There are so many chance factors in the story of Nike, it’s a miracle the brand exists. In the late 1950s, Phil Knight was a mediocre runner on the track team at the University of Oregon. His coach, Bill Bowerman, was intensely competitive and fascinated with tinkering with his runners shoes in order to give them an edge. Knight was the first one to try one of Bowerman’s creations, improving his track time significantly. After graduating from the University of Oregon, Knight continued his education at Stanford, graduating in 1962. Shortly after, Knight took a trip to Japan, striking a deal with the Onitsuka Tiger company to bring its shoes to the United States. These sneakers would be sold under the new company he owned along with Bowerman, Blue Ribbon Sports.
In 1965, Bowerman proposed a new shoe design to Onitsuka Tiger, featuring a cushioned insole and rubber outsole. The shoe was released in 1967 under the name Tiger Cortez and was an instant success. Ultimately, the Cortez created a rift between the two companies, formally parting ways after a 1971 lawsuit ruled that both companies could sell the shoe. Following the split, Blue Ribbon Sports rebranded as Nike, taking its name from the Greek goddess of victory.
A rebrand was cause for a new logo. Portland State University design student Carolyn Davis was asked to provide sketches. Phil Knight reluctantly chose what we now know as the Swoosh, representing a rush of active motion and the wings of the brand’s namesake goddess.
After officially establishing itself as Nike, Inc. on May 30, 1971, Bowerman had another innovative idea regarding running shoe technology. Inspired by the grooves in his waffles, Bowerman realized the pattern could give Nike’s running shoes better traction. The idea of the “waffle trainer” was born. The shoe was a major success for Nike as the company grew steadily through the 1970s.
The 1980s proved to be an even more successful decade for Nike, as it introduced models now-classic models like the Air Force 1 and Air Max 1. In addition, Nike began endorsing and making signature shoes for athletes outside of the track and field business where the brand had made its name. Nike signed NFL superstar Bo Jackson, tennis phenom André Agassi and—perhaps the most lucrative endorsement deal of all time—NBA legend Michael Jordan. Although Jordan desperately wanted to sign with Adidas, Nike was able to sign the flashy guard to a lucrative deal that it would soon recoup on. The Air Jordan 1 was an immediate success, spawning a still-running line of signature sneakers. The Jordan brand has since made billions for Nike as a subsidiary.
The 1990s made it clear that Nike was king. In addition to Jordan, the Swoosh’s Air Max and ACG lines—on top of endorsement deals with athletes like Deion Sanders, Charles Barkley and Penny Hardaway—brought in a unstoppable trail desirable products (and revenue, of course).
Today, most of Nike’s most sought-after sneakers and apparel have nothing to do with its roster of athletes, and everything to do with its roster of recording artists and fashion designers. What was once a domain ruled by athletes now is dominated by rappers and creative directors. Even still Nike has made sure it’s name is attached to both. With a team that includes Drake, Travis Scott, Virgil Abloh and more, Nike has proven yet again that it’s playing to win.
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