yet suggest they will cut ties with the company.
After Plank’s CNBC appearance, some people (including celebrities like the actress Emmy Rossum) were tweeting #boycottUnderArmour, vowing not to ever buy an Under Armour item again, citing Plank’s pro-Trump comments.
The quick backlash prompted the company to issue a response on Thursday, saying, “We engage in policy, not politics… We believe in advocating for fair trade, an inclusive immigration policy that welcomes the best and the brightest and those seeking opportunity in the great tradition of our country, and tax reform that drives hiring to help create new jobs globally, across America and in Baltimore.”
On Friday, the company sent out an updated statement that does not walk back Plank’s comment about Trump, but explicitly rejects the travel ban: “These are not new or revised values. This is what we believe. Under Armour and Kevin Plank are for job creation and American manufacturing capability. We believe building should be focused on much needed education, transportation, technology and urban infrastructure investment. We are against a travel ban and believe that immigration is a source of strength, diversity and innovation for global companies based in America like Under Armour.”
Walking the Trump tightrope
Make no mistake: this is bad for business for Under Armour. Plank’s cheery praise of Trump is a legitimate and vexing dilemma now for the Baltimore company. If it loses its prominent endorsers, it loses its cool among customers. At the same time, if Plank has a friend at the White House, it can benefit the brand; we’ve seen how a single positive or negative Trump tweet about a publicly traded company can move its stock price. (And Under Armour, after an abysmal earnings report last week, could use the help.) So, what should Plank do?
Under Armour is hardly the only company (and Plank isn’t the only executive) walking the Trump tightrope. The CEOs of Airbnb, Uber, Tesla and other hot tech companies have all had to balance the pressure on them to denounce actions such as the travel ban with the desire to avoid alienating the half of the country that voted for Trump.
Uber saw a loss of 200,000 customers (it is unclear whether permanent or temporary) after the hashtag #DeleteUber started trending in the wake of the protests to Trump’s travel ban. But Under Armour could actually lose some of the athletes whose faces have become synonymous with the brand. Which is worse?
Kevin Plank likely doesn’t wish to find out.
Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business, media and technology. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.