Under Armour Taps Kemba Walker

On Tuesday, the Charlotte Bobcats' second first round draft pick in this year's NBA Draft became the first player in the class to sign his own sneaker endorsement deal. Kemba Walker, the ninth overall selection in last month's draft, signed a deal with Maryland-based Under Armour. Terms of the deal were not immediately disclosed and it's unclear yet whether or not Walker will get his own signature sneaker. Walker becomes the third basketball player in the Under Armour stable of stars joining Brandon Jennings and Greivis Vasquez.

Currently, Jennings is the lone pitchman with his own signature shoe, the Micro G Black Ice.  It debuted last year to pretty positive reviews in the sneaker community, especially for a company making its first jump into the basketball world. The clean, sleek look and Jennings' success on the court made for a nice first outing for the company. And it's a personal favorite of mine for no other reason than it is named after Jennings' favorite car air freshener.

But it is a good looking shoe, which is obviously key. For consumers to buy a truly ugly sneaker it pretty much has to be endorsed by Michael Jordan, and even then, there will be some holdouts. I'd love to see Under Armour stick with the sleek feel of the Black Ice, but take it to a completely different place. Don't be afraid to go somewhere new the second time around. To me, too many shoe lines, especially those just getting going, play it too safe after the first run. Nike does not.

Under Armour is still trying to make a name for itself on the hardwood.  CEO Kevin Plank admitted as much last year when speaking on the company's efforts in basketball moving forward.
"People will know we're in the basketball business," Plank said this past April. "I'm not sure we've gotten that message out yet."

Matt Powell, an analyst with sports market retail tracking firm SportsOneSource agrees saying in an article from CNBC that the stable of basketball players wearing Under Armour isn't very strong and unfortunately for them "what is working right now is player endorsed shoes."

And that's what makes the Walker signing so interesting. Although he was not selected until the ninth pick, you could say his was the most recognizable name in the draft...at least outside of Jimmer Fredette. His success in college over the last year cannot be denied (MOP in the National Championship game) and he's probably the most readily marketable name. That probably says a lot more about a draft that had most hardcore basketball fans searching google and twitter after each pick.

But Walker's pedigree and background - born balling in The Bronx and coming up through storied Rice High School (RIP) - already has him legions of fans and followers in that area. The UConn run through the Big East tournament and National Championship didn't hurt much either. The two must-see players for the three weeks of that tournament were Kemba and Jimmer, and Kemba was there the whole time. (If one had wanted to, one could have enjoyed the tournament games immensely had one chosen to wager Kemba and Jimmer would score more than the experts in Vegas predicted they would each game.)

If there is an immediately marketable guy in the 2011 draft, it is Kemba. He's already got a name, like Jimmer. And interestingly enough, both he and Fredette have their doubters. But if a company was looking for more of a breakout star, I'd argue Kemba was the safer bet. He's going to get plenty of time on a young and (don't say it) not very good team (damn!). Yes, experts will point out DJ Augustin is there, but I'd say not many experts watched the Bobcats last year. DJ will run this team no doubt, but Kemba will get his burn too. And from what I've seen, the kid has the fire, guts and he wants to take big shots. Without Stephen Jackson, he'll probably need to.

The success of Walker and his relationship with Under Armour will come down to his success on the floor. There's a reason most people forget Vasquez is part of the Under Armour family but Jennings' name is always linked. It's because Jennings had such immediate and league-wide impact. Vasquez took a little time to catch fire, although he did have a pretty nice playoff run as his Memphis Grizzlies shook things up in the West. (Note: one thing that should be fixed in this lockout is that fact that Memphis is in the West.)

For Under Armour to make a significant leap in a market where Nike and the Jordan Brand make up 91.5 percent of all basketball shoes, it needs Walker to be a Jennings-type player of impact. Think about that 91.5 percent...that's insane! That's not a stranglehold that's a figure-four leg lock on the market.  You know who has more market share than Under Armour at .19 percent right now? Fila, Converse, And 1, Reebok and Adidas. You know who wears those shoes? Yeah, me neither.

Just kidding, kind of. Fila's most recognizable shoe and basketball athlete? Probably Grant Hill. Which isn't bad except for the fact he wears Nike now. Adidas has a strong stable of young stars led by reigning MVP Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard. But even Adidas makes up just 3.47 percent of the market, while Reebok pulls in just 2.45 percent, according to the CNBC article. Question: Who is Reebok's most recognizable basketball athlete? Answer: The Answer. Don't tell John Wall, or Reebok...or their Zig shoes...but Allen Iverson is still more closely associated with that brand in my book. Not that Wall can't change that very soon by becoming a star.

But that's what it takes to drive an entire brand. No one knows that better than the Michael Jordan of shoe endorsers, Michael Jordan. And with Walker playing for the guy who's brand family pretty much is the field, you see aggressive thinking on both his part and Under Armour's. The face of the Bobcats is Jordan. So why not go after the team's newest and most popular asset? I like that move.

Funny thing is, I had Walker sized and laced up in a pair of Jordan Brand sneakers before he stopped shaking David Stern's hand on draft night.  He even wore a pair of Jordan Brand kicks his first day in town as a Bobcat.  As a Huskie, Walker rarely disappointed in his footwear choice breaking out absolute classics like the Air Jordan VII Retro "Olympic", the Air Jordan XI Retro Cool Grey, and the Air Jordan XI Retro Black/Red...ridiculous.

It's no secret Walker is a sneaker connoisseur (although 80 pairs in your whole collection, Kemba? Step your game up now), he lists the white/red Air Jordan XII as his all-time favorite and the Year of the Rabbit VIIs as his rarest.  Not too shabby for a kid fresh off graduating from college. And I'm sure he'll have no problem ramping up the number in that collection soon enough.

Question is, will he be getting that nice employee discount from MJ himself? Will he still be getting his hands on Jordan retros now that he's part of the Under Armour family? Does he even care? Because after all, he has his own shoe deal! Which would never stop being awesome. I'm guessing it ranks just above getting verified on Twitter. Looks like he won't have to worry about other models and gear to wear though, Under Armour is already planning a personalized lifestyle line and shoe.  Sounds like big plans are in place for Kemba with Under Armour.

The last interesting connection for Walker and Under Armour is the city of Charlotte. Well, not the actual city itself so much as one guy that will be sharing its sports landscape. He just happens to be, much like Kemba, the most recognizable name in his draft. In fact, if you watched any NFL draft coverage, he was basically the only guy with a name.

Cam Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers was also signed by Under Armour. Newton wore Under Armour in his lone year at Auburn when he won the Heisman trophy and dominated the headlines in leading his team to the National Championship. Sound familiar?

Of course, not all of those headlines were great, but his on field actions are what got him selected No. 1 overall. So far as anyone can tell up to this point, the kind of person he is and the work he puts in will help him be the type of athlete Under Armour thinks he can.

If I'm in the Under Armour offices I'm pairing this guys up right now. They're both involved in lockouts, setting up shop in the same city, both young and successful...reality show anyone? The Real Draft Picks of Charlotte? Come on, you know you've watched worse. But seriously (because just so we're clear I'm not serious about another reality show), a web series, twitter campaign, Facebook page? Take it from me, the largest city in North Carolina is starving for athletic success and a superstar athlete to claim as its own. The city is literally Under Armour's for the taking right now. And maybe the company is approaching it that way.

It's tough without actual games to play and hopefully for everyone involved (Kemba, Under Armour, the Bobcats) Walker becomes the face of the company. That will mean he's done great things on the court which will in turn mean a lot of happy NBA fans in Charlotte.

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