- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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In the summer of 1984, Michael Jordan didn't even want to visit Nike headquarters.
He loved wearing Adidas in high school. He had no problems with his Converse sneakers at the University of North Carolina. And he hated Nike's air soles, which he thought "was like playing in high heels."
But, at his parents urging, he dragged himself to Beaverton, Ore.
There, Phil Knight and his underlings presented their plan. Jordan would have his own shoe, a long-term deal and royalties from sales. And when Converse wouldn't offer him his own signature model and Adidas, to Jordan's chagrin, didn't submit a bid, Jordan signed with the Swoosh.
Twenty years later, nothing in sports marketing has matched the magnitude of their alliance, which laid the foundation to the modern-day formula that pairs athletes with companies in hopes of luring fans to buy their products.
"Even though I never envisioned myself wearing the (Nike) shoe, the creativity that it provided to me and the education of what this is all about -- what I wear on my feet and how it enhances my athletic ability -- I'm happy with the choice," Jordan said.
When Nike officials released the first Air Jordan on April 1, 1985, it was estimated 100,000 pairs would be sold by year's end. But the unexpected happened. Retailers nationwide sold 450,000 pairs, with a suggested price of $65, in less than a month. Sales in six test markets alone totaled almost $30 million. It didn't hurt when Jordan, the third overall pick in the 1984 Draft, was named the NBA's Rookie of the Year a month later.
It also didn't hurt that the league, citing its "uniformity of uniforms" rule, fined Jordan $5,000 per game for wearing the red and black shoes. The rule stipulated that players had to wear shoes that not only matched their uniforms, but matched the shoes worn by their teammates.
Not only did Nike pay the fines, they turned a marketing disaster into a coup in one of its first commercials for the shoe.
The commercial: "On Oct. 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On Oct. 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can't keep you from wearing them. Air Jordans. From Nike."
"We figured we had to come up with something so that players weren't running around with blue, green and purple shoes," NBA commissioner David Stern said. "Then, Nike was advertising that we banned the shoe. I guess you could say we played a role in what was really the beginning of modern-day sports marketing."
As Jordan established himself as arguably the best player in NBA history, Nike -- and its advertising partner Wieden + Kennedy -- took advantage by dreaming up some of the most memorable commercials of all time.
"I use to have to skip school on the day they came out so that I could get them at the mall," said rapper Nelly, who has an ownership stake in the Charlotte Bobcats. "It wasn't just about the shoes. It was the way he played, the way he jumped in the air. Now, it's to the point where it's more and more about the shoe than it is because of the man behind it."
The latter statement proved true when the Air Jordan shoes continued to sell when Jordan wasn't playing basketball. The brand became its own division of Nike in 1997.
Jordan knows that his success on the court is one of the main reasons why his shoe franchise has lasted 20 years (the Jordan XX will debut on Feb. 19), but he also knows that people buy the shoe because they expect it to be more fashionable and functional every year.
The Air Jordan III had the visible air pocket. The Air Jordan IV had the breathable mesh. The Air Jordan VII had a form-fitting sock liner. The Jordan XI included patent leather on athletic shoes for the first time ever.
"Marketing is great," said Jordan, who worked on most of his shoes with designer Tinker Hatfield. "But eventually you are going to have to live off that product and that product is going to have to stand by itself. That's what we've been able to sustain."
That might not have been true in the early years.
"In the beginning, it was much more about the person and the player that Michael was because that first Air Jordan was a god awful shoe," said Sonny Vaccaro, a Reebok executive who was then with Nike.
In 1998, Jordan's last year with the Bulls, he got nostalgic and put on the shoe that launched his sports marketing career.
"I tried to wear the (Air Jordan) I in a Madison Square Garden game and my feet were bleeding," Jordan said.
Despite the fact that Jordan isn't on the court anymore, the brand's executives insist that the value of their namesake's legacy is being passed on to the next generation of core consumers.
"Kids, particularly those in urban areas, want to buy something authentic," said Jackie Thomas, Jordan's director of marketing. "We have the advantage with Michael because they know that he stands for being the best."
It's not clear whether the power of the name of Jordan, whose first deal was a five-year contract worth $2.5 million, will start to fade as new players start to gain relevance with their play on the court, but there's certainly a lot of choice in the marketplace.
The best succession plan for the Jordan brand is Denver Nuggets rookie forward Carmelo Anthony, whose first signature shoe will be released on Nov. 26 under the Jordan brand label.
Nike is separately pushing last year's rookie of the year LeBron James, who signed a seven-year contract with the shoe brand worth $100 million. James' Zoom LeBron II shoes went on sale last week.
Reebok launched Yao Ming's signature shoe on Nov. 1 and Allen Iverson's "Answer VIII" on Nov. 5. Adidas launched Tracy McGrady's "T-Mac 4" on Oct. 29.
"Nike and Michael stood alone 20 years ago," Stern said. "Because there are so many shoe brands, and so many athletes with their own shoes, it's definitely harder to stand out. I'm not sure Michael and Nike is the pinnacle, but it is for now."
"LeBron can make money for Nike and Tracy can make money for adidas, but no one will ever be the kind of icon that Michael is and was," Vaccaro said. "He was the prototype and we're just making massive carbon copies now."
But James is confident of his ability to be unique and stand out in the future.
"I see what Michael did selling shoes and clothing and really inspired me to do my own thing," said James, who despite the Nike tie-in says he has never had a conversation with Jordan about marketing. "He is the model of how it is done, but I'm trying to do it a little earlier."
Aside from shoes, James already has a full line of apparel. There's a LeBron James Nike watch and an MP3 player is on the way.
"The marketing numbers speak for themselves," James said. "My first shoe sold well and my jersey was the No. 1 sold jersey in the NBA last year."
Although Nike is following the same formula with James as it did with Jordan -- show the buying public that the star athlete helped design the products that bear his name -- Jordan says he's not sure there is a clear path to follow to reach sales success.
"Sometimes we have a tough time figuring out what that ingredient was to get us to where we are," Jordan said. "It's hard to duplicate something that you've done once. ... We've been able to transcend from parents to kids and in some cases down to their kids. And that, to me, is success."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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