Air Jordans: the partnership that made a legend

Apr 4, 2023

Air, the story of the partnership between Nike and basketball rookie Michael Jordan, premieres this week in theaters, sharing the behind-the-scenes story of how the athletic brand landed the reluctant player.

For some, it’s a glimpse into the start of arguably the greatest basketball player of all time and one of the greatest athletes to ever live. For others, it’s a celebration of the Air Jordan, a status symbol and iconic sneaker that amassed a cult following.

But the Air Jordan is more than a shoe and Michael Jordan is more than an athlete. Together, they formed one of the most valuable brand collaborations in history and made a mark on sports, pop culture, and marketing – one that’s still going strong today.

The Rookie

Back in 1984, long before Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and the ubiquitous influencer, a promising rookie was entering his first season in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls.

Not yet a household name or the legend he would become – but quickly earning a name as the “golden boy” of basketball – Jordan was fielding offers from multiple brands looking for endorsement deals. The deal he wanted was with Adidas, his dream brand and the sneaker he wanted to wear on the court.[1]

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Source: NBC News

Much to Jordan’s dismay, adidas didn’t put an offer on the table. Following the death of the company founder and a shift in leadership, the company was in flux and not in a position to broach a major endorsement deal.

Next was Converse, the brand he wore at North Carolina and a popular brand among the greats like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Mark Aguirre. Despite a promise to be “treated like the other superstars,” Jordan wasn’t sold, and Converse wasn’t desperate.

Converse was losing its traction as an athletic brand. It couldn’t raise its offer above $100,000 a year, the going package for top players, without concern for what would happen to the deals with Magic, Bird, and the other top athletes.

Nike saw an opportunity and moved in.

Courting a Would-Be Legend

At the time, Nike was on a rapid growth trajectory. Its revenue had skyrocketed in the past decade – from $28.7 million in 1973 to $867 million in 1983 – but things were stagnating. In 1984, the company reported its first quarterly lost in history, despite a strong showing at the Olympics in Los Angeles.

With Converse and adidas passing, Nike had an opening. But Jordan wasn’t interested. He was still hanging his hopes on adidas.

Jordan’s agent, David Falk (who already had a strong relationship with Nike), wasn’t ready to give up. He reached out to Jordan’s parents, and Jordan was on his way to Beaverton to meet with Nike, executive Rob Strasser, designer Peter Moore, and Howard White and Sonny Vaccaro of the basketball division.

The pitch involved a highlight reel of Jordan playing to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump” and a presentation of the red-and-white shoe design. Jordan, still not sold, said that he liked adidas because they were low to the ground.

In an unprecedented move, Nike offered to tailor the shoe to his liking and involve him in the design process, despite Jordan having never worn Nike shoes in his life. At the time, athletes wore what they were given, or declined the offer.

Ultimately, Nike offered Jordan $500,000 a year for a five-year deal, which was the highest endorsement contract to date. On top of that, stock options and other incentives made the grand total $7 million for those five years.

The contract did have stipulations to protect Nike, however. He had to win Rookie of the Year, become an All-Star, or average 20 points per game within his first three years. If one of these three things didn’t happen, the deal was severed.

But what if he didn’t accomplish these but still sold shoes? For that, he’d have to sell at least $4 million worth of shoes by his third year, and then he’d get the next two years of his contract.

Jordan still wasn’t on board. He used the Nike offer as leverage to try to sign with Adidas a final time, asking them to meet the offer. When that didn’t happen, Nike landed Jordan.[2]

“His Airness” Is Born

The secret behind Nike was that Knight had an entertainment background. He understood the value of Jordan as a promotion, not as a vehicle for team revenue. He committed $1 million in marketing spend toward Jordan’s shoes for the first six months.

Falk came up with the Air Jordan name, but they faced another obstacle. The 1984-85 season came around, and the NBA banned the shoe because of the uniform color scheme and not meeting NBA regulations.

