When Michael Jordan signed with Nike, the world of sports changed forever. It was a gamble for both sides, but it paid off handsomely for both in the long run. Shoe sales, apparel, pop culture; it all swung to Nike as a result of the success and popularity of Michael Jordan and the Jordan brand.
When there’s a big winner in something like this, there’s inevitably also going to be a big loser.
That loser was Adidas. We’ve chronicled where it all went wrong for Adidas and how the company lost out on billions of dollars in revenue. From what Adidas did wrong, to what Nike got right, it’s a story you have to read to fully understand.
So, flip through these slides and see how Adidas lost its crown as top dog in the sneaker game.
Adidas Ruled the 1970’s
The sneaker game changed in the 1970’s. Up to that point, basketball players were largely wearing sneakers that were not that much different from sneakers worn off the court. For example, the Chuck Taylor’s you pulled off the rack were pretty much the same Chuck Taylor’s worn by Wilt Chamberlain.
Adidas changed this in the 1970’s when they began to upgrade the performance abilities of their top of the line shoes. This started with the Adidas Top 10. That shoe was popularized by the best in the game, such as Kermit Washington, Bob Lanier, and Mitch Kupchak. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became the first athlete to endorse a basketball shoe with his low-cut Adidas Jabbar.
Nike was a Running Brand
So Adidas was dominating the hardwoods, what did Nike care? They were a running shoe brand started by former University of Oregon track and field athletes. That’s not to say that the brand wasn’t famous. Nike shoes were worn by track and field legends Steve Prefontaine, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Carl Lewis.
They had branched into the tennis shoe market with a shoe endorsed by llie Nastase, the Romanian powerhouse of 1970’s tennis, but the company hadn’t yet made a splash into the basketball market. That would all change in a few years.
Adidas was cool outside of Sports
Adidas was king on the courts, but even more importantly Adidas was cool on the streets. What makes a brand isn’t just stars selling your goods, it’s when your brand is seen as cool. Plenty of brands have been promoted by celebrities and not made it.
Adidas was given its seal of approval from the emerging 1980’s hip-hop scene. Not only were the clothes being worn by the artists, but Run-DMC even released a song called My Adidas. “We make a good team, my Adidas and me” went the lyrics. That’s all the endorsement Adidas needed.
Jordan Wanted to Wear Adidas
It’s true. Jordan wanted to wear Adidas and they turned him down. They looked a slam dunk in the face and decided to pass. Sure, hindsight is 20-20, but come on! One of the most complete pro prospects in years wants to wear your shoes and you say no?
That decision was as costly to the company as the Trailblazers selecting Sam Bowie over Jordan with the second overall pick in the draft was to the city of Portland. What makes the decision even crazier is the reason Adidas turned him down…
Adidas Rejected Jordan Because he was too short
Adidas had a long-standing relationship with big men. They saw them as more marketable. It had worked to great effect with Kareem, so they figured they would keep the strategy going. When Jordan came along, that strategy left the company divided.
Executives in Germany wanted to stick with bigger players, while distributors in the United States wanted Jordan. One distributor later retold the battle this way, “We kept saying, ‘no one can relate to those guys. Who can relate with a seven-foot-tall guy?’” It’s true. When was the last time you bought a shoe endorsed by a center?
It was easy to fall in Love with Michael Jordan
Sure, he wasn’t a big man, but Adidas missed the most important characteristic of Jordan’s game. He was lovable. His competitive drive and his flashy style made him an easy player to be a fan of. Above all else, Jordan was a winner.
While at North Carolina, Jordan won a National Championship, was a two-time consensus All-American, and won the Wooden and Naismith Player of the Year awards. Who wouldn’t want to be a fan of a guy who wins it all, especially with the swagger and style Jordan did it with?
Nike was thrilled to land Jordan
Nike wasn’t the only other game in town for Jordan once Adidas backed out. Converse was the brand that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were wearing and the brand made a run at Jordan too. Jordan didn’t know how much attention he’d get with the brand already focusing on those two major stars.
So much to the delight of Nike, he chose the swoosh. It was a perfect situation for both Jordan and Nike. The brand was looking to make a splash in the basketball market and needed a breakout star. Jordan wanted a signature shoe, but also to be the main man for a brand. It was a match made in heaven.
Jordan sneakers made a star of Tinker Hatfield
The brand would go on to make the company incredible sums of money and catapult the brand all over the world. But it would also make the career of one shoe designer named Tinker Hatfield. Hatfield was involved in all the designs but would be the lead on Jordan’s 3-15.
With his credentials established through the Jordan brand, he would go on to work on other shoes throughout the Nike portfolio including designing the original and revolutionary Air Max.
The NBA bans the Air Jordan I
It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but the Air Jordan I was rather controversial when it first came out in 1984. The NBA had a policy that shoes had to be at least 51% white. Well, the red and black Air Jordan I had virtually no white on them at all.
Jordan wore the shoes anyway and earned $5,000 fines every game because of it. Nike knew they were into something big and instead of changing the design to fit with the league policy, they paid the fines for Jordan. The publicity of the “banned shoes” drove sales and proved the old adage that all press is good press.
Adidas Snagged Ewing
Adidas had missed the mark by not signing Jordan, and they knew it. So, when the next NBA Draft came around, they knew they were going to have to land a winner. They went with Georgetown center, Patrick Ewing. The fit was perfect for the company. They got to sign a big man, which fit with their philosophy, and Ewing was drafted by the Knicks, who play in the biggest market in the world.
