How Nike Changed the Game — Final Paper

Mike Natale
How Nike Changed The Game

In the 1980s great athletes became celebrities through cross branding and marketing. No two athletes in the world were more recognizable and marketable than Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson. Nike capitalized on these two men and signed them to deals that eventually would change sports and culture forever. These signings did more than shape how the future athlete would be marketed; it made two black men great idols for Americas’ youth. As seen in class, leading up to the ‘80s, black people were rarely portrayed in movies, television, and advertisements. Through Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, Nike was able to recast black masculinity into a phenomenal athletic role. By signing the two most recognizable faces in the sports world and turning them worldwide superstars, Nike changed the game forever in the 1980s.
Michael Jordan is commonly referred to as the greatest basketball player of all time. Jordan burst onto the worldwide basketball scene in 1984. In that one year he made the USA Olympic Basketball team, was drafted by the Chicago Bulls, and signed a massive deal with Nike. Over the next decade plus Jordan would go on to dominate the sport of basketball. Six NBA championships, five NBA MVPs, a Rookie of the Year award, two Olympic gold medals, and 14 All-Star games later Michael Jordan is arguably the most decorated and recognized athlete of all time (Editors 2015).
After a legendary collegiate basketball career, Michael Jordan was selected third overall in the 1984 NBA draft (Editors 2015). Every professional team wanted to get Jordan, and so did every endorsement company. Nike beat out the other top athletic sneaker companies at the time such as Adidas, Converse, and Reebok to sign Michael Jordan, the rookie, to a record-breaking five-year deal worth $500,000 per year. Shortly before the commencement of his inaugural season in the NBA, Nike released the Air Jordan I sneaker. Nike marketed these sneakers, through the help of Jordan, on television commercials, billboards, and advertisements in print. The NBA tried to ban theses sneakers due to lack of color uniformity, but Jordan continued to wear them. The NBA fined Jordan $5,000 for every game that he wore the Air Jordans. He wore them all 82 games of his rookie season and Nike covered the over $400,000 in fines(Rovell 2013). Through the marketing of Jordan simply wearing the sneakers in games, the first pair of Air Jordans instantly became an iconic sneaker. Nike realized the capital that could be made through marketing Jordan and they took off with it. From 1984 to the current day Michael Jordan is one of the most famous athletes in the world due to the deal he signed with Nike and the infamous “Jumpman” logo on Air Jordans.
Towards the end of the ‘80s another world-class athlete burst onto the scene. Bo Jackson, widely recognized as the greatest athlete of all time, was drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 1986 NFL draft. He initially turned down a career in professional football to play Major League Baseball for the Kansas City Royals. In 1987 he signed a contract with the Los Angeles Raiders of the NFL to officially become a two-sport professional athlete. Not only did Bo Jackson play two professional sports, he dominated in each. Nike saw this superstar in the making and signed the multi-sport Jackson in 1989 before the MLB season to a contract worth $100,000 per year (Daily 1995). He was named to the MLB All-Star game in 1989 and then to the NFL Pro-Bowl in 1990 (Flatter 2004). However, it was in the 1989 MLB All-Star game when Nike and Bo Jackson had their most monumental and turning moment. Bo Jackson led the game off with a monstrous home run, and then in between innings the legendary “Bo Knows” Nike commercial aired (Banks 2015). This was the start of one of the most important marketing campaigns of all time.
Nike and Michael Jordan paired up to unleash one of the most powerful marketing and advertising campaigns ever. This was not the first time an athlete had their own sneaker, but it was the first time that a major company capitalized on the athlete’s stardom. Shortly after signing with Nike, Jordan was all over TV, magazines, newspapers, and billboards. Kids everywhere were trying to “Be like Mike.” The first commercial Nike aired with Jordan was brilliant in that it captured what was so special about the early Jordan phenomenon. A voice simply said, “On September 15th Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18th the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them. Air Jordans from Nike” (Prather 2013). This was being said the camera panned down Michael Jordan from head to toe until stopping on his sneakers. This commercial was simple and brilliant. This was the first drop of the storm waiting to be unleashed by Nike’s marketing groups.
As previously stated, Bo Jackson was an unbelievable athlete. Big, strong, fast, powerful, and all natural, Bo Jackson was a specimen of a human. When interviewing my uncle, who spent his late teens and early twenties in the ‘80s, he praised Bo Jackson’s athletic ability; he noted that people used to refer to Jackson as “the modern day Hercules.” Nike knew that Jackson was a once in a lifetime athlete and they also knew that after signing Bo they were sitting on a gold mine. Bo Jackson could not have set up the initial Nike campaign any better. After crushing the lead off homerun in the All-Star game, one of Nike’s most iconic commercials to date aired. “Bo Knows” was the slogan Nike chose to use, and it worked much better than anyone expected. The “Bo Knows” commercial featured the multi-sport athlete himself playing and excelling at every major sport alongside the top athletes in the respective sport. After each clip of Jackson playing the sport it said, “Bo Knows.” For example, after quickly showing Jackson playing basketball, the camera panned to Michael Jordan who said, “Bo Knows basketball” (Schlemmer 2012). Bo Jackson appeared to be able to do anything that required athletic ability.
