If NBA icon Michael Jordan had it his way, he would have been an Adidas athlete.
The Chicago Bulls legend revealed on episode five of “The Last Dance” docuseries that he wanted to sign with the Three Stripes when his pro career was about to take off. Because that was not possible due to what Jordan’s longtime agent David Falk referred to as “dysfunction” within Adidas, Jordan signed with Nike, despite having little interest in the company.
On April 22, 1985, FN reported on Jordan’s $2.5 million deal with the brand and his first signature sneaker, the Air Jordan 1. The report stated Jordan and the shoe were a “silver lining in its cloud” with Nike losing money, laying off employees and suffering from poor morale at the time. Although the shoe wasn’t in stores yet, Steve Kessler, then owner of three Athlete’s Foot stores, explained to FN that Nike “created a demand before the product is available.”
Today, Nike is the athletic market’s most dominant brand, bringing in $39.1 billion for fiscal 2019, and its Jordan Brand offshoot had its first $1 billion quarter last year.
Thirty-five years later, industry insiders are confident the entire sneaker industry would look completely different if Jordan donned the Three Stripes instead of the Swoosh.
“Adidas nor Converse nor any other shoe company that would have signed Michael would never have been able to make him Michael [as a sports legend] because the key to Michael Jordan and Nike was [executives and designers] Rob Strasser, Peter Moore and Phil Knight giving the OK to make him an icon on advertising. They wouldn’t have done it,” explained famed sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro.
Vaccaro, who said he was present when the deal between Jordan and Nike was being put together, explained that only the Beaverton, Ore.-based company was prepared to fully support the baller.
“David Falk, Rob Strasser and I were in the room, the three of us in Beverly Hills, when David agreed in principle to do the deal,” Vaccaro said. “Never was any other shoe company even remotely considering doing with him what they would what they only did for Julius [Erving] and Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] — whoever the great ones wore before him. Let’s just be honest: without the marketing, [Jordan] would have made all-star teams, he would have won championships, but he wouldn’t have the Air Jordan 99 coming out in 100 years. That’s the difference.”
Advertising agency DMA United founder and CEO Marc Beckman believes Nike having ties to American consumers was critical to the success of the Jordan partnership.
“MJ and Nike’s creation of Jordan Brand was a singular event, where all stars aligned,” Beckman said. “There is no way this could have happened had Michael Jordan signed with Adidas. There is no way Adidas would have stayed committed to Jordan to build the business that Nike built. Nike management and culture connected with Jordan and American youth at a much deeper and more substantial level than a European brand could have done back then.”
Nike’s commitment to Jordan yielded some of the greatest advertising campaigns in sports marketing history. The brand’s “Takeoff” commercial in 1985 highlighted Jordan’s ability to “fly,” multiple ads with Spike Lee helped grow the baller’s appeal with consumers beyond the court and the “Failure” spot in 1997 showed the world Jordan didn’t have to be perfect to be great, humanizing the icon.
From a product perspective, famed sneakerheads are convinced Adidas couldn’t capitalize on the moments that Nike did — and continues to do.
“Other than his play on the court, what made his sneakers iconic was the fact that Nike built the line around MJ’s superhuman dunking ability,” said influencer Henry “Henrock” Francois. “It’s hard to imagine Adidas having the vision to create sneakers that have become synonymous with his iconic moments on the court. Nike just seemed to push all the right buttons from design to marketing.”
Sneaker collector Cid “The Kicks” Merisier, however, believes Adidas would have been just as prepared to make history with Jordan as Nike was.
“His sneakers would still be as iconic — and maybe even more. Adidas was already a major player in the sports world in comparison to Nike, whose main sport was jogging.” Merisier said. “I feel MJ was only there for the money and not really for the aesthetics or to make a fashion statement. I feel MJ knew his athletic career could end at any time and thus he needed to maximize those greenbacks expeditiously.”
Today, the Air Jordan franchise is 34 models in, with new silhouettes hitting the market year after year, even as the greatest basketball player of all time enjoys retirement. And aside from delivering retro silhouettes for the lifestyle consumer, his namesake label — which is backed by Nike — is signing and creating court-ready looks for basketball’s brightest stars to wear including Russell Westbrook, Zion Williamson and Luka Doncic.
According to Vaccaro, none of this would be possible and the sneaker landscape wouldn’t exist the way it does if Jordan opted to sign elsewhere.
“What created this phenomenon was his mystical playing of the game surrounded by a shoe. It was never just about Michael Jordan,” Vaccaro said. “It was always about Air Jordan, from the first shoe and the first commercial bouncing the ball and [later] Spike Lee’s involvement. The iconic world [on the court] shifted to a marketing world.”