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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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Then Knight flashed a huge grin, his ever-present Oakley sunglasses reflecting in silver hues a panorama of the corporate Xanadu before him. At times he has worn hair arrangements reminiscent of Little Lord Fauntleroy, the early Beatles and a 15th-century monk, but these days Knight—with his longish red-blond curls, close-cropped beard and wraparound shades—looks for all the world, at age 55, like a prosperous, if mellowed, rock star. "I hear that people around here say, 'Phil Knight is our Walt Disney, except he's not dead yet,' " he said. "Kind of a compliment and an insult at the same time, I guess."

A few days earlier Knight's personal net worth had increased by nearly $115 million in a single day due to a $4.50 appreciation in Nike's share price on the New York Stock Exchange. Four weeks before that, when Wall Street analysts figured Nike's quarterly earnings would come in lower than their original estimates, the stock price had shed $15 over four days, and the roughly 25 million shares owned by Knight lost close to $390 million in value—a sum surpassing that spent on Nike's legendary TV advertising over the past two years. "The first time the stock lost $12 in a day it shook me up a little," Knight says, "but now I've unlinked that stuff from personal feelings. Those numbers are just...surreal."

Beyond a fountain leading from 48 flagpoles flying the colors of the nations in which Nike conducts business, younger employees could be seen walking to work beneath covered walkways that connect the John McEnroe Building to the Alberto Salazar Building and the Dan Fouts Building and the Bo Jackson Fitness Center beyond it. None of the young soldiers of Nike wore a suit and tie like the boss, and many seemed to be wearing shoes cooked up in the Nike labs—exotic sports sandals or prototype footwear that in one or two cases wound around the lower part of their legs, in the style of Roman centurions.

With its man-made lakes, stands of trees, ribbons of jogging trails and buildings commemorating the life's work of individuals in some cases no older than 35, the Nike campus is like a shrine to quality-of-life and athletic pursuits contrived as a company town. Nike people refer to the world outside as "the biosphere" or "the real world." "Beyond the berm"—a reference to the close-cropped grass knoll surrounding the campus—lies the America Nike serves and "enriches" through sports and fitness. Inside the berm is Nikeworld, where almost everyone is fit and healthy, where the company pays you extra to ride your bike to work instead of driving, where nobody can smoke and where it's quite all right to work out at the Bo Jackson Fitness Center for two hours at lunchtime, because your entire department will probably be at work until nine at night, nose to the grindstone.

The average age of a Nike employee is 31. The Joan Benoit Samuelson Center is occasionally referred to as the student union building, and when Nolan Ryan recently came to the World Campus for the dedication of the building that bears his name, only a small crowd was present for a ceremony featuring the pitcher because only employees older than 40 were invited.

On campus, employees can get a haircut, do their laundry, get a massage or a complete fitness evaluation, buy Nike products and even shop in a store stocked with the kinds of items appreciated by spouses or children who haven't seen a long-laboring loved one in a while. Carloads of Nike children can be seen being hauled around the Mike Schmidt Building on their way to the Joe Paterno Day Care Center.

Despite the company's startling youthfulness, innumerable employees talk of having opted for a new or second life in Beaverton. "I taught English...." "I'm a reformed accountant...." "I was drafted by the Chargers, but then I blew out my knee...." There are former lawyers who once wrote Nike's briefs, former editors of trade magazines who once covered the company, former politicos and a lot of former vagabonds and ski bums. One executive, David Rikert, is a former Harvard Business School professor who once wrote a case study about Nike.

Former pro and college athletes, former Olympians and near-Olympians, work on every floor of every building. Former distance runner Alberto Salazar works down the hall from Rudy Chapa, another world-class runner who occasionally beat Salazar during their college days. Company road races and bike races are often won in near-world-class times. The sheer athleticism of the corporate culture makes nonjock employees feel the need to follow teams and scores as a matter of protective coloration.

After several rounds of grueling interviews, a recent candidate for an important job managing Nike's environmental programs, a former government official with both a Ph.D. and a law degree, was told by a member of the selection committee that he had just one more question: "Who's Deion Sanders?"

"Well, I don't really know," the candidate replied.

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