Lately, there's been nothing short of hyperbole surrounding a few notions of Michael Jordan. He's turning 50. OK! He's being compared to Lebron James (and vice-versa). OK! I see this as a result of a slow news cycle -- I mean, football season is over. I get it. But examining the vignettes associated with MJ's birthday this past weekend, I was able to glean a point of inspiration that was perhaps less obvious than a career of clutch performances. Or was it? Once upon a time, Jordan was king of basketball and the world was his oyster. The Chicago Bulls had just completed a three-peat. Nike was cranking out Air Jordans (and had been for some time), selling them all over the world to a culture of hypebeasts. The merchandising of Jordan was unprecedented and would forever reshape the world of sports marketing.
And then Michael retired. We know now that he came back (for another three-peat!), but at the time it was unexpected and almost unbelievable that he would walk away, and he made it sound so convincing. For many, it was time to shelve a multitude of basketball memories alongside ten versions of the Air Jordan and wait for the next big thing. But that was before the team behind Air Jordan had a say in things.
Photo courtesy of Nike
"I started designing the Air Jordan XI during Michael's first retirement — I kept saying he would un-retire. People at Nike gave me a hard time, so I wanted to show those assholes that we could make the best Jordans ever. The XI was the first basketball shoe to have a carbon-fiber plate in the sole and patent leather. By the time I showed Michael, he'd started playing again."
~ Tinker Hatfield
And so it began. Again and again. Hatfield and his design team worked on engineering a shoe they had every reason to believe might never be produced. And per Tinker's quote, they didn't aim low. They aimed to create the best that had ever been designed. Many still argue that the XI is one of the most pivotal Air Jordan designs in the line's illustrious history.
So instead of hanging it up, the designers stuck to their guns and innovated their way to a new solution worthy of production. And as it turns out, it was also worthy of un-retiring. Years later we see multiple athletes now signed to the Jumpman line with shoes and all sorts of gear being churned out for the inner athlete in all of us. One could argue a lifetime of clutch performances, or designs, has risen from the dust of Jordan's first retirement.
Some compelling stats about the seemingly "doomed" Air Jordan:
+ According to UBS, Jordan Brand sales increased 89% year over year in 2012 + The Jordan brand controlled 58% of all basketball shoes sold in the US in 2012 + LeBron James is the top-seller among current players with shoe deals -- Jordan still outsells him 6 to 1
Looking at this story of design and gumption, one might assume sticking to one's guns can often pay off ridiculously well. That's true. But it's duly noted that it doesn't always work out so well -- see any list of other athletes who received shoe contracts that lost money for the labels. It would also seem that we never know where new opportunities will surface. All of this seems to point to instinct. Trust yourself. Trust your vision. At its origin, the allure of the Jordan brand was all about the shoes. In the end, it became a full line of unexpected offerings, a full-fledged brand. Take a look at espn.com from earlier this week.
They call it XX8. So instead of poking holes in the process, I'm happy to imagine the scene when the team said to one another, "It's time to fly."
Dave Alsobrooks, Partner
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