In 1984, the year Terminator was released, Nike took a punt on a 6’6 basketball rookie out of North Carolina who had just been drafted by Chicago Bulls.
Nike was willing to splash out $2.5 million over five years just for him to wear its shoes. All on the word of one of its salesmen - Sonny Vaccaro.
The Nike salesman went to great lengths, even betting his career, to convince Phil Knight (Nike’s co-founder) and Rob Strasser (Nike’s marketing head) to sign Michael Jordan. Jordan’s agent David Falk, too, played his part in getting the signature.
This was the era of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Both players, though rivals on the court, were signed with Converse. The NBA as a whole was with Converse.
Vaccaro, however, had plans to disrupt the sneaker market.
By April 1985, persuaded by Vaccaro, Nike was ready to launch a new brand of shoes. Its first product was a sneaker titled ‘Air Jordan I’. Priced at $65, with a unique design and meant for the average American basketball lover.
Within the first 12 months, the sales from Air Jordans went past $100 million — $97 million more than Nike’s own estimate!
Time has flown since, and so has the Jordan Brand. The brand had a revenue of $3.1 billion in the fiscal year ending May 2019, according to Forbes.
A movie titled ‘Air’ tracks the brand’s rise and will be shortly released on an OTT platform.
While the player’s spectacular dash to super-stardom contributed to the brand’s meteoric rise, there were more factors at play.
THROUGH THICK AND THIN
At the very heart of what made this partnership successful was Nike’s unrelenting trust in Jordan.
The first shoe designed for the Bulls player was coloured white and red. This flouted the league’s uniform guidelines. NBA, associated with Converse, was going to let its dissatisfaction known.
Jordan was asked to pay $5000 fine for every game he took to the court wearing Nike sneakers. Nike happily covered the costs for its star and asked him to continue.
To complement this gesture, Nike, rather cheekily, decided to air the following commercial.
“On October 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can’t keep you from wearing them.”
PUTTING THE BRAND FIRST
After the first shoe of the Jordan Brand took off, Nike had no hesitation in putting the athlete’s name at the front. Nike took a back seat.
It did so by removing its iconic ‘Swoosh’ logo from the Air Jordan II. The name ‘Nike’ did appear on the shoe, but only on the heel counter. The ‘Air Jordan Wings’ logo took precedence.
It went a step further with the ‘Air Jordan III’. Tinker Hatfield was roped in to overhaul the logo. Hatfield would go on to design what we today call ‘The Jumpman’.
Jordan stepped away from the game in 2003. But the brand has stood the test of time.
This has been possible due to the brand’s ability to reinvent itself with every new generation.
After MJ, Nike roped in the likes of Ray Allen and Michael Finley. They were succeeded by Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony in the next generation.
Even in the current crop of NBA players, 17 have a deal with Jordan. This includes Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum and Russell Westbrook. Paulo Banchero, the No. 1 Draft pick in 2022, too is a Jordan athlete.
Bringing newer stars on board works like a passing of a baton. Every new generation of fans that are hooked to the NBA gets acquainted with the brand when they see their favourite player sporting its shoes.
The Jordans remain perpetually aspirational.
THE FIRST ICON
Jordan was the original superstar. The first poster boy of the NBA. There had been famous players before him but Jordan took it to another level. He came and conquered.
The league was dominated by Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons when he came in. He led the Bulls to this upper echelon. He won six NBA titles with a team that had none before his arrival.
His shoes, sold globally, bring people closer to Jordan, and make them a part of his legacy. The enduring success of his sneaker is a testament to his legacy.
RIVALS? NOT REALLY
With the Jordan Brand, Nike tasted blood. So, it was only logical that it was ready with a red carpet to welcome the next prodigy, whenever he arrived in the league.
LeBron James is the perfect example.
In 2003, Nike inked a seven-year deal with LeBron worth $87 million. LeBron was not going to be a part of the Jordan brand. He was to get his own line.
After 12 years of association, in 2015, LeBron signed a lifetime deal with Nike running over a billion dollars, according to reports.
An initial glance at the numbers involved might give an impression that LeBron was a bigger signing, but that is not the case.
With the Jordans, Nike was able to create a prototype. The deal was sweeter given it had beaten Adidas to Jordan’s signature. Using the Jordan Brand, Nike was able to catapult its sales and market share to levels well beyond its rivals.
According to Forbes, Nike’s USD 40 billion revenue over the 2019-20 fiscal year was 60% more than Adidas’.
This success was built on the foundation laid by the Jordan Brand. Agreed, Nike signed multiple other stars with their exclusive lines - LeBron, and Kobe Bryant - but that was because it had Jordan in the first place.
Newer brands like Reebok and Under Armour went with Shaquille O’Neal and Stephen Curry, respectively, but these deals came into existence with the hopes of hitting the jackpot the way Nike did with Jordan.
Had the Jordans not become a reality, none of the other brands would have looked at the template.
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