As Jordan continued to break rules and wear the shoes, the rebellion became a marketing tool. When the NBA commissioner banned the shoes, the merchandising of

Air Jordans exploded because of scarcity.

Nike paid the fine of $5,000 per game and made a commercial to say that the NBA can throw the shoes out of the game, but they can’t keep [the consumer] from wearing them. At the next release, the ban was lifted.

On Jordan’s end, he finished his rookie season with an average of 28.2 points per game and Rookie of the Year. He became a household name, with every kid in America wanting to “Be Like Mike.”

By March 1985, the boldly colored Air Jordan 1 with the signature swoosh is on the shelves of nationwide retail locations for $65 a pair – roughly $181 today.[3] Despite this unheard-of price, Nike raked in $70 million worth of sales in two months and a total of $100 million in revenue by year’s end.

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Image source: Nike


Building a Franchise

In what Knight called “the perfect combination of quality product, marketing, and athlete endorsement,” Nike had a goldmine. The Air Jordan 1 was a massive commercial success that gave rise to new Air Jordan models each year and a ravenous group of fans eager to buy.

The Air Jordan line transcended sports, becoming a symbol of fandom, individuality, status among the masses. Basketball fans and sneaker enthusiasts lined up for hours to snatch up new releases, with some even camping out overnight.

As the brand evolved, Nike leveraged innovative campaigns and more collaborations between Air Jordans and designers or artists on the rise, turning each line into a cultural event. For his part, Jordan wore other shoe lines on the court, each one becoming a sensation like his own.
And in doing so, Jordan becomes a living brand himself and solidifies his place as the greatest influencer – long before “influencer” became a concept.

The Legacy of Air Jordans

Though signature sneakers have been a staple among NBA superstars like Allen Iverson, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal, none of them reached the level of brand-athlete stardom like Jordan and his Air Jordans.

Nearly four decades after this historic collaboration, Air Jordans is holding strong as one of the most-loved brands in the world. There are 37 editions in total, all numbered sequentially, with a new one released each year since the Air Jordan 1 debuted in 1985.

They’re the ultimate cult shoe, with secondhand Jordan sneakers selling for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in the aftermarket, both as sneaker collectibles and sports memorabilia. With Jordan retired from basketball, retro versions of the classic models are flying off shelves alongside new releases.

The “holy grail” of Jordans, the six pairs Jordan wore in the NBA Finals, a historic league championship best-of-seven series, are expected to sell for millions at Sotheby’s Dubai.[4] Jordan went to the finals six times in his career – winning each time – and these elite Dynasty Collection shoes are the ultimate for collectors.


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Image source: Sotheby’s

One particular game-worn pair comes from the 1998 NBA Finals, the most viewed of all NBA Finals contests. “The Last Dance” season, as it’s been named, was Jordan’s final season with the Bulls and the height of the athlete’s folklore.

The world tuned in to watch Jordan reach a game high of 37 points for a Bulls 93-88 victory over the Utah Jazz. He wore his “Bred” Air Jordan XIII sneakers in the second half and earned his 6th NBA Championship and 6th Finals MVP award.

As an entity of the Nike umbrella, Air Jordan ventured into collaborations and sports markets outside of basketball. It is the sole equipment provider for the Michigan Wolverines American football team and a supplemental equipment provider for the North Carolina Tar Heels, Florida Gators, Oklahoma Sooners, and UCLA Bruins programs. It’s also involved in NASCAR, NCAA football and basketball, and association football.

In 2022, Nike’s Jordan brand reported a record $5.1 billion, 5% of which goes to His Airness for his legendary deal.[5] In total, the brand is estimated to be worth $10 billion, and Jordan himself made about $1.3 billion from the shoe over the past four decades.

Air Jordans: The Greatest Influencer Campaign of All Time

Jordan, the legend, and Jordan, the brand, are intertwined as a cultural phenomenon that’s still thriving, due to the story of Nike’s bold courtship, Jordan’s larger-than-life persona, and the power of personal branding.