Lessons from the Biggest Deal Nike Ever Made
If you haven’t been to a movie theater recently, you might have missed Air, a film covering Nike’s landmark deal with Michael Jordan and the unconventional path to closing it. Starring Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, and Viola Davis, Air digs into the business of signing professional athletes to endorsement deals. To summarize the film (spoilers ahead), Nike is a small fish in the basketball pond, tertiary to giants Converse and Adidas. They plan to spread their marketing budget over three less-impressive players, but their talent scout believes in Jordan’s greatness and convinces the CEO to go all-in.
Nike’s scout takes an unconventional approach to convincing the Jordan family, heading straight to their front door with an earnest plea for a meeting. This unheard-of strategy and several of the messages presented throughout the film are worth examining, so here are the takeaways from the deal that made Jordan the richest athlete ever (valued at over $3B).
First and most obvious is to break norms and think outside the box. Nike’s scout Sonny Vaccaro goes against the company’s recommendation, breaking the plan of action, and commits an unheard-of act, heading straight to an in-person visit. He circumvents the agent (conventional methods) and risks ruining any chances they had.
Next, Vaccaro has seen hundreds of hours of player highlights on tape. He’s lived and breathed high school and college basketball for months by the time the marketing team is ready to make a move. He knows every player, on and off the court as well as he can. But inspiration strikes after another rewatch of Jordan’s tournament-winning shot. He dares to dream, to believe that he can land Jordan.
This leads nicely to the next point, stay open to possibilities. Jordan was heavily committed to his first two choices and had no interest in Nike, rebuffing all their advances. Everyone knew it, too, from Vaccaro to Jordan’s agent to Nike. They had no chance, but Sonny’s dream was bigger than that.
This dream would’ve cost Vaccaro his job and likely shuttered the basketball division at Nike. But he had a gut feeling that wouldn’t go away, and that was contagious to his team. Everyone bought into his dream, from marketing to product design to customer relations, even the most reluctant executive.
This didn’t mean Vaccaro put his team on the line without full knowledge of the risks. He knew that he needed to succeed, or things would quickly crumble. However, he carefully assembled his team, and everyone bought in. They came together as a team ahead of the Jordan meeting, each one playing their part. They collaborated on the iconic shoe design, the name, and every step of the meeting, from greeting at the door to sharing the final offer.
This game plan stemmed from a deep understanding of the customer’s needs. The Jordan family wanted a secure future for Michael and a business relationship founded on respect. The ideal relationship would work for mutual benefit in the long term. Vaccaro knew Nike could deliver this better than any competitor and demonstrated his understanding of Adidas and Converse well, predicting their cookie-cutter approach perfectly.
To this end, Mrs. Jordan makes a bold call. She asks for a percent of the revenue of every shoe sold under the Jordan brand. This was unheard of, unprecedented, and unlikely. Of course, Nike was hesitant, as changing the business model would open the entire industry to similar deals. Yet still, they believed in Jordan and the investment, so they embraced change. And in case you don’t know, it paid off to the tune of around $5B in 2022 alone.
In summary, these are the tools to add to your toolbox from Air:
- Break norms and think outside the box.
- Dare to dream and stick to it.
- Open up to possibilities, even ones that seem impossible.
- Trust your gut and believe in your ideas.
- Understand what your customer wants and deliver it.
- Change can be scary but elevates your company.
- Nurture a team and commit to a common goal.
- Be aware of your responsibilities as a leader.
How you choose to use these tools will vary, and they won’t always apply, but the audacity and creativity displayed by Vaccaro and Nike serve as excellent examples. Take what you can from their efforts and be inspired in your situation. You never know when an opportunity will present itself.
Todd Miller has spent his entire career in the metal building products manufacturing industry. He is president of Isaiah Industries, an organization recognized as one of the world’s leading metal roofing manufacturers. Todd is currently Vice President of the MRA (Metal Roofing Association) and a Past Chair of MCA (Metal Construction Association). Through his website, he strives to raise the bar on standards and practices to provide property owners with the best possible products for successful roofing projects.
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