Under Armour hoping to get gold with Vonn

Posted: 7:15 pm Thu, February 11, 2010
By Liz Farmer
Daily Record Business Writer

The Under Armour logo won’t be visible when Lindsey Vonn skis during the Olympics. Vonn is the primary spokesperson for the company’s cold weather gear.

Even with its star athlete and cold weather gear spokeswoman’s readiness in question, Under Armour Inc. still expects to get noticed with one of its biggest sponsorship pushes ever in the Olympic Games, which kick off Friday in Vancouver.

Looking to boost its brand awareness, the Baltimore-based company has apparel deals with the men’s and women’s U.S. freestyle skiing teams, U.S. bobsled and skeleton teams and the Canadian curling teams.

But the company’s best-known — or at least most hyped — endorser is U.S. alpine skier Lindsey Vonn, a back-to-back World Cup champion, who many predict could be the Michael Phelps of these games, winning as many as five gold medals.

Under Armour signed Vonn four years ago, and the 25-year-old is the primary spokesperson for the company’s cold weather gear. But Vonn recently revealed that she seriously injured her right shin Feb. 2 while training, and her status for Sunday’s Super Combined is in question.

“Your first reaction is just concern for her well-being as a friend and friend of the brand,” said Steve Battista, Under Armour’s senior vice president of brand. “But from everything we hear from her and her [handlers], she’s resting up and she’ll be ready to go. She’s by far one of the toughest competitors we’re ever seen — we’ve seen her come back after some major crashes. We’re hoping this is another one of those times.”

While Vonn will be wearing Under Armour’s cold gear under her Olympic uniform, which is supplied by another outfitter, the logo will not be visible while appearing in any Olympic practices or events, Battista said. But even so, if Vonn fails to live up to her hype, Under Armour could be missing out on cashing in on her success later on.

“It just points out the challenges sponsors face when they align themselves with an athlete,” said Howe Burch, head of sports  and entertainment marketing at Baltimore ad firm TBC and a former marketing executive at Fila and Reebok.

Burch said Fila’s endorsement of basketball pro Grant Hill quickly became a bust when the forward sprained his ankle in 2000, an injury that kept him sidelined for the better part of several years.

“That was very detrimental to our business because it’s out of sight, out of mind,” Burch said.

While Under Armour and Vonn’s relationship is different because the skier’s time to impress a world audience comes once every four years, Burch said her injury could spell a “missed opportunity” for the company.

But five gold medals for Vonn or not, Under Armour’s decision to sponsor select Olympic teams is being heralded by observers as a smart buy.

“I love the move,” said Thomas Shaw, an analyst for Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Baltimore. “It gives them additional exposure where there’s room — this is not the summer Olympics where you’re going to see the Nike swoosh everywhere. By backing good athletes, that’s going to get them good media time.”

In addition to the endorsement of Vonn and to supplying the uniforms for the U.S. freestyle skiing and bobsled teams and the Canadian curling team (where the Under Armour logo will be visible on the sides of the uniform), the company also has four other endorsers participating in the Olympics, including U.S. snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis and Rick Nash, who plays for the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and is on Canada’s Olympic team.

The individual endorsements represent a potential payoff after the Olympics, depending on how the athlete performs, while the apparel deals mean viewers will watch Olympians sport the linked “UA” logo while performing on one of the biggest stages in the world.

“It goes back to that authenticity,” said Battista. “We really have the top athletes in the world representing us and wearing our brand while doing so. I can’t think of a better authenticator and better way to represent our brand.”