The “Bo Knows” commercial portrayed Bo Jackson as a man amongst boys in the sports world. The product this ad was selling was the Bo Jackson Nike cross-trainer sneaker. This was the perfect form of marketing, as Nike saw the sneakers fly off the shelves. It was said that, “If a perfect game is the pinnacle of achievement in baseball, then “Bo Knows” was like doing it with your eyes closed and your non-dominant hand”(Banks 2015). The commercial was a major success. Eventually it led to billboards, advertisements in magazines, and apparel with the saying “Bo Knows.” In the first year of selling the Bo Jackson endorsed cross-trainer sneakers, they outsold the iconic Air Jordan Is. My uncle made sure to tell me that he owned a pair of each the Air Jordan I and the Bo Jackson cross-trainers after being persuaded by the commercials. These commercials, “Bo Knows” and the Air Jordan, did more than turn Nike into an athletic clothing powerhouse. “The phenomenal success of Bo Jackson’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign and (Chicago Bulls guard) Michael Jordan’s ‘Air Jordan’ campaigns clearly shoed that these black athletes were just as marketable and perhaps more marketable than white athletes” (The Christian Science Monitor 1990). The marketing displayed both of these men in their natural athletic role while at the same time shaping how the country viewed black masculinity.
Through the help of Nike’s massive marketing campaign behind Jordan and Jackson, they shaped the views of black masculinity. Before Nike took off with these two superstars, black men had regularly been displayed in more negative roles. Viewers to the pre-Nike marketing hysteria saw the black man in advertisements being portrayed as “comic, violent, savage or primitive and hypersexual” (Dufur 1997). Once Nike started to heavily market these two athletes, Jordan in ’85 and Jackson in ’89, they almost single handedly shaped how America saw black masculinity. “The Jordan campaign is often cited as the advertising coup that convinced Madison Avenue that black athletes could sell to both black and white America” (Dufur 1997). Because of Nike, the mid to late ‘80s was the first time that black athletes became superstars in both white and black communities.
As Dylan A. T. Miner wrote in his essay, “Provocations on Sneakers,” “shoes have been one of the primary clothing items associated with masculinity” (Miner 2009). Nike was selling shoes through Jordan and Jackson. These men were the visual sight of what black masculinity should be. The youth and young adults, mainly black, were the target audience for Nike in these athletic sneaker advertisements. The youth saw both Jordan and Jackson as someone that they should try and emulate. Nike created these men to appear invincible and god-like. Brian Wilson and Robert Sparks discussed the youth viewing the athletes Nike advertisements as role models. “The athlete appeared to be a reference point, defining a style that further influenced their masculine identity” (Wilson, Sparks 2010). Needless to say, Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson were idolized and emulated throughout the youth in America. The majority of the youth were wearing either the Air Jordan I or the Bo Jackson cross-trainer. They were wearing these sneakers because both of these men were looked up to and regarded highly throughout all of American society. This can all be credited to the genius marketing campaigns done for each athlete by Nike.
Michael Jordan was not the first African-American to become a huge celebrity from his fame in athletics. Many black athletes before him had become famous, but Michael Jordan and Nike took this fame to another level. Nike signed Michael Jordan at the perfect time. The 1980s was when marketing, media, and branding were starting to rapidly expand. Jordan was heavily marketed by Nike, and was the first athlete that both the black and white communities could look up to in the same way. Alan Greenberg’s article in a 1990 edition of the Hartford Courant explained this Jordan phenomenon perfectly, “There has probably never been an athlete so universally liked by all segments of the ethnic quilt that is America. Never has a black athlete been so loved in the white community without losing any of his godliness in the black community” (Greenberg 1990). Jordan was one of the fiercest competitors ever, but outside of basketball was clean cut, polite, trouble free, and respected. Michael Jordan became a serious role model for kids of all race, class, and upbringing. “Be like Mike” was one of Nike clichés in the Jordan marketing campaign. The saying caught on and eventually most of the American youth was trying to “Be like Mike.” This process of being like Michael Jordan first started by purchasing a pair of Nike Air Jordan Is.
Over time, Michael Jordan became one of the most influential humans to ever play a sport. Starting in his rookie year and continuing for the next 15 plus years, Jordan was the face of basketball. He was looked upon as more than a celebrity or superstar athlete. Jordan was an American symbol. Robert Gilbert created what he called “The Jordan Mythos,” defined as, “The upward trajectory, the jubilant defiance of the grip of mere matter, the air of invincibility, the invincibility of air; Jordan is, for all his muscle and sweat, the last image our century is likely to give us of pure unbound spirit… Jordan more than any other athlete symbolizes the kind of individual transcendence that has lain at the heart of American culture and ideology” (Kiuchi 2013). Michael Jordan was an amazing basketball player that Nike turned into a basketball God.
