Tom Brady’s blank Under Armour cleats made their debut on Thursday Night Football (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
SNEAKERS & FASHION

Why Tom Brady’s Cleats Are Blank

With Under Armour’s deal with the NFL expiring, TB12’s on-field UA cleats are no longer permitted to feature any of the company’s branding.

For the first time since signing with Under Armour in 2010, Tom Brady played an NFL game in unbranded cleats.

No famous UA logo. No special marks. The GOAT-status quarterback’s footwear was blank.

In an explosive head-to-head matchup with Jordan Brand’s newest signing Dak Prescott, TB12 led his Buccaneers to a surgical final drive and a 31-29 win over the Dallas Cowboys to kick the season off on Thursday Night Football. 

It was yet another impressive finish for the 44-year-old who’s helmed his squads to a record seven Super Bowl championships. However, his footwear foreshadowed the likelihood all season that his biggest brand partner won’t be able to officially utilize him in-uniform in marketing materials, refer to his team’s name, or place its logo on his game cleats or accessories on the field of play.  

When Under Armour opted not to renew its official NFL partnership earlier this year — revealed during the week leading up to Brady’s 10th Super Bowl appearance in February, no less — it cued up a strange, new dynamic for the 2021 season.

In what could be Brady’s final season of a historic career, the brand will forego all on-field branding. It’s legitimately a strange sight; the company began in football through the performance insights of Maryland college football player-turned-founder Kevin Plank.

Typically, the NFL charges brands an annual partnership fee in order for their logos to appear on products worn by its endorsers on the field. According to industry sources, that figure hovered around the $2-3 Million range in the late 2000s, before ballooning to the $8-$10 Million range by the mid-2010s.

The annual fee is now believed to have risen even higher, into the $12-15 million tier for brands. 

That cost is in addition to the annual base fee and incentive bonuses that a company already pays out to each endorser, as part of the multi-year footwear and apparel endorsement deals that players have with their respective brand partners. 

“As a manner of business, we regularly review partnerships to ensure appropriate alignment with our strategic, operational, and financial goals to best empower what we’re trying to achieve as a brand,” Sean Eggert, Under Armour’s senior VP of global sports marketing, somewhat vaguely told The Baltimore Sun at the time of the decision in February.

While surprising to industry experts given Under Armour’s history and roots in the sport, which also includes innovative football partnerships in movies like Any Given Sunday and The Dark Knight Rises, it’s not an entirely unprecedented development. Several companies over the years have blankly graced NFL fields sans branding or partnership.

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In some cases over the years, brands with either a small roster of NFL athletes or a new entry to football have opted against paying the costly annual fee. In the late 2000s, Pony landed Randy Moss as an endorser, which required that he lace up blank white cleats while playing for the New England Patriots. The NFL’s fee was exponentially more than what Pony was paying Moss to be its lone football endorser.

When Starter signed Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to a five-year, $10 Million endorsement deal around the same time, he was likewise forced to take the field in unbranded cleats. The deal instead prioritized pushing the brand’s apparel lines and casual footwear in marketing campaigns away from the field of play.

After outfitting NFL players since the early 2000s in iconic silhouettes like the Air Jordan 3, 11 and 12, repurposed as recognizable cleats for the gridiron, Jordan Brand finally became an official NFL partner in 2018, allowing for its Jumpman logo to appear on the feet and gloves of its 20-plus players signed to the brand. 

Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking on the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1 (Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)

Over the past year, Under Armour has looked to trim costs across several silos, including smaller pivots like narrowing their roster of athlete contracts in multiple sports and even adjusting their shipping process — they’ve gone from double-boxing individual sneaker purchases on its web store to saving costs by simply shipping shoe boxes in a sealed plastic bag.

Larger (and far more visible) UA moves include the company’s shrewd exit from massive college partnership contracts.

Deep in several collegiate contracts was “force majeure” opt-out language allowing for the brand to exit a deal, given a stoppage in services had taken place of 100 days or more. After the COVID-19 pandemic halted the NCAA practice and game calendar last year across college sports, Under Armour triggered those clauses exactly as the 100-day mark struck to try and shake free of their long-term deals, much to the surprise of the schools themselves.

That included ridding of the remaining six years of Cal’s original 10-year deal, first struck in 2016, that was once worth $86 million. Under Armour also wiggled out of the balance of its record-setting 15-year, $280 million agreement signed in 2016 with UCLA, a full 12 seasons early.

Just as Brady’s Bucs were beginning their season, Under Armour aired the newest TV iteration of its “The Only Way Is Through” ad campaign that first launched in 2020. The spot includes:

  • Pass-rushing phenom Chase Young appears in Under Armour clothing and not in his Washington Football Team uniform
  • NBA superstar Stephen Curry is shown draining a three during a Warriors game
  • Dallas Wings hooper Ty Harris is referred to as “WNBA guard”
  • Philadelphia Phillies slugger Bryce Harper makes his appearance through official game footage

Given their league marketing restraints, Chase Young is captioned simply as “Pro Defensive End.”

With three rings to his name as a Nike athlete in the 2000s, Tom Brady landed a long-term deal with Under Armour in 2010 that also included an equity stake. He has since added four more championships to his hardware collection. 

He’s also been a mainstay in annual brand campaigns, a driving force behind its “Recovery” collections of apparel and footwear products, and developed a close bond with Plank over the years. 

And that means he’ll continue to wear his blank white cleats for the remainder of the 2021 NFL season, the clearest manifestation of how Under Armour’s shift in spending strategy impacts what could be the final season of one of sports’ greatest icons. 

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