words // Zac Dubasik
images // Nick DePaula
Under Armour’s basketball footwear line may have just launched this past season, but they are already in their fifth year of football cleats. And if you need any proof as to how far their football line has come, look no further than the feet of the Auburn Tigers during their BCS Title victory. Straight out of a meeting with Gene Chizik, coach of that very team, I was able to catch up with Under Armour’s Director of On-Field Footwear, Josh Rattet, and their Creative Manager for On-Field Design, Derek Campbell. “We were talking through footwear and cleats, actually, for this season and next season,” Rattet explains. “He unequivocally said, ‘Whatever you guys have done in the past two years with my athletes and players since I’ve been there, it’s been unbelievable. I’ve had zero complaints, zero issues, and the product is by far better than anything that I’ve worn or been associated with.’”
With an endorsement like that, it’s easy to see why the team would be excited. “We feel like we have a lot of momentum going,” continues Rattet. “The product … is the culmination of Derek’s creative mind, and really we feel a dramatic leap forward from anything we’ve done, and industry-leading in a lot of senses.” What better time to detail two of their premier cleats: the Nitro and Blur.
Zac Dubasik: Could you start off by talking about the general direction of your football line, and more specifically, the Nitro and Blur?
Josh Rattet: Just to give you an idea, before Derek talks about the creative behind the shoes, we are really manically focused on fit, function and really putting an impressive value into each of these shoes. Overall, the inspiration for 2011 in particular was we want to redefine what the future of speed is. We aren’t going to go linear speed; we are all about explosive speed and quick, dramatic cuts and moves, and giving that athlete an edge when he’s getting off the line and making quick turns. They’re inherent features and attributes in the cleats that speak to that not only visually, but also functionally. You’ll see, when you look at the design inspiration behind the Blur and Nitro, there’s the lightning bolts, like a storm is coming, which is a visual element throughout the shoes.
Derek Campbell: As Josh was saying, we definitely focused on the function of the shoe, and made sure it performs at all different levels. From a design point of view, we talked about giving it this really explosive type of feel and predatory speed and really making sure these shoes look like they are on the attack with an aggressive feel. As far as the functional benefits … with football, there’s a lot of cutting side to side, and a lot of times that explosive cut could be the difference in getting away from somebody. So, I think that affects both our functional approach, and also even the cosmetic approach. With the lightning bolt that you see on the plate itself [on the Blur], we’ve come up with a tag line about a cut, and how the serrations of a lightning bolt – how fast it is, but also how it travels in different directions. You’ll see a lot of those lines in the upper. Especially by putting it on the plate, we felt that was giving it a kind of energy to where you get all of your speed at.
Rattet: [referring to the Blur] This is the pinnacle product that we feel sets the cadence for the rest of the line. You’ll see a lot of things trending right now with the matte and gloss. We feel like we are ahead of the curve in terms of delivering it for this season, with an elegant balance of a sophisticated matte finish, but with nice gloss pops in the striking plate.
Campbell: The plate itself … is basically a chassis to the shoe. It’s wrapping up the side, wrapping up the back – that’s really the intention of being able to cut and push against that. And what we are doing on the upper itself, we’re talking more about that idea of predatory speed and giving it a mean and tough feel. We have this anodized matte black upper with gloss hits, and we’re basically allowing the plate to provide support to that. It gives a really dark feel to it. And even the plate – we chose to go with the team color pop in the lightning bolt, which keeps the shoe really dark, and I think also makes it look really tough.
Rattet: From a functional standpoint – the wrap on the lateral side, to Derek’s point about the direction-changing story and giving the guy the ability to get out quicker – there’s definitely a mechanism built into the plate that gives that athlete an edge in terms of what’s out there in the marketplace.
Campbell: Right behind the flex area in the front of the shoe, we are wrapping up higher and kind of focusing on that zone, along with the heel itself. When you cut, the foot wants to turn or twist in the shoe, and that plate is basically the chassis that keeps your foot in position.
Was it a challenge to get the shape of the wrap correct so it didn’t irritate the foot, but still had the support you were looking for?
