- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Inside the Mia Hamm Building that stands amid so many other monuments to endorsement greatness on Nike's sprawling campus, the shoe giant's top designers are at work dreaming and scheming up plans behind doors that are never left unlocked.
They call it the "Innovation Kitchen," a place where creativity is the culture, imagination is the job and access is limited to a few.
Scraps of leather, rubber and mesh are strewn haphazardly onto the floor. Easels are crammed with sketches. The walls are littered with sources of inspiration, ranging from motivational signs to personal trinkets.
It is here that Eric Avar, Aaron Cooper and Tinker Hatfield brainstormed on perhaps Nike's most important creation since the Air Jordan two decades ago. It is here that they gave birth to what has been dubbed the Air Zoom Generation, the first of Nike's shoes that it is paying LeBron James a king's ransom to wear for the next seven years.
With $100 million committed before the costly process of research and development, let alone production and distribution, ever began, expectations are above the rim and the pressure for success is through the roof. Still, for the image-making machine that turned Michael into "Michael" and Bo into "Bo," turning LeBron into the next big-name sports icon is not such a daunting task.
"As a designer for Nike, doing any basketball shoe at that price point with that type of athlete, of course I feel the pressure," said Cooper, Nike Basketball's creative director and the person who played a key role in helping beat out Reebok in the fight for James. "If you let yourself feel the pressure over a shoe like this, you can feel it, because you are solely responsible for that much business. But if you let it get to you that's when you can get distracted."
It has been said that James is such a hot property that even a dismal product with his name attached to it would sell well. Indeed, after years of continually coming out on top, Nike officials' confidence that its designs will be popular in the marketplace borders on the arrogant.
"This is about teen boys that play basketball and teen boys that don't (play) but want to look like they do," says Ralph Greene, Nike's director of global basketball. "That's the way it was in 1985, in 1995, and will be in 2005."
The blue print for success was created long ago. Nike plans to follow the same sales strategy that it developed with the Air Jordan line: Sell enough to make economic sense, but always make sure the product sells out, leaving consumers and retailers wanting more.
Nike officials never discuss production runs of their shoes, but the number crunchers have done the math.
"With this type of athlete, if you make 1,000 pairs, of course you are going to sell out, but that's not a business success," says Greene. "So there is a threshold that we understand that will make this pay out. Is it an unnatural number for the marketplace? No. I think the market can absorb it without these ever showing up in discount outlets. We want them gone and I want them gone in a good way that leads to a return purchase the next time."
Perhaps it is no coincidence that LeBron's initial signature shoe, due to hit stores on Dec. 20 with a $110 price tag, borrows another page from the Air Jordan gameplan. It, too, will be featured in red and black, a winning combination that also has been used in Tiger Woods' apparel line.
While sunglasses and basketballs, each adorned with LeBron's new trademarked logo, are expected to be on shelves around the holiday season, and shirts and hats with LeBron's "King James" nickname on it already have debuted, it is LeBron's shoe that will be the measure of Nike's success.
Personalization of shoes has been a staple of Nike's since Hatfield came up with the concept in 1985, the idea being that fans of an athlete would buy somethings that includes a personal touch. To that extent, James has been integral to the shoe's development, working with designers even before he signed his lucrative deal in May.
The holes for the laces resemble the door handle to LeBron's Hummer H2. The silver stripe on the front of the shoe matches the SUV's trim over the wheel well, even "Nike" type borrows from the H2 logo font.
LeBron's interest in military life -- he told designers that he likes to wear fatigues and his AAU team was called the Soldiers -- is also represented on the shoe. The red stripe on the heel is inspired by the scope of a rifle, the black mesh on the side mimics ballistic mesh found on camouflage gear and the tread is molded in the form of chevrons, which indicate military rank.
Sonny Vaccaro, the Reebok shoe czar who wooed LeBron unsuccessfully for the past three years when he was employed by rival Adidas, said he believes that Nike's true test won't come any time soon.
"No matter what Nike does, there is no risk for the first three years with LeBron," Vaccaro said. "His first three signature shoes will be sold out. (Nike's ad agency) Wieden + Kennedy will make brilliant ads and Nike will have great co-conspirators in branding LeBron, including Coca-Cola and the NBA."
Creatively, Lynn Merritt, Nike's senior director of U.S. basketball, said he believes that James' second shoe, tentatively scheduled for release around the 2005 All-Star Game, will be the trendsetter.
"For the current shoe, we really took some ideas early on from LeBron and rushed to make a product," Merritt said. "But I think what you are going to see the second time around is something that Nike is going to put on a pedestal and say, 'Here is LeBron's signature shoe.' "
"There's certainly an aura that has been generated around LeBron and that will give Nike a nice force field for a while," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "Nike has put their elite team in the trenches to make sure the product lives up to certain standards and LeBron is obviously the other half of the equation, which they can't really control."
If James doesn't live up to the lofty expectations that have been set for him, Nike eventually might have a tough time making ends meet. But James, at least so far, has shown no signs of crumbling under the intense media scrutiny.
"I love all this (attention)," he said as he was mobbed by cameras, microphones and tape recorders on Cavaliers media day. "This is a dream come true. I hope it never ends."
Says agent Aaron Goodwin: "Nike will let LeBron grow and kids are going to be patient with him. Guys like Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady hit their prime in the mid-20s and that means the height of LeBron's career could be six or seven years out."
Just about the time that James' endorsement deal with Nike should be up for renegotiation.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
2dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann