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Triumph of the Swoosh
Donald Katz
August 16, 1993
With a keen sense of the power of sports and a genius for mythologizing athletes to help sell sneakers, Nike bestrides the world of sport like a marketing colossus
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August 16, 1993

Triumph Of The Swoosh

With a keen sense of the power of sports and a genius for mythologizing athletes to help sell sneakers, Nike bestrides the world of sport like a marketing colossus

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That residents of the Nike-consuming public assumed Knight to be in control of the situation was not difficult to understand. Orchestration, after all, is something Nike does as well as any company in the world. While other sports-apparel companies offered hospitality suites in Barcelona, Nike had converted a nightclub into an elegant ring of quiet, enclosed "pods" in which athletes and other VIPs could relax and chat. The place was full of fax machines and phones and food and, as always, mountains of athletic apparel and shoes to give away. But there was no joy in Barcelona when Jordan and the others decided to take their anti-Reebok stance. Knight complained that the USOC was acting as if he had "a magic wand."

Nike's director of sports marketing, Steve Miller, an ex-Detroit Lion and former athletic director at Kansas State, huddled in Barcelona with the company's chief pro basketball executive, Howard White, who had been a point guard at Maryland in the early '70s and later coached there. Howard talks to Jordan often and says he believes that "Nike and Michael have become inseparable—like one thing, like one family." White knew the public would not understand that Jordan's refusal to budge had roots in a fight Jordan and Nike had been waging against the NBA ever since Jordan turned pro.

Even before that first Air Jordan commercial aired, the league had banned the shoe, and at the All-Star Game seven years later Jordan and Nike were still battling the NBA. The league's caricature T-shirt for the '92 game showed only nine of the 10 All-Star starters because Jordan had legally "taken back his face" and transferred the rights to his likeness and name to the company that was so instrumental in making him universal.

Nike's association with elite U.S. athletes dwarfs that of any other company. Of the 320 or so NBA players, 265 wear Nike shoes, 82 of them by contract. Half the teams that have won the NCAA basketball championship in the past 10 years have worn Nikes, and more than 60 big-time colleges are "Nike schools" because their coaches are Nike coaches. Two hundred seventy-five NFL players wear Nikes, as do 290 major league baseball players. If the medals won by the Nike track and field athletes at Barcelona were added up, Team Nike would have beat out the Unified Team.

The latest annual report from Nike all but drips with corporate attitude, mocking "conventional wisdom" in light of the recent triumphs of various Nike athletes: "No one will ever break [Bob] Beamon's long jump record at sea level, Andre Agassi can't win on grass. Nolan Ryan is too old. Communist athletes won't understand capitalist financial incentives. A black man can never be a good company spokesman in white America."

So while Nike piously proclaims that its mission is to protect the lofty ideals of sport, the company also values iconoclasts with big-time attitudes more than it does any national governing body or league. Nike executives love Barkley, Agassi, John McEnroe, Ilie Nastase and even Deion Sanders—the kinds of athletes that embarrass grown-ups. In the eyes of Nike, the McEnroe many observers consider to be spoiled and immature is, in fact, an anti-elitist thorn in the side of a hidebound tennis establishment. Asked about Sanders's dumping a bucket of water on sportscaster Tim McCarver during last year's baseball playoffs, Nike president Dick Donahue asked, "What's wrong with that?"

When Knight started his business the dominant athletic shoe company was Adidas, an elitist German concern that Nike's founding fathers thought was deeply hooked into corrupt and aristocratic international sports authorities. The Nike guys, on the other hand, were athletes—most of them former competitive runners—and through their athletic pursuits they had acquired "authenticity." The company is powered to this day by a cultlike belief in authenticity. The word is repeated like a mantra in Beaverton. Authentic shoes for authentic athletes.

But for all its reverence of its upstart past, Nike has grown up to be a large and prominent institution. The company's anti-bureaucratic and antiauthoritarian streaks—and even its dedication to gifted athletes who swim against the tide—have lately become obscured at times by the sort of faceless and morally questionable imagery more often associated with corporate Goliaths like Exxon and General Motors. This was never part of the plan.

Only eight weeks after the events in Barcelona, press reports emanating from Charlotte, N.C., revealed another example of Nike's apparently doing business in ways that were typical of other big, profit-minded businesses. Shortly after the Charlotte Hornets had drafted Georgetown's star center, Alonzo Mourning, a reporter aware of Mourning's unusual shoe contract asked Mourning who he would be working for during the coming season. "I work for Nike," said Mourning.

The sports-business grapevine spread the word that Nike was at it again. Before the draft Mourning had signed a revolutionary agreement calling for Nike to pay him a large guaranteed sum to play pro basketball and endorse various products. Mourning says he was more than willing to "let Nike experiment with me," as he later put it, because Nike was the means by which an American athlete becomes what Mourning calls a "household name."

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