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How Did a Player Become a Brand? Michael Jordan and the NBA

19 Feb 2021   ·   

Michael Jordan is not history. Or maybe he is, but he certainly does not belong to the past, especially not his trainers, the first merchandising product linked to a sports star that paved the way for the creation of global brands from singular players’ names. Today, the milestone is not the launch of Nike basketball trainers in 1984, called Air Jordan. The milestone is that, in 2020, they once again experienced a sales boom in the sports goods market. The reasons why this has occurred in the year in which fewer sports competitions have taken place, has a lot to do with the two reasons which made the Jordan brand succeed. The first one being the strong feeling street kids experience when they wear the trainers: they transfer the player’s prestige to themselves. The second refers to the fact that they tell a story separated from that of sports, a story linked to the heart of society, and the fans outside the stadium.

In fact, the Air Jordan started in colour red, white and a drop of black to follow the NBA regulations. All the official trainers had to be 51% white. For a long time, that colour was like the tie for the suit, a must-have complement. However, Michael Jordan made an exception to the rule wearing red and black trainers, his team’s colours, the Chicago Bulls. He wore them three times, in three pre-season games that caused the club to be fined 15,000 dollars by the NBA, and the obligation to ban them. This led to Nike’s advert with the motto “they cannot stop you from wearing them in the streets”. This also encouraged Michael Jordan, who wanted to reach his fans beyond the league and the team. Fewer things would have been a greater trigger for the black audience who bought the trainers than prohibitions, associated with police persecution and racism. An African American wearing colourful Jordan trainers in the streets, transmitted the idea that it was also possible for them to live the American dream.

This social detail is significant because it established another characteristic of sports brands linked to players that is followed globally today. They create a brand of their own with their name and fame, sales guarantee, regardless of where they play, whether they change teams or country of residence. Even sponsorship brands, such as the case of the footballer, Neymar, who has a contract with Puma which started last December. The brand strongly believes they can break through as a benchmark for sports clothes in football by capitalising and appealing to the Brazilian’s fans. Although Michael Jordan is still the benchmark, especially when looking at the numbers. His brand, Jordan, renders billion of  dollars for Nike annually.

How is it possible that a player who retired in 2003 can still create such revenue? Even more, how is it possible that his flagship product made it back to the top of the sales chart in 2020?

Michael Jordan and Nike have created, over the decades, a strategy in which the player would appear and disappear during periods of enough time so as to connect with a new generation. The people who bought his trainers in the 80s were pleased to take their children to the cinema to watch Space Jam. A film in which the player competed with Looney Tunes characters, sharing the screen with Bugs Bunny. Its extraordinary merchandising triggered once more the demand for the clothes Jordan wore in the film. Of course, the sports goods, but also other items with a logo that became very popular, the Jumpman, Jordan’s silhouette jumping to score. If all this were not enough, Jordan had come back to the NBA after his first withdrawal.

The return to the playing field has always been accompanied by a promotion that makes fans feel prestigious for wearing Jordan’s clothes. After Space Jam in 1996, the player returned for the second time to the NBA in 2001, donating his whole salary to the 9/11 victims. He wasn’t the spectacular, brilliant player from the 80s, but now he was the person fans wanted to feel represented by when wearing the clothes signed with his name. In 2020, he made a comeback thanks to the Netflix documentary miniseries, “The Last Dance”. It is about the player’s last season in the Chicago Bulls, 1997-1998, and once again he has been able to connect with the younger generations.

Moreover, Jordan has accompanied this return with a rather unique demonstration considering his career. Unlike many of his teammates, he has always advocated that no player should make political statements, selling this idea in the NBA in the face of Colin Kaepernick’s controversy. This is why people who buy his merchandising may come from different types of ideology, even Trump supporters. Michael Jordan changed his mind, like the American basketball league, in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement. And it was not just that. After George Floyd’s death, suffocated by an excessive police brutality, he announced he would donate 100 million dollars to institutions that fight against racism during the next ten years.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the brand Jordan is still successful, and still leading the way for those players who want to create their own product lines and brands. The emotional connection with fans in the playing field is as important as the involvement with their problems outside of it. What kid does not dream about becoming a star or a superheroe? Even if it involves a simple gesture such as wearing sport trainers. Jordan has been able to live up to that ideal for those who have become adults, and he has been doing so generation after generation since 1984.


Martín Sacristán


Building the future of the sports industry