- “Air” will tell the story of how Nike convinced Michael Jordan to sign with the company.
- The central players have given differing accounts of who should get the credit.
- The movie is set for a theatrical release on April 5, followed by a release on Prime Video.
Michael Jordan’s Nike deal is the gold standard for athletic endorsements. There’s no debate.
But there’s a lot of debate about who should get the credit for it.
That debate will get renewed attention in April when Ben Affleck and Matt Damon release “Air,” a movie that recounts how Nike signed Jordan. Don’t expect the movie to settle the debate, but get ready for a refresher course in the staggering competitiveness of the industry’s pioneers and a reminder that Nike wasn’t always a goliath.
The movie stars Damon as Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro and Affleck as Nike cofounder Phil Knight, two sportswear icons who have differing views on how the Jordan deal materialized. Affleck also directed the film.
“The signing of Michael Jordan, yeah, success has a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan,” Knight told USA Today in 2015. “A lot of people want to take credit for signing Michael Jordan, most obviously Sonny Vaccaro.”
“Everyone’s trying to rewrite history,” Vaccaro responded in the same article. “It goes beyond Jordan. I am the savior of Nike.”
USA Today in 2015 characterized Jordan as “slightly amused” by the debate. His performance on the court, after all, gave the deal its gilded value, not a handful of meals, meetings, and phone calls.
“It’s a lot of people who think they created the success of the Jordan Brand, which is kind of ironic in some ways,” Jordan said.
The “Air” script was written by Alex Convery, named a Variety “screenwriter to watch.” In October, Variety described the movie as a “witty boardroom procedural zeroing in on a few fateful days in the life of Sonny Vaccaro.”
“Being able to portray this now-billion-dollar company as an underdog, and Michael as a sort of unknown quantity, those two things in parallel really interested me,” Convery told Variety.
It’s unclear if Vaccaro spoke with Knight, Vaccaro, or Jordan or if he relied on existing sources, including “Sole Man,” an ESPN documentary about Vaccaro. Several books and news stories also have recounted how the Jordan deal came about, including parts of “Just do it,” “Swoosh,” and a sweeping 1992 story in the Washington Post.
The Post story, like the others, outlines the underdog narrative the movie will likely highlight.
While it was one of the defining corporate success stories of the 1970s, in the early 1980s, Nike was flailing, having whiffed on the aerobics boom.
“Orwell was right: 1984 was a tough year,” Knight wrote in that year’s annual shareholder report.
That same year Nike had a rare round of layoffs and Fortune roasted it for its woeful performance.
“Nike loses its footing on the fast track,” reads the headline of a November 1984 Fortune article. “Earnings are dismal, management is shuffling, and many wonder if founder Philip Knight has run out of breath.”
Knight conceded to Fortune that selling the company wasn’t out of the question.
But that’s also when Nike signed Jordan. Landing him wasn’t a sure thing. While it seems almost automatic today given Nike’s dominance, that wasn’t the case in 1984.
Converse had Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. New Balance had James Worthy.
But somehow, Nike convinced Jordan to take a chance on a company whose sales had slowed to a 6% gain in 1984, after averaging 77% annually over the previous 10 years.
The cast of “Air” includes Jason Bateman as Rob Strasser, Matthew Maher as Peter Moore, and Marlon Wayans as George Raveling, three additional Nike executives who have gotten some credit for the Jordan deal.
Knight told USA Today that Vaccaro “helped” with the deal, but Strasser and Moore were the “MVPs.” Jordan gave Raveling credit.
Knight fired Vaccaro in 1991. Strasser and Knight never reconciled after Strasser went to work for Adidas. In his memoir, Knight called it “an intolerable betrayal.”
Regardless of the movie’s spin on events, the Jordan deal was a pivotal moment for Nike.
Nike did $130 million in sales of Jordan’s signature shoe in its inaugural year, according to the Washington Post, millions more than expected. In fact, Nike wanted an out clause in Jordan’s deal if it couldn’t sell $3 million in product, according to David Falk, Jordan’s longtime agent.
By 1988, riding the success of Jordan and a suite of new Nike Air products, the company was at the start of a six-year run of double-digit sales increases. Within six years, it more than doubled in size. It also regained the No. 1 position in the industry from Reebok, a lead that it’s never relinquished.
Jordan played his last NBA game in 2003, but his signature shoes remain wildly popular with collectors and even casual sneaker fans.
The Jordan brand did $5.1 billion in sales in Nike’s most recent fiscal year. Nike had $46.7 billion in sales in its most recent fiscal year, making it by far the biggest company in the industry.