When Nike first courted Michael Jordan for a sponsorship deal in 1984, they could barely get MJ to listen to their pitch. Nike founder Phil Knight thought salesman Sonny Vaccaro was crazy for even pursuing him, let alone the terms he wanted to offer the then-rookie, who had just signed with the Chicago Bulls a month before — and not played a single NBA game.
To be detailed in the upcoming movie Air, part of the story is already told in The Last Dance, a documentary following His Airness and the Bulls through their meteoric rise to legendary basketball status. David Falk, MJ’s agent from 1984 on through his entire career, remembers: “I couldn’t even get him to get on the damn plane and go visit the campus.”
Jordan loved Adidas, but they didn’t have the resources to build a shoe line just around him. Converse was the #1 NBA shoe supplier, and they already had Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Dr. J, an all-star roster of ambassadors — and yet, Nike still had to fight tooth and nail for Jordan. Falk was so desperate, he called Jordan’s mom, who made him “go listen.” “You may not like it, but you’re gonna go listen.”
Against their own better judgement, Nike pulled out all the stops. They offered Jordan his own shoe line using their latest technology, “air soles.” They paid him more for longer — $500,000 per year for five years, a sum three times higher than what even legends like Magic Johnson could command at the time. And they even named the shoe after him: Air Jordan.
All in all, it was the longest of long shots. An upstart company making mostly track shoes trying to tailor a shoe around a single player in a team sport who hadn’t yet won any trophies. As soon as they inked the deal, I guarantee you, everyone involved at Nike went: “Let’s pray this is gonna go well.”
“Nike’s expectation was, at the end of year four, they hoped to sell $3 million worth of Air Jordans,” Falk recalls. “In year one, we sold $126 million.” The rest, as they say, is history. Over the last 40 years, the Jordan-Nike collab has made tens of billions of dollars, making Jordan the first billionaire basketball player in history and generating billions in profit for Nike. What Nike initially wanted to sell in four years, they now sell every five hours.
The next time you catch yourself thinking, “I hope this is gonna go well,” remember: It could go well or not so well — but it might go even better, and that’s the hoop we’re truly shooting for.