In early 2019, the Under Armour design team introduced Stephen Curry to an early version of a new cushioning technology, UA Flow. After some quick weartesting, Stephen realized what it could mean for basketball.
So, he did what any two-time NBA MVP, three-time NBA champion, and the (soon-to-be) namesake of Curry Brand would do: he challenged the team to make UA Flow a signature feature in his next signature shoe.
It was in the spirit of curiosity and experimentation that helped bring UA Flow to basketball in the first place. While testing UA Flow in a running shoe at the company’s Portland office, Fred Dojan, Under Armour Innovation’s VP of Footwear Development, decided to try it out on the court. He quickly grasped the material’s traction on the hardwood, "So from there, we had the opportunity to develop UA Flow for basketball also." On the development experience, he added, "I’ve worked on some challenging projects, but I’ve never had to develop and scale something in the middle of a pandemic. It was a huge collaborative team effort to pull this off and bring it to market in 2020."
“That was the fateful moment: taking a running-specific technology that was still being developed and testing it on the basketball court,” said Tom Luedecke, Under Armour Innovation’s Director of Footwear Design, who has worked with Stephen since designing the Curry 2. “Seeing UA Flow firsthand on the court was magic. Internally, we call it a unicorn foam because it does everything.”
Maybe we should start with what makes UA Flow… flow. It’s a singular, proprietary foam compound which brings lightweight cushioning and pioneering traction to Under Armour’s performance footwear product. Put more simply, it is UA Basketball’s highest performance ground-contact cushioning technology to-date.
Actually, here are Dojan and Luedecke to further break down UA Flow, how it made it to the Curry Brand, and how it could change the game for good:
UA Flow is something that’s been in development for over three years. How did this new innovation first come about?
Fred Dojan: We had worked with Dow on UA HOVR™and had great success there. Under Armour does a meeting with them every year and we walked through new materials that could apply to footwear and apparel. They shared that they had this new foam concept that was lightweight with high energy return, but also had properties that gave it good traction and durability.
We knew we were onto something big, but also knew there was a long road ahead going from the lab all the way to production. We initially wanted to get it into running.
It’s launching in basketball first in the Curry Flow 8. What changed the decision to debut in running?
Tom Luedecke: It was Stephen’s call, basically. We shared some prototypes with him in February of 2019. We call them “Frankenstein Shoes” where we take an old existing upper and put them on a new midsole, just to get him to feel what that new sole feels like.
We took him through the science of UA Flow and told him it’d be ready in 2021. He said, “I need this for the Curry 8,” and that’s what set the train in motion. He just flipped the script on us. He challenged us to pull it forward and quickly.
FD: Before that, it was originally going to launch in a lightweight running shoe. We were running with them around our Portland headquarters. But, then we took it into the gym so we could have a longer straightaway to run on it. We were like “Whoa...this stuff sticks amazing on the floor of the gym. This could be an awesome basketball shoe.”
Stephen must have really thought it was awesome for him to want it ASAP. Do you remember his reaction when he first tried UA Flow?
TL: He ran around the practice facility down in Walnut Creek, came back with feedback and one of the first things he said was, “Man, I feel like a ninja.” Ninja referring to how quiet the shoe is because UA Flow doesn’t squeak, but also how smooth the transitions were. It didn’t slap on the ground. It’s very much in tune with the foot. He was getting cushioning, but not sacrificing court feel. He can feel the court, but still feel protected underfoot.
UA Flow and the Curry Flow 8 went through 13 rounds of weartesting and 10 rounds of biomechanical testing. Over 90 athletes put in more than 1,500 hours on-court in the shoe altogether. How does this technology help Stephen and players like him?
FD: When we saw how sticky this material was on hardwood, we knew this was going to be pretty groundbreaking. Watching how Stephen moves, he’s very quick on his feet and this could give him the extra separation to do even more amazing moves.
We wanted to build a lighter weight high performance shoe. It’s one of the lightest basketball sneakers we’ve ever done. A lighter shoe allows a player to have more energy and be fresher throughout the game. It’s a huge performance advantage.
TL: Stephen said he’s been working on some new moves that the shoe enables him to do and I think that’s the most exciting: when players can do new things due to the product that they wear. A basketball player saying he can do moves that he wasn’t able to do before is kind of the equivalent to a runner saying I’m running faster because of these shoes.
What makes UA Flow unique from everything else the company has done in basketball?
FD: We know it’s our best foam from the low-compression set standpoint. This is the most excited I’ve been about the opportunity and potential of new technology in a long time.
The big thing for the Curry Flow 8 is that we’re building a shoe with a rubberless unisole. The traction is so good that you don’t have to have an outsole on it, which usually adds two or three ounces worth of weight. Without the weight of an outsole and just the midsole, we have the opportunity to create a lightweight high-performance basketball shoe. It’s not just about the material, it’s about building a system. All the components from the upper to the plate and the materials to the shape of the traction is really key.
TL: It has huge potential for a word of mouth “You gotta try these out” type of cushioning. It has such a unique, underfoot feel. Not only that, but we also put a lot of emphasis on how we built the upper. It may seem super simple to look at, but it’s really engineered from the inside out in terms of how it holds the foot on the UA Flow platform. It’s specific to cutting motions and hard stopping motions that optimizes what is underfoot. It’s a holistic system, a 360-degree approach.
Can you talk more about that approach? How’s it different from the way other basketball sneakers are made?
TL: Usually in basketball, you start with a fairly stiff cushioning system—some combination of foam and rubber pancake mix—with the goal to make it more flexible by introducing flex grooves or mixing in softer foams.
The Curry Flow 8 is built the opposite way; UA Innovation started with a minimal shoe construction and designed the UA Flow footwear from flexibility to stability, instead of stability to flexibility. We started with a soft, flexible foam with no outsole, and added just the right amount of stability into it for Steph’s game. That’s the big difference: not starting with a stiff layer cake, but starting with this amazing foam. It still has the feel of a shoe that you want to run and sprint in, but it gives enough support to be able to cut and do all the hard moves that are necessary in basketball.
FD: Until now, shoes have been built really stiff with a low profile for court feel, or taller with more cushioning and less court feel. This is truly a unicorn that brings everything together.