Lebron Vs Steph - The Brand Battle

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The  Golden State Warriors’ improbable record-setting 73-9 regular season was potentially topped with a Western Conference Finals come back from a 3-1 deficit. Now the NBA Finals are set in a match-up that’s a surprise to no one and a rematch of last year’s finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and those improbable Warriors.

There are lots of great players in the Finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers have All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving. The Warriors have Klay Thompson and last year’s NBA Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala. However, when it comes down to it the Finals are about two players – Lebron James and Steph Curry. James is the two-time NBA champion and four-time NBA MVP. Curry is the reigning NBA  champion and reigning back-to-back MVP.

Ther series is sure to be a great one but it is about much more than basketball.

The Lebron James/Steph Curry rivalry is all about branding.

No, seriously, read on.

Earlier this year, ESPN ran a great story revealing the back story of how Nike lost Steph Curry to Under Armour. In the 2013 offseason through a series of, intentional or accidental, missteps, Nike’s pitch to Curry went awry and Curry ended up signing a deal with Under Armour.  At this point, Curry was a great player but had yet to become the two-time MVP and NBA Champion.

Like Curry, Under Armour was a small fish in a big pond, but they had plans for something bigger and Curry was exactly the person they needed to get there.

Curry’s current deal is reportedly worth less than $4 million per year.  (We’ll just leave this here).  The Nike situation and the under-valued deal from Under Armour fit the narrative that has been a part of his career and shaped him into the player he is today. A slightly under-sized player who felt he was overlooked both in College recruitment and again in the NBA draft, the slight from Nike was just another in the series of many. As usual, Curry chose to use it as motivation.

In contrast, Lebron James high school games were televised nationally, was the no-brainer first overall pick in the 2003 NBA draft and signed an $90 million endorsement deal with Nike before ever playing a minute of NBA basketball. In 2010, to the surprise of many, Lebron James left his home-state Cleveland Cavaliers to play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami a went on to win two NBA championships.

While Lebron’s loyalty to a team may be questioned, his loyalty to Nike cannot be. James signed what was the first ever lifetime deal with Nike for a reported $500 million. However, some estimate that the overall value of the deal is closer to $1 billion.

That’s the thing in the NBA. The money for endorsements is one thing, but what it represents to the players and the loyalty they have to their brands is as fierce as their competitive nature on the course. The endorsements like Lebron’s can outlast a playing career. Think of Nike’s coveted Jordans that are still released every year despite Jordan having been retired for nearly 10 years.

While Curry is earning $4 million from Under Armour, the deal is estimated to be worth a potential and, yes, you’re reading this right $14 billion for Under Armour – an amount that’s likely to go up should the Curry-led Warriors beat Lebron’s Cavaliers for a second straight year.

Sports and branding are so irrevocably linked together. In today’s day and age, many of the top athletes accrue more money from various endorsement deals (on top of Nike, Lebron is also endorsed by Coke, McDonalds and Samsung, just to name a few) than they will ever earn playing the game that earned them those endorsement deals in the first place.

All in all Under Armour has $859 million tied up in athlete endorsements including Curry, the NFL’s reigning MVP Cam Newton and golfing phenom Jordan Spieth. Nike has $6.2 billion in contract endorsements across its platforms including Lebron’s lifetime deal, golfer Rory McIlroy and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.

The brands never miss a chance to capitalise on their stars. This year Under Armour tweets a 3-second ad every time Steph Curry hits a 3-pointer in the playoffs:

That’s what it comes down to in sports now. Every moment, every success, every failure can make or cost a company millions or billions of dollars. They’re all tied together. This is the series not only what the fans and the NBA but both Nike and Under Armour have been asking for.

The NBA Championship in on the line. Bragging rights are on the line. The debate of who the best NBA player is on the line but, more importantly, billions of dollars are on the line.

Who you got? Under Armour or Nike? Lebron or Curry? Was Nike’s screw up really as big as it seems? Let us know in the comments below!

Also, check out our post on 20 Motivational Quotes from Steph Curry.

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