Campbell: You’ve still got to keep the flex of the shoe, and you’ve got to keep it off the critical hot spots of the shoe. We took a couple shots at it, but it was fairly easy to get through once we went through our weartesting program.
Rattet: And as you know, with football, it has to have that requisite amount of stability and support from midfoot to heel, with the appropriate amount of flex in the forefoot. That was really the focal point, so that when they put their foot in the shoe, it basically encapsulated their foot, and the athlete felt stable and supportive, but also he didn’t even think about what was on his feet.
Campbell: On a speed shoe, it’s pretty easy to strip all the weight out, but if you are putting it in the game of football, and you’ve got to do a cut and turn quickly, it’s really a fine balance of getting those two [elements] to line up correctly.
Who are some of the key athletes and teams that will be wearing these shoes?
Rattet: This shoe will be featured on all of our key premier programs on wide receivers and defensive backs. The Blur, in particular, is the shoe of choice for Anquan Boldin of the Ravens. Miles Austin [Cowboys] will wear this at certain points of the season; Julio Jones [Falcons] will wear this at certain points of the season. The Nitro and the Blur are a one-two punch. As you know, guys like to change it up during the course of the season. Guys on Auburn, South Carolina, Texas Tech, Utah will all be in the product.
How about the Nitro?
Rattet: That was the shoe that, when we went down to Auburn last year during the weartesting season, where we had some guys who were having some fit issues on some of our older models, and when we fixed the last and the fit, and not only the cosmetics, that was the main shoe that really got all of our guys over the top in terms of over indexing on giving us a shoe that we felt was better than anything we’d done in the past. The Nitro is the shoe that Cam Newton wore all through the entire season. We actually incorporated a comp-fit sleeve, which is a supportive mechanism that we designed, [that’s on a different version]. That is a shoe that all of our colleges wear. That’s our primary speed shoe.
Could you talk about what the biggest differences are between the Nitro and Blur?
Rattet: The plate configuration is one in particular. The Blur has a combination of blades in the heel and [columns] in the forefoot, and a slightly wider platform. From a technical standpoint, it’s probably a 10 percent wider platform from the lateral to medial side in terms of forefoot cleats.
Campbell: With the wrapping plate coming up the side of the Blur, we were able to actually widen the location of the cleats in the forefoot. They’ve got a little wider platform, and when you’re cornering, you’ve got a little more grip in the corners
Rattet: The Blur is the lightest shoe in the line. It measured in, in a size 9, at 9.6 ounces, where the Nitro came in just under 10 ounces.
Has there been any key feedback from athletes on either the Nitro or Blur that has led to design changes on the latest models?
Rattet: These guys are finicky, but they are also manically focused on weight and also with the aesthetic. To Derek’s point, [we] visually tied in a theme that was relevant and on trend. If you look at the difference between the Blur and Nitro, the Blur, as Derek said, is sinister with that matte/gloss combination, where the Nitro is definitely blingier and has this all-over patent story with nice hits of color that integrates through the plate. It has a translucency through the plate, and if you look at it, it almost looks like jewel pieces.
Campbell: The thought with that shoe is that we are doing a one-piece construction to keep the weight down. But on the lateral side, where you are doing that cutting, we’ve molded the upper and supported it inside the shoe, and we’ve built that lightning bolt-inspired graphic to the side of it. The Blur has a true lightning bolt graphic applied to the plate, but on the Nitro, it’s more of an upper inspiration. We’re molding and supporting it exactly where the design sits. We’re trying to highlight the features of the shoe with the graphic.
Rattet: We go to the Senior Bowl every season, and as we know, that’s probably the biggest “job interview” for many of these guys in their lives. [Most] of these guys are coming from Nike and adidas schools, and over 60 percent of the athletes wore our product from day one – all through the entire week of events, practices and games. And the primary shoe there was the Nitro.
Basketball is still a new category for Under Armour, but football has been a footwear category you’ve been in a little longer now. Could you talk about how it’s changed since you started?
