As the NCAA tournament approaches, the real rivalry to watch is the competition developing between Under Armour and Nike. Just 60% of universities participating in the tournament are contracted to wear shoes from Nike or its Jordan subsidiary. Six years ago, that number was more than 80% – a discrepancy that can be attributed to the rise of Under Armour.

The two brands plus Adidas spent at least $300 million on university contracts in 2016, reflecting Under Armour’s increased competitiveness, which forced market leader Nike to boost its spend. But university deals are just one element of Under Armour’s strategy to take on its entrenched rival. Both brands recently established massive flagship megastores and made similar moves into luxury –Nike partnering with Givenchy ex-creative director Riccardo Tisci, Under Armour launching its UAS line, where a trench coat can set you back as much as $1,500.

The growing rivalry is particularly apparent in digital. Both brands earn the Genius title in L2’s Digital IQ Index: Activewear, taking the top two spots in the ranking with savvy approaches to areas from site and e-commerce to social media. They both focus aggressively on connected fitness, where Nike boasts 10 apps and Under Armour 19 – more than any other Activewear brand – and make similar investments in social video, accounting for the top four most-viewed brand videos on YouTube.

Top Activewear brand videos
Most crucially, both brands are moving beyond athletic apparel. While competing for university contracts and celebrity sponsorships, they have also managed to transcend the Activewear category. As clothing retailers like Abercrombie and Aeropostale stumbled, Nike and Under Armour placed in the top 15 millennial clothing brands of 2016, indicating their appeal to younger consumers – not just as fitness brands, but as essential aspects of a broader lifestyle.

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