Skip to content

It’s Gotta Be The Shoes: How Nike bet on Jordan, Jordan bet on Nike and both won. Big.

Feb 15, 2013, 9:10 AM EDT

michael-jordan nike Getty Images

It seems like another world now — like discussing Pompeii or prohibition — but there was a time when Nike was just another struggling shoe company. In 1983, Nike had revenues of less than $1 million.

In 1984, Nike signed Michael Jordan.

Today, Nike owns the basketball shoe market. Owns it. When you factor in all the Nike brands — Nike, Jordan, Converse — you are talking nearly 95 percent of the basketball shoe market. And the Jordan Brand remains the biggest seller by far.

Michael Jordan turns 50 this weekend and yet his legacy and his shoes are such that when you talk to players coming out of college about their goals in the NBA, becoming part of the Jordan Brand family still comes up a lot. I mean with most of them. Players who were in kindergarten the last time Jordan won a ring.

It’s doesn’t gotta be the shoes. It is much more than that.

All this because of a big gamble back in the 1980s where a company that needed a star bet on the guy who would go on to become the general consensus greatest player ever, and that player bet on the company’s marketing skills.

Roland Lazenby, the author of “Blood On The Horns, The Long Strange Ride of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls” (which is being re-released right now by Diversion Books as an ebook edition in honor of Jordan’s birthday) and also the author of a new Jordan biography due out in the spring of 2014 (by Little, Brown), said that even MJ admits it was all fortuitous.

“As Michael told me in discussing his career, ‘Timing is everything.’” Lazenby said. “He came along at a time when Nike, a struggling company, was suddenly willing to gamble millions, far more than had ever been gambled, on an untested NBA player, giving him an unprecedented deal before he had even played an NBA game.

“Nike turned its full efforts to marketing Jordan. Then suddenly he emerged as this amazingly athletic figure, wearing a shoe that was banned by the NBA.”

People sometimes forget that part of the story. David Stern and the NBA banned the first pair of Air Jordan’s in 1985, just weeks before the start of the season, because they were completely Bulls red and black with no white on them.

There is no better marketing endorsement than having the man say, “you can’t have it.” That shoe and that moment spawned today’s sneakerhead culture.

“Nike took that circumstance and pushed it, which would have meant nothing if Jordan hadn’t played the way he played,” Lazenby said. “It was a departure from the past that showed it was also immune to the future.”

Jordan’s play was the key. It started because of his athleticism, his “jumpman” dunks that went on to become the Jordan Brand logo. He could fly, and Spike Lee was yelling “It’s gotta be the shoes.” But everything grew exponentially as Jordan started to win and win big. He became the best player in the game and owned his generation, booming the popularity of the NBA.

And booming the sales of Nike and his shoes. Because everyone wanted to “Be Like Mike.”

“As I say in my book, he became the godhead of a global sports marketing machine,” Lazenby said. “Godheads aren’t flashes in the pan. They paid Jordan so much, and his shoes sold so well that he essentially became a partner in Nike long before they officially recognized it.

“He became enmeshed in culture like no athlete before or after.”

And with him, so did Nike.

Now they are a key part of the lucrative running shoe market (they maintain more than half the market) and Nike is a global apparel brand with it’s swoosh on pretty much everything but refrigerators.

But none of that would have been possible without a big gamble on Jordan that paid off better than anyone expected.

Latest Posts
  1. Timberwolves 90210 spoof is brilliant (VIDEO)

    Oct 22, 2014, 12:10 AM EDT

    Minnesota Timberwolves Media Day Getty Images

    Combining the NBA and 90210? Brilliant.

  2. Sixers’ K.J. McDaniels with a two-handed rejection, has more preseason blocks than Anthony Davis (VIDEO)

    Oct 21, 2014, 8:30 PM EDT

    2014 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot Getty Images

    McDaniels has amassed 14 blocked shots this preseason — more than guys like DeAndre Jordan and Anthony Davis.

  3. Report: Magic, Nikola Vucevic agree to 4-year contract extension

    Oct 21, 2014, 7:35 PM EDT

    Nets Magic Basketball AP

    Solid big men get overpaid consistently and have for many years. In light of that fact, this deal is just fine.

  4. Daryl Morey sticks up for James Harden’s defense, says YouTube video “unfair”

    Oct 21, 2014, 5:40 PM EDT

    Houston Rockets Media Day Getty Images

    James Harden’s defense isn’t as bad as some people say… but it’s not good.

  5. Report: Nets minority owner puts his majority share of Barclays Center up for sale

    Oct 21, 2014, 4:50 PM EDT

    Brooklyn New Arena AP

    It’s possible, but not likely, that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov will buy the rest of the building.

  6. Report: Bucks join 76ers, Thunder in opposing lottery reform

    Oct 21, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT

    O.J. Mayo, Michael Carter-Williams O.J. Mayo, Michael Carter-Williams

    Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee still need five more teams to join their side

  7. Could lottery reform be bad for small market teams? Sam Presti argues yes.

    Oct 21, 2014, 2:49 PM EDT

    Grant Gilbert AP

    Watch after the draft lottery next year when a team like the Lakers, Celtics or Knicks jumps way up the board so they can draft a young star and some smaller market owners cry it’s unfair.

  8. LeBron James and his difficult-to-assess super teams

    Oct 21, 2014, 2:07 PM EDT

    Cleveland Cavaliers Media Day Cleveland Cavaliers Media Day

    The only precedent for LeBron, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving? LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh

  9. Knicks guard Iman Shumpert wears clock hat

    Oct 21, 2014, 1:35 PM EDT

    Toronto Raptors v New York Knicks Toronto Raptors v New York Knicks

    Iman Shumpert is wearing a hat with a clock on it. That is all.

  10. Entire Bulls bench runs to help up Derrick Rose (video)

    Oct 21, 2014, 12:22 PM EDT

    Derrick Rose Derrick Rose

    Chicago point guard still clearly has respect of teammates

  11. 67RIEFNS No. 25: Synergy of the Pelicans’ lineup

    Oct 21, 2014, 11:45 AM EDT

    Omer Asik,Anthony Davis Omer Asik,Anthony Davis

    New Orleans adds its missing link in Omer Asik

  12. ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 preview: Dallas Mavericks

    Oct 21, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT

    'Nowitzki. Der Perfekte Wurf' Premiere In Cologne Getty Images

    They’re not as good as Mark Cuban thinks they are, but they are improved.

  13. What did Cavaliers’ rotation against Chicago tell us about their regular season?

    Oct 21, 2014, 9:44 AM EDT

    Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers Getty Images

    Projecting Cleveland’s win total based on its minute distribution against the Bulls

  14. Report: Wizards close to signing John Lucas III

    Oct 21, 2014, 9:16 AM EDT

    Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors

    Celtics waived Lucas during offseason that saw him traded twice

Featured video

What are impacts of NBA's new TV deal?
Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. K. Bryant (4044)
  2. D. Rose (3684)
  3. B. Lopez (3665)
  4. V. Oladipo (3479)
  5. J. Lin (3447)