Nike did not stop in the 1980s with the “Be like Mike” campaign. Later in the decade Bo Jackson came along, and was an instant star because of his natural athletic ability. After becoming one of the only athletes to excel in multiple professional sports in the past half-century, Nike had something special up their sleeve. Jackson appeared in the “Bo Knows” marketing campaign for the newest and hottest commodity, the cross-trainer sneaker. This was the perfect sneaker and athlete marketing combination. Bo Jackson could seemingly do anything athletically with ease. These sneakers were marketed to be able to do anything an athlete desires.
The Nike “Bo Knows” campaign turned a young Bo Jackson into an American icon. Michael Jordan laid the pathway and Bo took off running on it. Because of the prior success Nike had with the Air Jordan marketing campaigns, they did the same with Bo Jackson. Kids were idolizing Jackson the same way they did Jordan a few years prior. Although Jordan was still on top of the basketball and Nike world, Jackson was on top of the sports world. He was viewed as the most masculine, natural, athletic, charming, and personable athlete in the world. Jackson did countless charity events, stayed out of trouble, stayed clean, and excelled in sports. Bo Jackson was a true role model in every sense of the word.
After interviewing someone that spent their late teens to early twenties in the Jordan and Jackson era it is clear to see how big of an impact these two athletes had on America’s youth. Referred to multiple times as the greatest to ever play, Michael Jordan is just as famous with the millennial generation as he is with the teens of the ‘80s. Bo Jackson was called a “human highlight reel” and was my uncles favorite athlete of all time to watch play. Nike is a much larger company now than it was about 30 years ago, due in large part to the immediate and long-term success of the Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson marketing campaigns. They both still play a large part in Nike’s marketing as well as in American culture.
When Nike, “[went] from using Michael Jordan as an advertisement to using him as an icon to whom its consumers could emulate”(Kiuchi 2013), the idea of a black athlete being idolized by youth of all races came to fruition. Through the genius marketing and branding of athletic sneakers, Nike became the world leader in athletic clothing and footwear. “Sneakers represented one’s status, class, race, and other forms of identity… they represented masculine identity” (Kiuchi 2013). Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson became the faces of American sports. They were the two most recognizable athletes in the world at the time, due to both their athletic accomplishments as well as their marketing with Nike. Sneakers became a form of masculine identity, and the sneakers that everyone wanted were either Air Jordans or the Bo Jackson cross-trainers. These shoes did more than their practical purpose. The sneakers made kids emulate Jordan and Jackson, black athletes, as well as connect their masculine identities to these two men. This was the first time in history that American youth, of any race, were idolizing and trying to do what black athletes were doing. To this day, over 25 years later, Jordan and Jackson are still idolized throughout American culture. To quote the classic movie The Sandlot, “heroes are remembered, legends never die” (The Sandlot 1993). Nike changed the game forever by signing and marketing Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson.

Works Cited
Banks, Alec. 2015. “Behind the Swoosh: The Anatomy of Nike’s ‘Bo Knows’ Campaign.” Highsnobiety. Accessed December 15.
Brian Wilson, Robert Sparks. 2010. “‘It’s Gotta Be the Shoes’: Youth, Race, and Sneaker Commercials.” Human Kinetics Journals. April 21.
Daily, Sports Business. 1995. “Bo Jackson, Out of Sports and Done with Nike.” April 5.
Dufur, Mikaela. 1997. “Race Logic and ‘Being Like Mike’: Representations of Athletes in Advertising, 1985-1994.” Sociological Focus 30 (4): 345–56.
Editors, 2015. “Michael Jordan Biography.” Accessed December 16.
Evans, David M. 1993. The Sandlot. Comedy, Drama, Family.
Flatter, Ron. 2004. “Bo Ran over Bosworth in ’87.” October 26.
Greenberg, Alan. 1990. “Jordan: Consummate Role Model.” The Hartford Courant (1923-1990), July 28, sec. Regional.
Kiuchi, Yuya. 2013. It’s About the Shoe: Nike and the Endless Sneaker Wars. ABC-CLIO.
Miner, Dylan A. T. 2009. “Provocations on Sneakers: The Multiple Significations of Athletic Shoes, Sport, Race, and Masculinity.” CR: The New Centennial Review 9 (2): 73–107.
Prather, Scott. 2013. “Every Air Jordan Commercial Ever, From First To Last [Video].” September 10.
Rovell, Darren. 2013. “How Nike Landed Michael Jordan.” February 15.
Schlemmer, Zack. 2012. “Classic Commercial: Bo Knows!” Sole Collector. November 30.
The Christian Science Monitor (pre-1997 Fulltext). 1990. “Superathletes as Supersalesmen Football and Baseball Star Bo Jackson’s Endorsements Raise Questions of Black Role Models: [All Edition],” November 23.

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