The fifth episode of The Last Dance explores the path Jordan took to becoming the most famous athlete (and arguably human) on the planet, becoming a ubiquitous presence in ad campaigns and the most coveted brand ambassador in the world.
That journey all began with his sneaker deal, which was the first endorsement deal he signed as a rookie. After David Falk signed Jordan, his first goal was to find him a deal that would get him his own signature shoe, following the model of the various tennis stars his agency had as clients. Converse, at the time, was the biggest basketball sneaker brand, and as Jordan recalled, they made it very clear where he would’ve stood on the totem pole as a rookie.
“Converse had big players, and told me, ‘We can not envision you being put ahead of them,'” Jordan said. “OK, fine. I was adidas.”
Adidas was Jordan’s preferred brand, as that’s what he played in while at North Carolina, but as Falk remembers, they weren’t in a position to give him a signature sneaker, despite being interested in signing him, which led Falk to pushing for Nike — who Jordan had no interest in.
“Adidas was real dysfunctional at the time. They told me, ‘We’d love to have Jordan, but we can’t make a shoe work at this point in time,’” David Falk said. “I wanted Michael to go with Nike, cause they were the upstart. I couldn’t even get him to get on the damn plane and go visit the campus. So I called his parents.”
Jordan and his mother both remember their conversation that led Mike to going with them to Oregon to meet with Nike, where they made an offer so good that Jordan’s father told him he couldn’t pass it up.
“My mother said, ‘You’re going to go listen. You may not like it, but you’re gonna go listen,” Jordan said. “And she made me get on that plane and go listen. I go into that meeting, not wanting to be there. Nike made this big pitch, and my father said, ‘You have to be a fool not to take this deal. It’s a great deal.’”
Jordan got $250,000 from Nike and the promise of a signature shoe line with the Air Jordan name, and the rest, as they say, was history. Jordan smashed the expectations for the first four years of his contract in his rookie season, with Falk saying they wanted $3 million sold in four years and they sold $126 million in the first. Jordans became the most popular basketball sneaker in the world and remain that to this day, making Nike not just an iconic basketball brand, but a cultural phenomenon.
It’s fascinating to think of what the sneaker industry looks like today if Jordan would’ve gotten his wish and gone with adidas, as it’s nearly impossible to think of Jordan in anything other than his signature line that is now it’s own multi-billion dollar brand.