Rattet: We talk about this a lot. It takes time and patience when you build a business. We are only in year five of footwear. And in terms of footwear at Under Armour, we are the most mature business, and we’ve had the luxury of going through some growing pains early on. … First and foremost, we are manically focused on fit, function and giving the athlete a supportive, comfortable, lightweight solution, and making sure that our product over indexes on features and benefits. We are up against one particular behemoth, but we added a ton of kids last year, and we are a clear number-two in the marketplace. It’s a definite two-horse race, and there’s a lot of pent-up demand and expectations for us to deliver innovation, technology and to really set the cadence for everyone else. We’re seeing, anecdotally, a lot of things that we’ve instituted on our colleges and our programs that other brands are adopting and trying to emulate. We aren’t here to play number two. We feel like, yes, other brands have a lot more athletes and assets, and spend a lot more money marketing, but what we focus on is building great cleats that overcompensate for what the kids are looking for to deliver mindblowing stories. That’s how we’re going to win.
In those five years, have there been any major shifts in terms of players’ tastes?
Rattet: These guys are looking for the lightest and greatest shoes. As a category leader, we don’t want to play that race to wait. We feel like we can deliver super lightweight shoes in the eight-to-nine-ounce range, but also give the athlete the requisite amount of support. There are other brands that are really pushing the envelope in terms of – you could make the argument – somewhat dangerous zones of sub-seven-ounce shoes for the football field. We just don’t want to participate there. We want to make sure the athlete is stable and sound. We had the good fortune of working this year with Tom Brady, who is at the pinnacle of the NFL. We spent a good two months working with him, and probably four to five rounds of engineering of building a shoe that … he told us, point blank, that it was the best cleat that he’d ever worn. He had a foot issue during the season that we inherited before he came to us, and his foot actually got better and healed in our cleats during the course of the season. If we can make great shoes for a guy like Tom Brady and Cam Newton in his race to winning the Heisman Trophy – the Nitro, he wore from September through the BCS game – we know that we can make great cleats for that high school athlete that’s opening up the Eastbay book.
With weight being such a big focus at the moment, could you talk about the challenge to balance that with cushioning and support?
Rattet: We have the good fortune at the high school All-American Game to spend time with the best high school football players, and at the combine, and with all of our premier athletes and assets at the colleges and NFL levels. Guys will sacrifice a little bit of weight for support and comfort. What’s lightweight picking it up versus what’s lightweight on the field are two totally different things. We’ve engineered into both of these shoes … Micro G sockliners. We feel like not only are they superior to anything that’s out there in the marketplace, they are customized, they mold to your foot, they get you lower to the ground. It’s something that other brands check a box and don’t even focus on, but we feel like, internally, the fit is critical.
Campbell: The sockliner itself has gone through a whole lot of effort. It’s called, basically, a 4-D foam. And what we are trying to do is let the sockliner itself, on the top layer, customize to the shape of the bottom of someone’s foot. And then the bottom layer is the Micro G cushioning technology. It gets lower in height, but still provides a lot of response. This basically allows the players’ footprint to go into the sockliner, so when they go to stop or cut, it’s got a shape built to their foot that allows them to push against. They are getting internal traction along with the upper itself being supportive in the right spots. We think our shoes are faster to corner in and faster to move in. Whether the weight is the lowest number, that doesn’t necessarily equal speed. Directional speed verses straight-ahead speed is totally different.
The thing that Under Armour first made its name with was obviously its apparel. How has the brand’s experience with different textile technologies helped on the footwear side of the company?
Campbell: The CompFit Nitro [short for “compression fit”], which Cam wore, basically takes a low-top into a mid-top’s height. And as you tie up the shoe, it’s compressing around the ankle. It feels completely natural, with no restriction to movement. You’ve got total mobility in it. And with that textile, you’ve got a proprioception of where you are. You can basically feel where the foot’s at.
Rattet: We are always looking to explore the next great innovation in terms of materials and lining packages. You’ll see on the Blur and the Fierce, which is our power shoe, this matte black finish, which is something you haven’t seen on a whole ton of stuff in the cleated space. The goal for ’11-’12 and beyond is that we always want to utilize and capture the essence of what the brand is predicated on with the “fit that changed everything,” and we feel like we’re doing that for your feet now.