Ewing’s first shoe, the Ewing Rivalry came out in 1986 and was followed shortly by the Ewing Attitude in 1987.
Reebok crowds the field
By the time the 1990’s rolled around, Converse had all but dropped out of the game. Nike and Adidas were battling it out at the top, but there was another brand climbing the ladder, Reebok. The company made a splash by signing Shaquille O’Neal and Allen Iverson.
While those signings were big for the brand, their real home run came with the release of The Pump. You remember The Pump. They were the shoes that you literally pumped up for a tighter fit. Their “viral moment” came in the 1991 Dunk Contest when Dee Brown paused to pump up his shoes before a monster dunk.
The Jordan brand grows as he lifts trophies
The Air Jordan’s were a hit and Nike used their marketing genius to make the shoes the most popular basketball shoe in the world. Little by little, the brand was becoming not just a basketball brand, but a mainstream brand.
The only thing Nike couldn’t do was win a title. Jordan took care of that on his own. It may have taken longer than he would have wanted, but Jordan finally got his first title in 1991. And once he got his first, he didn’t stop. Oh, and each year he won, he was wearing brand-new shoes.
Jordan XI Becomes a Legendary Sneaker
One day, Jordan stopped playing basketball. After winning three-straight NBA titles, MJ set out to dominate a different sport, baseball. Nike, on the other hand, wasn’t taking a break from what they do best. In fact, they produced one of the greatest Air Jordan models yet, the Jordan XI.
The shoe is widely considered the best Jordan’s ever made, and sells for ridiculously large amounts of money on the secondary market. It’s one of Nike’s best-selling shoes, even in reproduction today.
Adidas Doesn’t Miss on the Next Jordan (or do they?)
In the mid-90’s the trend of kids jumping straight from high school to the NBA was in full swing, and Adidas wasn’t going to miss out again as they did with Jordan. They quickly snapped up Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant.
Bryant was the huge get, as he was highly regarded as the heir apparent to Michael Jordan. The fact that he was playing for the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t hurt either. As Kobe became Kobe, Adidas was producing best-selling shoes. Adidas had finally gotten it right, until 2003 when Nike poached Kobe with a $40 million deal.
Jordan’s Continue After His Career Ended
The GOAT finally retired for real after the 2003 season but the shoes didn’t. And why should they? The Jordan brand was massive and making the bestselling basketball shoes in history. The brand had crossed over into popular culture in ways Nike could only have imagined in 1984.
One thing that did change, however, was Jordan’s involvement with the brand. Now retired, MJ had more time to be involved with the brand that carried his name. During this time Jordan gained more control over the brand and shoe designs.
Adidas Hitches its Wagon to Derrick Rose
Adidas had finally figured out that big-men didn’t sell shoes. So the brand stopped pursuing big men like Patrick Ewing and Kevin Garnett and went after ball handlers like Derrick Rose. The company signed Rose to a $185 million deal in 2012.
Rose was coming off a 2011 season where he electrified Chicago like no one had since Jordan himself. He won an MVP Award and was looking like the league’s next big star. Then tragedy struck in the form of a knee injury. As you probably know, that injury and subsequent injuries have robbed Rose of his quickness and made him just an average NBA player. The star Adidas signed to a mega-deal in 2012 never made it to another All-Star game.
The Air Jordan Retro Releases Dominate Sneaker Market
The popularity of Air Jordan’s is undeniable and that doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. Every year there is a new release of Jordan sneakers, but those aren’t your only options. Each year the brand re-releases some of their older or “retro” models.
Sometimes the releases are exactly like the originals, like when Nike re-released the Air Jordan I in red and black, but often what makes the retro release whose so popular are the different colors or patterns Nike has put on them. Picture the Air Jordan I in purple and white, or the Air Jordan 3 in Tar Heel colors. Those are just two of the 2020 retro releases.
Jordan Brand Branches Out
In 2016, the Jordan brand changed the game yet again when they became the equipment provider for the University of Michigan football team. This was the brand’s first foray into a sport that wasn’t basketball. They also are the equipment provider for the Oklahoma Sooners, Florida Gators and of course, the North Carolina Tar Heels.
But it didn’t stop with football. The Jordan brand has made uniforms for French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain and baseball gear for athletes such as Manny Machado, Mookie Betts, and David Price. The brand is a money-making machine, and in December 2019 it announced its first 1$ billion revenue-generating quarter.
Athletes Continue to Flock to Nike
Nike won the sneaker wars. They had Adidas on the ropes thanks to the Jordan brand, and they finished them off when they signed Kobe away from them in 2003. Sure, Adidas still makes basketball shoes and many players wear them. But the big names all go to Nike.
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and now Zion Williamson have all gone Nike. Each player given the title of “Next Big Thing” chooses Nike. Why? They all grew up watching Michael Jordan be the greatest of all-time. They idolized him; they wore his shoes. What other brand would they choose when it came time to pick?
Adidas Soldiers On
Adidas took a big “L” when they decided not to sign Michael Jordan. But you can’t close up shop just because of one setback, even when that setback costs your company billions of dollars. The company has kept working and has made some interesting moves.
The company still has a presence in the sneaker game and has prioritized its relationship with hip-hop. The brand has released shoe collaborations with artists such as Kanye West, Pharrell, and Snoop Dogg. While they may not be dominating the sneaker scene anymore, they are trying to stay true to who they are.