scorecardresearchMoney Lessons From ‘Air’: A story about how Nike signed the greatest player

Money Lessons From ‘Air’: A story about how Nike signed the greatest player in the world

Updated: 14 May 2023, 12:45 PM IST

  • Michael Jordan’s mother knew his potential. Today Michael Jordan makes $400 million a year from the deal his mother helped make.

When Nike invested in Michael Jordan, they made one of their best decisions of all time.

When Nike invested in Michael Jordan, they made one of their best decisions of all time.

Our nation is cricket mad, and we have the world’s best players who make magic in stadiums that draw 80,000 people in person and the rest watch them play, chanting their names. But there are some of us who grew up singing a different anthem: Be like Mike.

Michael Jordan or MJ who grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, is a living legend. As a rookie in 1984-85, he averaged 33 points a game. Fans like me ignored the impending school exams to watch the 1982 basketball final where he showed us how he could fly. Basketball record books are filled with his name and he started as Rookie Of The Year to the Most Valuable Player for seven consecutive seasons. But this you can see should you wish to search for his name on your phone.

When I watched Air on Amazon Prime Video, I knew MJ had lessons to teach us about our money. The film stars Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Jason Bateman and Viola Davis. This is the story of Nike Corporation and how they signed Michael Jordan as their basketball star and created a legend.

When you’re no 3, you try harder.

Apologies to advertising legend Bill Bernbach for stealing his line. This film takes us back to 1984, when Apple had introduced their Macintosh, cabbage patch dolls ruled and yes, the Boss had released his iconic Born In The USA. In that year, Converse and Adidas dominated the market and Nike was a distant third in the market. They made running shoes. Sonny Vaccaro (played by Matt Damon) has been struggling to make Nike’s basketball division work. He says at a strategy meeting: what’s the point in investing in number 6 (of the draft pick of basketball teams), when we know they are not going to do anything for the brand. Why shouldn’t we aim for Michael Jordan who is at number 3? Why should we invest our money in three players who are just okay, instead of betting all the money on one sure shot winner?

This money lesson is radical, but then when Nike invested in Michael Jordan, they made one of their best decisions of all time… And yes, Nike ended up buying Converse.

You win their Moms, you win them.

Salim-Javed wrote: “Mere paas Ma hai”, and created history. And maybe you don’t take advice on how to manage your money from your mom, but the film shows us how astute Michael’s mum was in 1984. She realised his potential and put forth a proposition to Nike. Sure, call these shoes Air Jordan, but for every shoe you sell with my son’s name on it, Michael gets a percentage.

Phil Knight, the CEO of Nike (played by Ben Affleck) has to make a decision. They get to sign a player like Michael Jordan, and he gets a percent of sales of his shoes. He is like most of us: how many shoes will we sell with his name on it? He knows Nike has been a running shoe company so far. So he agrees.

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They sold $162 million worth of Air Jordan’s just that year! Michael Jordan’s mother knew his potential. Today Michael Jordan makes $400 million a year from the deal his mother helped make. Maybe we could all learn to trust people who love us and believe in us a bit more. Who knows where we could reach?

When the stakes are high, learn to take that big leap.

The man who designed the Air Jordans is Peter Moore. NBA had a rule that stated: 51% of the shoe design had to be white. But Nike wanted to create a red and white shoe, with more red in it. NBA would fine players $5000 per game for breaking rules. Rob Strasser, the Marketing head at Nike, said that they would pay the fine but Michael would wear the red shoe. It would make great advertising and his rebellious stand would earn Nike a different kind of respect.

What a team: Phil Knight, Rob Strasser, Howard White (one of the founding fathers and current vice president of the Air Jordan division at Nike) take a leap of faith when Sonny Vaccaro bets his reputation on Michael Jordan who at that time had not even set foot on the NBA court. They put an entire year’s budget on a player who proved their adage right: It is not the shoe, it is the man who steps into the shoe that makes it what it is.

Be like Mike.

Today you can identify a Nike Store with the gigantic leap in the air icon of Michael Jordan designed again by Peter Moore (who is alas no more!). And the shoes last you for years. If your portfolio is to become the Michael Jordan of all portfolios, you need to have a great team to assist you in making the right decisions, help you take that leap of faith and invest in something different. But then as Sonny says: If you want to be in the basketball business, you better know everything about basketball and its players. You better know where Gonzaga is (the late night comedy show host Jimmy Kimmel has made it a joke) and know what your players can do. Otherwise your money is never going to be the MJ.

Money can’t buy you immortality, it has to be earned.

Sonny Vaccaro persuades Michael and his parents (remember, he is just a 22 year old phenom) at the Nike headquarters in Beaverton (a suburb of Portland, Oregon). He says: Forget about the shoes, forget about the money. You are going to make enough money, it’s not going to matter. Money can buy you anything. Money can’t buy you immortality. That you have to earn…

He continues, ‘People are going to build you up, and how! Because when you are great and new, we love you. We’ll build you into something that doesn’t exist. You are going to change the fucking world. But you know what? Once they’ve built you as high as they possibly can, they are going to tear you back down. It’s the most predictable pattern.’

We have to take a lesson about our money like this too. Rising stars are toasted and given the best treatment. And as Sonny continues to share his passionate vision: It’s the going down that will break you… Can you summon the will to fight through all that pain and rise again?

What we need to understand is that markets that go up will be corrected, banks fail, investments fail, but we need to take heed, become Michael and rise up and reinvent ourselves to succeed again.

Watch this film to understand the men behind the magic of branding a shoe. The film also uses music brilliantly. So if you’re dancing to Born In The USA, you won’t be any different from Rob Strasser who realises that it’s not about the land of the free, but about a soldier who is back from Vietnam.


Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication. She can be reached on Twitter at @manishalakhe.

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First Published: 14 May 2023, 12:44 PM IST