Despite the fact that we are looking at, at least, a lockout shortened year in the NBA, Under Armour, undeterred, stepped up and made the biggest non-lockout related splash earlier this week by announcing the signing of the 9th selection in the draft, Charlotte Bobcats’ Kemba Walker. Kemba’s signing comes as the product of a collaborative effort between several of Under Armour’s business units and Kris Stone, Under Armour’s Director of Sports Marketing. I sat down with Kris Stone yesterday to gain some insight into the overall process of signing an NBA athlete, the signing of Kemba Walker, and the future of Under Armour Basketball.
Click [HERE] to read what Kris had to say.
MaZe: Before we speak on Kemba and the process, tell me more about yourself and your background before and with Under Armour.
Kris Stone: I spent about five years at SLAM Magazine. I worked on the advertising side of the business. [After that] I became the Associate Publisher to School Sports Magazine and we rebranded it to Rise Magazine while I was there so I was part of the rebranding phase. I founded and started the Elite 24 in 200 and I co-produced a documentary with Adam Yuach called “Gunnin’ For that #1 Spot”. We eventually sold the magazine to ESPN in the summer of 2008. From there, I had some really strong relationships here at Under Armour and I felt that I spent a lot of time in media and publishing and it was my time to really utilize my relationships in the Basketball world, so to speak, for a better cause. And that lead me to Under Armour because it is a great opportunity to help and be a part of a team to help build a Basketball brand from the ground up.
MaZe: When you first got to Under Armour, what were your some of your duties and what were some of the first projects that you worked on?
Stone: I came in as the Director of Brand marketing. I really worked in dual capacities with Brand and Sports Marketing. I signed Brandon pretty much immediately when I started. I started in July of 2008 and by the end of August, Brandon was our first Under Armour Basketball athlete. That was the first objective, to really get some buzz and some noise around the category. We just tried to create noise that Under Armour was going to take this category seriously and that we’re going down that path to becoming a Basketball brand.
MaZe: You mention signing Brandon, what is process like for Under Armour in signing an NBA athlete from top to bottom?
Stone: We are all collectively involved. It is a collaborative effort between multiple business units. When we do sign an athlete, we already have an idea in our heads of what stories we want to create for those athletes. A lot of these things get discussed in a smaller group initially and then it branches out to the larger groups so that everyone is on the same page and can be prepared for when that day comes. It’s as simple as getting out and putting names on a white board and identifying athletes and people that embody the spirit of what Under Armour is all about.
MaZe: So how far in advance did you guys set your sight on Kemba?
Stone: Personally, I’ve always had my sights on Kemba. I’ve always loved him as a person and as a player. But, I think the day he stepped on campus at the University of Connecticut, just being such a highly recruited High Shool athlete, he’s always in the mix, he’s always in the conversation. It always goes back to tracking these guys in their youth and High School days.
MaZe: When it first became a reality that you UA was going to engage in the process of actively trying to bring Kemba on board, what did Under Armour do to show him that the brand wanted him?
Stone: The process really started when I made a phone call to Jeff Schwartz, his agent. We wanted to get a heat check and get a feel and really get a sense of where Kemba’s head was at in the process because he had so much going after they won the National Championship. We definitely did not want to step on his toes but we wanted to let his agent know that we were really, really, really interested in Kemba and that we wanted to get into some detailed discussions around getting him more familiar with Under Armour and where we’re going. So those things started pretty much immediately after he announced who his representation was going to be. And from there, everyone started on working on presentations for what they wanted to present to Kemba and his family.
MaZe: Before Kemba actually signed, did your team feel that they really nailed the presentations, as far as presenting him with a good story?
Stone: I felt like we did a great job. I think the end result sort of speaks for itself, in a sense. I feel that we really showed him that we are going to care for him much more than send him sneakers every two weeks. It’s going to be much more of a family and a partnership.
MaZe: I am sure that you made him feel that he is going to be a premier athlete at Under Armour.
Stone: We definitely made him feel that. And I think we can because we are just getting started, it’s a blank canvas. He has an opportunity to build a program and be part of a great program that we are going to build together. Kemba in a lot of ways, the same as Brandon, they just have strong wills and are willing to pioneer something different. That’s definitely the type of athlete that we want to build and grow with.
MaZe: That leads me into my next question, who is the Under Armour Basketball athlete? What attributes does the UA Basketball athlete embody?
Stone: The Under Armour Basketball athlete is going to be a younger athlete. It’s going to be the “next” athlete, so to speak. We would love to have a stable of athletes that are young and relevant.
MaZe: Looking forward into the future of Kemba’s line, what is the direction of the overall strategy for his footwear/apparel line?
Stone: It’s going to be very collaborative. We are going to work very very closely with Kemba. So it’s a very true and honest story. We aren’t going to just slap his face on a billboard with an Under Armour logo. We are going to connect the dots.
MaZe: Knowing that he was selected to play for the Bobcats, which means he is going to play for Michael Jordan, how did UA navigate the fact that that large sneaker presence was in the rear view mirror? Did it factor into your decision making process at all?
Stone: Not at all. That was all Kemba’s decision. Kemba understands what he’s walking into. Kemba is a very loyal person and before he was drafted we had an agreement in place. And that’s how strongly we felt about Kemba. To us, it didn’t really matter where he was selected. We just fell in love with Kemba.
MaZe: I assume this decision will get made sometime in the future but, will Kemba get his own signature sneaker?
Stone: He’ll wear an inline shoe that they have that he’s actually been wear testing now for a couple of weeks. So he will wear an inline shoe for his rookie season. And the great thing about this is, let’s let Kemba develop as a Basketball player. Just from understanding what Brandon went through his rookie year, there are a lot of ups and downs for rookies and he is going into a lockout season, so who knows what’s going to happen. The most important thing is, let him play, let him be great, and let us develop a really good relationship with Kemba on and off the court and allow our product people to really get to know who Kemba is as a person and as a player and we’ll let that happen on its own. If Kemba goes out there and does great things, which we anticipate that he will, then that opportunity is obviously going to be there for him.
MaZe: Under Armour now has Kemba and Cam Newton in the North Carolina area, how big is that for that community and for UA?
Stone: I think it’s huge. Kemba and Cam have already been talking on the daily. Cam is like “I cant wait to get your family out to Football games”, and vice versa, so it’s huge. It’s a great opportunity for our brand, it’s great story, two great kids, two great young guys that are known as winners.
Throughout the process, when we were talking to Cam about Kemba, you should have seen Cam’s eyes, he just lit up, he had the biggest smile. He said “We have to bring Kemba here, we really have to bring him here. I love Kemba”
MaZe: So you consulted with Cam during the process of bringing Kemba on board?
Stone: We definitely talked to Cam about that opportunity and wanted to get a heat check from him. His initial reaction was “wow, that would be incredible”.
MaZe: How about Brandon, was he on board as well?
Stone: Oh, they go back to their high school days. First thing Brandon did when he found out about Kemba before the draft was send him a welcome note saying welcome to family and that he couldn’t wait to tweet it out to everybody that Kemba was part of the family. It will be great. The will have a lot of fun working together.
MaZe: What would you say the immediate future is for Under Armour Basketball? What are you looking to bring to the table as far as the Basketball strategy for UA?
Stone: For us, we really want to bring a new life and energy to the table, a new perspective a new point of view around the game. We want to bring a youthful side to the game. The athletes that are endorsing the brand are young, they are 21 years old. We want to bring some youth and energy to the category and we definitely want to be authentic in everything that we try to accomplish from a product standpoint, from an athlete perspective, and from the way we’re going to market and advertise the category.