Can Under Armour Loosen Nike's Grip Over Athletic Sponsorships?

By Markets Fool.com

Jordan Spieth, the 21-year-old pro golferwho made history in April by being the youngest player to ever win the Masters golf tournament, has stirred up a lot of investor hype for his sponsoring company,Under Armour. Spieth's win even prompted a Piper Jaffray analyst to upgrade their UA target share price to $93 stating that "We are reiterating our overweight rating on Under Armour following a round of storechecks illustrating the accelerating momentum of the golf business since Jordan Spieth'sMasters win last weekend."

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Winner of the 2015 Masters, Jordan Spieth. Photo: Under Armour.

But if you're going to make a play on Under Armour for its sponsorship successes, remember that when it comes to sponsorship dollars and brand appeal,Nikehas both. Before considering an investment in either, it'd be wise to scope out the competition. Here's how Nike and Under Armour each stack up.

Nike pays for the bigger players
While Under Armour's push into sponsorships has been impressive, it still lags behind Nike when it comes down to paying top dollar for the biggest stars. Last September Nike outbid Under Armour for NBA star Kevin Durant, who signed a 10-year $300-million deal with Nike. Under Armour reportedly offered an estimated $265 million to $285 million, but lost to Nike.

Overall, Nike sponsors twice as many individual athletes as Under Armour, at around 49, including such famous names as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.According to estimates from theInternational Business Times,Nike still had six of the top-10 largest athlete endorsementsin August 2014.

Under Armour looks for rising stars
Under Armour has taken a unique approach in sponsoring athletes, looking for rising stars or even underdogs. For instance, when Spieth first signed on with Under Armour in 2013, he was just 19and still relatively unknown.Before Spieth's big win in April, Under Armour even extended Speith's sponsorship with a new 10-year deal signed in January. Today, it appears the company placed the right bet on Speith; someanalysts have predictedsales of Under Armour's golf apparel could double in the next three years from $200 million to $400 million.

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Under Armour currently sponsors around 25 individual athletes, and many of them are in niche sports or are relatively unknown like Speith was. For example, Under Armour sponsors former-underdog and current American Ballet star Misty Copeland, along with Alpine Skier Lindsey Vonn. Under Armour's strategy seems to be in part that it can sign and form a relationship with emerging stars and then benefit when those athletes rise to the top like Spieth and Copeland have.

Dominating "the big 5" American sports
Beyond sponsoring individual athletes, Nike remains the dominating sponsor for professional teams in each of the big five American sports -- football (the NFL), basketball (the NBA), baseball (MLB), hockey (the NHL), and soccer (the MLS).

The NFL choseNike for on-field apparel rights until 2020, however, Under Armour scored a win by getting an allowance for its cleats and gloves to make it onto the field. Under Armour also won the rights to sell NFL-branded apparel in limited capacity.

Nike is still the main apparel sponsor for MLB, and when it comes to the NBA, Under Armour lost to Nike in a bid for NBA apparel rights. Again, there will be the opportunity for UA to sell apparel with NBA logos with certain restrictions.

Looking ahead, Under Armour is making a play for hockey, where the NHL's current contract with Reebok, a brand owned by Adidas, expires in a year. Under Armour is seeking to get its name on hockey apparel for the coming World Cup, but again will be bidding with Nike, as well as Reebok and Bauer, for the opportunity.

When it comes to soccer, however, UA has some interesting sponsorship opportunities. Whereas Nike primarily sponsors the MLS, soccer is a worldwide sport in a way that the aforementioned sports are not. Internationally, there are still many more opportunities for sponsorship, and Under Amour already has signed to sponsor the most celebrated club in Brazil. And since Under Armour's international sales grew 108% year over year in 2014, international sponsorships and sales could be a huge growth driver for the company going forward.

Can Under Armour catch up in college sports?
College athletics isn't new for Under Armour; its major start was outfitting the University of Maryland's football team. UA did make some big gains in college athletics in recent years, and its sponsored schools did very well in the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament, which helped its college sponsorship push pay off.

Despite UA's growing presence college athletics, Nike still dominates the segment. All but one of the biggest 65 college sports programs are covered by either Nike, Adidas, or Under Armour. Of these most important collegiate athlete sponsorship contracts, Nike boasts 68% of them, followed byAdidas with 18%. In third place, UA has just 12%.

Logos: Nike, Under Armour.

Can UA compete with Nike?
Fighting its way into more sponsorships hasn't been cheap, and Under Armour is spending considerable cash for its sponsorship bets. With Nike already dominating the endorsement field at every level, don't let Under Armour's recent sponsorship wins fool you into thinking it will be very competitive with Nike in this segment anytime soon.

Investors should be careful to look beyond the recent analyst and investor hype over Under Armour's sponsorships, and consider a fuller picture regarding athletic sponsorships. While it might not be Under Armour's goal to compete one-for-one with Nike for sponsorship wins, Nike is still dominant in this arena, and that's something investors should consider if they are choosing between these two potential investments.

The article Can Under Armour Loosen Nike's Grip Over Athletic Sponsorships? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Bradley Seth McNew owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Nike, and Under Armour. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Nike, and Under Armour. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.