For many Nike fans, it may seem like the brand has been around forever. But in fact, the last week of January marked 60 years since the company was founded.
The emergence of the brand in 1964 occurred when several other big sports shoe brands were already well established. Adidas, for example, will be celebrating its centenary in July, while Puma, founded when Rudolf Dassler broke away from his brother Adi, dates from 1948.
Given that by 1964 rival firms had already had their footwear and other kit worn by many successful and high-profile teams and individuals across the sporting landscape, a new entrant like Nike faced a lot of challenges to establish itself. It was by no means sure that it would one day become one of the world’s most recognisable and sought-after brands.
How It All Began
The history of Nike comprises two things; on the one hand, there are obvious dates of foundation, relocation, and the creation and reinvention of names, logos and slogans. But the second, so much more important, is the products; those iconic sports shoes that have taken the brand to the next level.
In 1964, the new company’s name wasn’t even Nike. Blue Ribbon Sports was co-founded by former University of Oregon athlete Phil Knight and his old coach there, Bill Bowerman. The initiative had arisen after Knight had visited the Onitsuka (now Asics) factory in Japan in 1962 and had subsequently helped distribute the Onitsuka Tiger signature shoe in the US.
Working in partnership with Onitsuka They were to create their own version of the Tiger, the Tiger Cortez in 1967. But after splitting with the Japanese firm in 1971, Blue Riband was renamed Nike. Needing a new logo, the firm had one designed; the now iconic swoosh.
Nike now had the name, the logo and from 1980 it was a public company. But it was still far from a big success. All that changed in 1984 because of its dealings with one man: Michael Jordan.
How Jordan Became The Game Changer
The partnership between Nike and Jordan is one of the greatest success stories of modern sports. It made the sneakers made for the NBA star, the Nike Air Jordan range, among the most collectible footwear on the planet. But it was never a certainty.
In one of the most successful gambles in the history of business, Nike invested the whole of its $250,000 marketing budget for basketball on one rookie player. While Jordan had been outstanding in college basketball, there was no guarantee the 21-year-old would make it in the big league. To build a brand around one player was a big roll of the dice.
This reality and the success that arose from it have been immortalised in the film Air, although there were some clauses that protected the $2.5 million contract Nike offered to beat off rivals Converse to Jordan’s signature.
These included being named in the all-star team, winning ‘Rookie of the Year’, scoring 20 points a game, or making $4 million in sales to get the cash. (in the event, sales hit $70 million within two months).
While these clauses show Nike didn’t quite bet the farm on Jordan, the fact the company was struggling meant it would never be the name it is today if the gamble hadn’t come off. When it did, this made possible the building of a brand that broke new ground in sports shoe marketing.
Enter The Collectible Jordan
In the end, however compelling the performance of Jordan was on the court, it was the innovation of Nike designers that helped the company capitalise. The Air Jordan range has got larger and larger. Classics include the Air Max 2090 and Air Max 200 winter shoes, the women’s 97 Air Max and the Junior Nike Air Max 90.
These and many more Air and Air Max sneakers propelled Nike to the top of the sportswear ladder. It was not just Michael Jordan who would be associated with the brand. As the company produced legendary marketing moves such as the 1988 “Just Do It” campaign, other top stars started to come on board.
The Brand Widens
Among them have been other NHA stars like LeBron James (who, like Jordan, signed as a rookie in 2003), golf legend Tiger Woods (who joined in the year he turned pro, in 1996), tennis superstar Rafael Nadal and legendary footballer Cristiano Ronaldo.
Arguably, of these Ronaldo has been the biggest asset since Jordan, with his active social media presence and vast fanbase that extends beyond (and is sometimes at odds with) the fans of clubs he has played for, including three of the world’s biggest - Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus.
Manchester United themselves had 13 years of kit deals with Nike and while that partnership has been discontinued, other major clubs are on the Nike roster, such as Liverpool and Paris St-Germain.
Why Sneakers Stand Out From Other Nike Products
However, there is a difference; while football kit launches tend to gain interest mainly from fans of the clubs involved (and happen during the summer break between seasons), there will be many who buy the new shirt just because of the team it represents.
For connoisseurs of the best Nike sneakers, however, there is a greater focus on design, from new innovations and novel flourishes to retro features they may recognise well. Also, because there is no ‘off-season’ when launches come, new product drops can happen at various times, generating lots of excitement beforehand and when each big reveal comes.
The Latest Drops
There have been some very exciting drops in just the last few months. In November, the Nike Alphafly 3 dropped, a new Nike Air Zoom shoe designed to harness a combination of Nike Air technology with Nike X foam to provide the ultimate marathon runner’s shoe.
During development, these shoes helped Nike’s Kelvin Kiptum achieve a new men’s marathon record of 2:00.35, which suggests it could be a Nike athlete who achieves the Marathon equivalent of the four-minute mile.
Basketball fans keen to see more developments in the Air Jordan legacy may be impressed by the Tatum 2, Jayson Tatum’s second signature shoe, which was released on Christmas Day and features echoes of the 1990s Hoop shoes.
According to Sneaker Freaker, there will be lots of exciting new drops in 2024, and promises a ‘big year’ for Air Max, including a return of the OFG in silhouette form.After 60 years, Nike is going from strength to strength, with the 61st sure to bring plenty more to get excited about.