Under Armour are the new kids on the block in golf. Having sponsored Jordan Spieth since he was 18 they are now front and centre thanks to the Texan's success.
Their Vice President, Sports Marketing & Sponsorships, Ryan Kuehl, has experience of life in top level sport as a professional American Football player for 12 years. I caught up with him to find out how Under Armour got into golf, how he signed Jordan Spieth and what the brand can offer the game in the future.
Golf stands out from some of the more energetic sports that Under Armour is involved in, so why did you choose it?
When I started at Under Armour it felt like there was a massive opportunity for us in golf. We obviously don’t do equipment, but in apparel we feel like we win apparel games. We feel like we have the best apparel in the world and I knew that in golf, as soon as we turned the bow of the boat to the sport we were going to have the chance to be special and when we finally did, the guys we have sponsored are playing well and our sales have backed it up, so for me it was really an opportunity to make a mark on a brand that is growing.
I grew up playing American Football and I know all the team sports, but golf is something I love. I mean, I play all the time, I’m a member at Congressional with a 6 handicap, so it is in my blood, but the opportunity from a business perspective, and also from a personal perspective in terms of moving out from just being a football guy, to get recognised in another field as somebody who really knows his stuff, so it’s been great.
Under Armour started off in base layers, so how difficult has it been to transition into the outer layers as that is really a different type of garment?
Actually it was an accident how we got into our first golf shirt. We had signed the University of Maryland football team to provide their football uniforms and in the summer before the season started their equipment representative called us and said that they needed polo shirts for the coaches for the games.
So we thought ok we’ll make a polo shirt which we did and they wore them for games. Then the following spring we got a call asking for more of the shirts and we asked why as the new season was months away and we were told that all the guys love them and are playing golf in them all the time, so we thought we had something here.
So they had a technical edge to them?
Absolutely they wicked away moisture, stretched well and were comfortable and light. This made us think why don’t we make some more golf shirts, so that turned into a golf line that then included trousers, all of which integrated the technologies we use across all of our different products.
For example we use a fabric in our rain jackets that we use in a football uniform as it has the same type of material and the same type of feel that you need, for example water brushes off it, so there is a real sense of utilising cross technology that we put into all of our gear that makes us think we really have the most technologically advanced product in the world of golf.
What are the technologies in the materials that we are going to see in the next couple of ranges that are really going to make Under Armour stand out? I see you have GoreTex but are using it in a different way?
Yes, we have Gore technology in our ColdGear Infrared range and we are going to continue to evolve that and it has been put into our trousers. Our bottoms are really a big deal, we’ve grown incredibly fast in trousers so that will continue. It will keep you cool and it will keep you warm and protect you from rain, it is 100% waterproof, but doesn’t get you hot so it is a really good product.
So it is a bit like the base layer in that it moderates your temperature?
Yes it is a temperature moderating material. By definition if something is 100% waterproof it doesn’t breathe as that is how it keeps the water out, so if we can ever cure that riddle we will have reached our goal.
Is that the same in your golf shoes?
In shoes similar materials will come in from other footwear that we are building out. We have built up a lot of traction in footwear in other sports such as basketball and we are bringing the chassis and the lasts from those shoes into golf.
It has been great so far, the guys using our golf shoes love them. We are bringing out another two models in the spring of 2016 so we will have a Tour level shoe and we will have a more casual type of shoe.
You’ve obviously had a great start to 2015 with Jordan Spieth. How have you managed to cope with the attention and the demand that has been placed on the company?
You know there has been more attention and demand but in a really good way. Jordan has played great and he has worked for and earned everything he is getting. I spent 12 years playing professional sports so have been around a lot of athletes so I know the guys who are fakes and I know the guys who are real and who are genuinely nice rather than being nice because they are sponsored by you and Jordan is such a great guy.
We are proud of all our guys, Jordan is on a hot streak and we will see where this leads us. Our business has been booming and we are fortunately one of the few brands who can say that right now in golf. So we are just trying to keep our heads down, stay very humble and keep doing what we are doing. We are just trying to give our athletes an advantage, anything we can think of to give our guys the best chance to win in all of the sports that we are involved in.
That is something I picked up from the players I have met here today. For a brand that I would put in the category of being technological and edgy all of the players seem to be very similar, very understated and not loud or brash in anyway. Is there a reason for that?
Well, I have signed all of them so maybe there is something of me in that, I don’t know, but that is something I like. I want the players to be confident, I think you’ve got to have a swagger about yourself to think you can play the shots you need to play and to make it out here, but I have a rule that we won’t have any jerks.
I’ve been around it and life is too short. There are too many great players that are great guys, so it is just a case of finding them and then supporting them the best you can. You get used to the ups and downs of careers in professional sports so the best thing to do is support them with good people around them.
I signed Jordan when he was 18 and he didn’t have a car or anywhere to play so you pick people and stick by them.
So what made you pick him? It seems obvious now, but at that stage there must be a lot of young prospects, so what made him stand out?
He had an off the chart junior record. He was a two-time junior winner, AJGA player of the year, 33 State Tournaments where he had finished in the top 10, he was an All American, all that stuff. But for me it is really all about two things, head and heart. I’ve seen it in my experiences in other sports.
Do you really want to win? Do you really want to win or do you want to get a cheque? Do you want to be great or do you just want all the stuff that comes with being a professional athlete? It is those things that differentiate players. You can walk on the range at a Tour event and everybody looks the same hitting the ball.
It is in the head and in the heart that matters. Do they have the courage to pull off the shot when they really need to when they can’t hide. It’s those things that make players stand out.
If I could give you one wish for the market or golf in general for the next year what would it be?
You know they talk a lot about growing the game and I just think that beyond that the industry needs to understand the competitive nature of the environment for people’s leisure spend in terms of all the activities that are open to people now. I think in golf we need to be more inclusive.
I loved the fact that before I played Carnoustie I could go out and walk the golf course and there were people out there walking their dogs and kicking soccer balls around. I think that is great. We don’t do that in the United States. Why don’t you open it up and let people bring their sons and daughters when they play so they can show them where the player hit the shot they saw on TV last year, just small things that will make the game friendlier.
When we have Under Armour golf outings we have music playing, we have fun out there on the course, making jokes. We are very traditional in our respect for the game, we play by the rules, we keep score, but allow people to have more fun doing it. Let kids play in the morning when nobody is using the course.
The guys we are watching this week are the pro’s, we’re just all amateurs, even if you are a club champion, really who cares, you are not at these guys' level so why not have some fun? That is what I wish that golf could get more that way and therefore be more inclusive to get more people playing.
Do you think that is something that Under Armour as a brand can help to bring about?
I think we can. I think that there are a lot of people in the industry, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I think there are a lot of people rooting for us, because I think we can bring that young consumer to the game. Jordan is going to help, we are going to tell stories to help bring that, so again I think want us to do well to help to bring that about for the whole game as they see the young kids we have following us.
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