1984 had difficulties for Nike. Profits were down, growth had stopped, and an ill-advised entry into the clothes business had left it with mountains of unsold inventory. It had been surpassed by rivals to new trends in leisure shoes and aerobics. Sales decreased. Phil Knight, the chairman and chief executive, opened his yearly letter to shareholders with the words, “Orwell was right.” “The year 1984 was not easy.”
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However, a new movie called Air, which is set in that same year, releases this week and depicts how Nike became the most successful shoe and sports brand in the world, with sales exceeding £37 billion in 2022.
Ben Affleck plays the lead role of Knight, the purple Porsche-driving, shell-suit-wearing man from the 1980s. The film is directed by Affleck. Matt Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro in the movie Air, a Nike sports marketing executive in dire need of a blockbuster. The Air Jordan sneaker, though, is the true hero of this tale.
Air describes how, defying everyone’s advise, Vaccaro struck a sponsorship agreement with rookie basketball player Michael Jordan. By offering him his own sneaker, the Air Jordan, Air lured Jordan away from more competitive competitors Adidas and Converse. More controversially, he offered Jordan points for each pair of shoes sold at the insistence of his strong mother Deloris (Viola Davis in the movie), starting a revolution in the global marketing of sports and athletes.
On April 1, 1985, Nike formally introduced the Air Jordan 1 footwear to the general public, retailing at $64.95. In the first year, 100,000 pairs were anticipated to be sold. Rather, it delivered 1.5 million pairs in the first six weeks thanks to savvy marketing that said the NBA had banned the sneakers for being excessively colorful—which it hadn’t.
It would have been wise of you to hold onto a pair. Unworn Jordan 1s now fetch over $20,000 (£16,000) on StockX, a website for resale. The multibillion-pound trainer collecting frenzy of today is centered around the Air Jordan brand.
As someone who transcended not just his sport but also race, class, and generations, Jordan has been dubbed the greatest pop culture figure in American history. He became the epitome of the American Dream due to his ascent from lowly beginnings as a young man from North Carolina who failed to make the high school team, the son of a bank employee mother, and the subsequently killed father of a General Electric plant superintendent.
Despite Jordan’s third and last retirement in 2003, Nike has persisted in releasing new versions in his honor every year. There are now 37 different Air Jordan models available, not counting the various colorways, partnerships, limited editions, and throwback Jordan models.
The 10-part documentary The Last Dance, which covered Jordan’s career in fascinating detail, was released on Netflix in 2020. It attracted a 24 million worldwide audience and intensified interest in its celebrity, coinciding with the dual consequences of lockdown – a confined audience and a want for cozier garments.
By 70% from 2020 to last year, Nike generated $5.1 billion from the Jordan brand. Based on that number, its namesake would have earned more than twice as much as he did throughout his entire NBA career—$256.1 million—from a decades-old license agreement without even having to touch a basketball. According to Forbes, he is worth $2 billion.
Not just Michael Jordan and Nike have profited, though; the Air Jordan sneaker has altered the market for used and vintage sneakers and elevated them to the status of art-world valuables.