BALTIMORE – For the better part of the work day on July 20, the vast majority of Under Armour’s workforce was glued to a massive TV screen that stretched two stories high in the company’s space-age cafeteria.
Jordan Spieth - Under Armour’s Jordan Spieth - was closing in on the third leg of the single-season Grand Slam at the Open Championship and the Monday finish at St. Andrews had transformed a normally quiet day at UA headquarters into a frenzy of excitement and opportunity.
“It was crazy,” recalls Ryan Kuehl, the company’s senior director of golf. “Nobody could stop watching it.”
Spieth came up a few rotations short in that historic bid, finishing a stroke out of the playoff that was eventually won by Zach Johnson, but the 22-year-old had already made history for himself and the emerging athletic-wear company.
It was a similar defeat when Kuehl and Under Armour first started to realize the impact Spieth would have on a company that had enjoyed plenty of success in the team sports category but was still relatively new to the golf market.
“It was Augusta last year when he lost,” Kuehl said of Spieth’s runner-up showing at the 2014 Masters. “The impact of that was like, whoa, not only from a cash register perspective in the golf business, but just from the brand.”
For Kuehl, who played eight seasons as a defensive lineman in the NFL before going to work for Under Armour, Spieth is the quintessential franchise player, talented and competitive with enough humility to resonate with fans.
This is, after all, the same player who declined to talk about his humility earlier this year because, well, that wouldn’t be humble, and regularly answers questions with the rejoinder, “We had a good game plan.”
“People saw the power that if you can get a guy who looks, talks and walks like that to represent your brand on that type of stage, the impact of that, we've never felt before,” Kuehl said.
Kuehl signed Spieth to his original endorsement deal in January 2013 after convincing Under Armour CEO and founder Kevin Plank that Spieth possessed that rare combination of competitiveness and Q score.
“I sat with Kevin, I told him, ‘He's the Bryce Harper of golf,’” Kuehl recently said over lunch at Under Armour’s sprawling campus along the shores of the Patapsco River.
Spieth now shares space with Harper, the all-star outfielder for the Washington Nationals, and Steph Curry, the Golden State Warriors’ guard and last year’s NBA MVP, on an enormous wall mural that greets guests when they arrive at the company’s campus.
Spieth's appeal is what prompted Kuehl to cancel the last two years of Spieth’s original deal and re-sign him to a new 10-year contract in January.
Although details of the new deal weren’t announced, like most contracts it is heavily incentive-based depending on his play in the majors – Spieth won the season’s first two Grand Slam starts at the Masters and U.S. Open – and his position on the Official World Golf Ranking, where he has been trading the top spot with Rory McIlroy the last month.
For a company that has grown its presence in golf at a measured pace – Hunter Mahan was the first Tour player the company signed to an endorsement deal in 2003 – it was a bold move considering that at the time Spieth had one Tour victory (2013 John Deere Classic) and was ranked ninth in the world.
But the potential for a massive payoff became clear to UA executives following Spieth’s runner-up showing at the 2014 Masters.
“We signed him in January of ’13, and we've almost tripled [golf product sales], so that gives you an idea, by the end of this year,” Kuehl said.
Kuehl declined to give specific sales figures, but the “Jordan effect” could be felt at UA headquarters as early as February when the company discovered it wouldn’t be able to meet demand for pant sales for the fall. “We were trying to figure out, how do we get our partners more pants,” he said.
Even as the company watched Spieth come up short on Monday at St. Andrews, his impact on the bottom line, to say nothing of the company’s growing influence in golf, could be felt.
“The storm sweater fleece he wore at the British [Open], it was a gray piece with borders on it - we sold out of grey on Monday morning,” Kuehl said.
Kuehl said the company has no immediate plans to get into the golf club business, instead focusing on what it considers its core accessory and apparel line like the launch of the third iteration of Spieth’s own golf shoe in the spring.
“I'm very involved,” Spieth said earlier this year when asked about his shoe line, and Kuehl added that it’s not unusual for Spieth to spend five hours a day going over product samples during his regular visits to Under Armour.
If Spieth’s heartbreak at the 2014 Masters set the tone for what was possible, it was his historic victory in April at Augusta National that solidified everything Under Armour thought they knew about Spieth.
“I think Kevin [Plank] said it after the Masters: ‘We grew up today,’” Kuehl said.
It seems both Spieth and UA’s golf division came of age in 2015.