On a summer day at Sagamore Farm – an expansive horse breeding and training center in Baltimore County — a visitor might be surprised to gaze toward a nearby hill and see … goalposts.
The posts stand at the ends of a full-length football field adjacent to the property’s main house in the rolling green hills on the 530-acre property owned by Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank.
The field — built so that star NFL quarterback Cam Newton and his buddies can work out in the splendid isolation of Maryland horse country — is among the generous benefits Under Armour lavishes on celebrity endorsers such as Newton, quarterback Tom Brady, basketball’s Stephen Curry and skier Lindsey Vonn.
The Baltimore-based sports clothing brand’s hope is that such perks — including global travel, Super Bowl tickets and, in the case of Vonn, a personal chef for the 2018 Olympics— provide Under Armour an advantage in the high-stakes competition with Nike and Adidas to sign and retain famous athletes to wear and promote its products.
“I think the elite athletes have always been given special considerations,” said Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst for The NPD Group. “But in this time of outsized contracts, the brands have ramped up their investments.”
When Brady, last season’s Super Bowl MVP of the New England Patriots, traveled to China in June on an Under Armour promotional tour, the company scheduled stops to indulge his interest in Eastern medicine and Chinese martial arts.
“We always make sure on these tours that we do things that they want to do, maybe away from the cameras, that allow them to learn something and to broaden themselves,” said Ryan Kuehl, Under Armour’s senior vice president of global sports marketing.
“We went to a Far East medical hospital because Tom is obviously very into his training and how he performs and prepares and he’s incorporated a lot of those techniques and philosophies. And we also did a tai chi session because he wanted to learn about that and the benefits.”
When Curry, the Golden State Warriors’ superstar, needed trophies to present to kids at his SC30 Showcase — a high-school all-star game in San Francisco in August — Under Armour designed and produced them with a 3D printer at the UA Lighthouse, its manufacturing and design center in Baltimore.
When Vonn leaves for the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, her personal team will include a key member supplied by Under Armour.
“They’re actually helping me get a chef,’ said Vonn, a 2010 Olympic gold medalist in downhill.
“I know that the U.S. team is going to have their own meals set up, but I get really nervous about eating with a group of people during big events like that because most of the time with stress the athletes get sick. And once one person gets sick, then everyone gets sick,” she said.
“So we’re on our own plan. I’ll be able to get the exact menu that I need to perform my best and we’ll be kind of separate with our own thing and making sure that I stay healthy and ready to compete.”
Like Newton, Vonn has visited Sagamore Farm, which Plank purchased in 2007 and was once home to hundreds of horses owned by Alfred G. Vanderbilt II. The Under Armour founder hopes to produce a Triple Crown-contending horse at the farm. He also uses the property — which includes a white-brick guest house with commanding views — to house VIP guests.
Newton has worked out with friends on the field over the past several summers, staying three or four days at a time. He sleeps at the guest house and gets his meals there.
Last spring, Plank allowed Vonn to ride one of his thoroughbreds at the farm.
“Kevin and I raced. I’d like to say for the record that I beat him twice,” Vonn said. “He lost the bet and so I got to name one of his new racehorses.”
She named it “Follow No One.”
Under Armour is in a perpetual race of its own against larger, more established Nike and Adidas.
Before the end of last year, Under Armour had reported quarterly sales gains of 20 percent or more for nearly seven years. More recently, it suffered consecutive quarterly losses as it coped with increased competition from rivals like Adidas and lower-priced apparel manufacturers, the loss of Sports Authority and changes in buying habits amid the rise of online shopping.
But Under Armour — whose annual revenue of about $5 billion is about one-seventh of Nike’s sales — has managed in recent years to sign such young stars as Curry, golfer Jordan Spieth and baseball’s Bryce Harper. All signed initial deals followed by lucrative extensions. Under Armour also has signed Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees and Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the top rookie performers this season in Major League Baseball.
Curry, the brand’s most important basketball ambassador, has taken three Asia trips with Under Armour as the brand pushes to boost international sales. He was joined on the most recent trip last summer by his wife, Ayesha, and brother, Seth, and the itinerary included not only Under Armour promotions but stops at an opera and a demonstration of Taekwondo kicks in China.
“There are so few athletes who can carry their own brand of basketball shoe and truly move the needle that the competition between the brands to secure that kind of player is immense,” said Jonathan Jensen, a sports marketing consultant and assistant professor in the sports administration program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
When Under Armour endorser Hudson Swafford won his first tournament on the Professional Golfers’ Association tour in January, the company gave him tickets for the Super Bowl a few weeks later.
“Tickets, dinner reservations, things like that,” Under Armour’s Kuehl said. “All those kinds of things we don’t look at as going over the top. The relationships we get we build over time where the athlete feels comfortable enough to ask for these types of things. If we can, we can. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Cam or [ballerina] Misty [Copeland] or [boxer] Andrew Joshua, we do treat them like family.”
Under Armour said no figure was available on how much it spends on the various benefits it provides athletes.
Under Armour’s rivals also seek to bond with their athletes in personal ways.
“At Nike, we exist to serve athletes,” a spokesperson said.
Asked for examples, the Oregon-based company noted its international trips with basketball superstar LeBron James, soccer star Neymar and distance runners Mo Farahand Eliud Kipchoge. It said its sports scientists worked closely with Kipchoge, an Olympic champion from Kenya, and two other runners this year on a project to try to beat the two-hour marathon mark.
Kipchoge came within 25 seconds of the mark in May, and Nike’s effort was chronicled in a documentary on the National Geographic Channel.
“We create moments that extend our athlete family to a broader audience,” Nike said.
Adidas declined to comment for this article.
Last month, an Adidas executive, James Gatto, was criminally charged in an alleged plan to funnel money to the family of a basketball recruit to influence his college choice and steer him to later sign with Adidas.
The criminal complaint “demonstrated how competitive the rivalry between Adidas, Nike and Under Armour is today, in particular in basketball,” Jensen said. “The same forces just don’t apply in football and baseball.”
While college athletes aren’t permitted by the NCAA to be compensated by sports brands, there is no limit on the benefits that professionals can receive.
“I can see how any potential expenditure to that end could be rationalized if the brand feels it may give them the opportunity to one-up another,” Jensen said. “It’s an extremely competitive environment right now from a retail marketing perspective.”
An earlier version incorrectly stated how the charges were brought against James Gatto. They were brought in a criminal complaint.