But it wasn’t always that way as long before they were Sneaker Gods, the concept for Nike was born from humble origins...
1. The company that was to become Nike was conceived on January 25th, 1964, when Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman founded Blue Ribbon Sports.
2. Phil Knight first thought about starting a sneaker company while writing a college paper. He believed that sneakers made in Japan could compete with the popular German brands like Adidas and Puma.
3. If that was the inspiration, then Knight’s motivation came during a more auspicious incident. Before he ever founded a sports footwear company, Knight went for a job interview with some other company. But when Knight reached for his handkerchief, he actually pulled a sock out of his pocket. He was thoroughly embarrassed and didn’t get the job, which led him to think about rejecting a traditional job and starting his own company instead.
4. Once Blue Ribbon Sports was founded, it acted as a distributor for Onitsuka Tiger, a Japanese footwear company that would become Asics, for about 8 years, executing the theory of Knight’s paper that Japanese brands could compete.
5. Bowerman and Knight knew each other from the University of Oregon, where the former coached track and the latter was a middle-distance runner.
6. Blue Ribbon Sport’s first employee was a man named Jeff Johnson, a former running rival of Knight, who came aboard the company in 1965 and sold shoes from the back of his van at track meets. Later, the first BRS store was opened at 3107 Pico Blvd, in Santa Monica California.
7. In 1971, Knight and Bowerman, with Johnson still as their employee, changed the name of the company to Nike, and shifted its focus to manufacturing their own athletic sneakers. At that time it’s reported that the company only had $1,200 in the bank. Phil Knight actually wanted to name the sneaker line “Dimension 6” instead of Nike! No matter how revolutionary their sneakers were, success would have been fleeting with that name.
8. It was Jeff Johnson who came up with the concept and name Nike, which was inspired from the Greek goddess of victory.
9. The now ubiquitous Nike swoosh logo was originally conceived by a Portland State University student named Carolyn Davidson, who designed the Swoosh for a mere $35!
10. However, in 1983, Davidson was invited to a luncheon honoring her, where Phil Knight presented her with a diamond ring embedded with the Swoosh logo, a certificate of appreciation confirming her as the originator, and most importantly, options for Nike stock that were worth $640,000 at the time – and are probably worth hundreds of millions these days.
11. But the first shoe to adorn a Nike logo wasn’t a sneaker at all, but a soccer cleat. Only later did Nike start focusing on running sneakers.
12. If you have a pair of Nikes in the house (chances are almost 100% you do) then pick them up and look at the bottom. In fact, that tread you’re looking at was first made inside a waffle iron! Founder Bill Bowerman was making waffles with his wife one morning in 1971 when he got the idea for an athletic shoe sole that had square grids for better traction. By 1974, the “Nike Waffle Trainer” was patented and on shelves. And no, they didn’t keep making them with Bowerman’s waffle iron.
13. One of Nike’s first signature sneakers was the Cortez in the late 1970s/early 1980s. But they were far from unique. If someone at the time picked up the Onitsuka Tiger Corsair and Nike Cortez and held them side by side, they’d notice the obvious inspiration derived from Knight’s old parent company.
14. Long before Nike was a household name or mega popular with athletes, tennis player IIlie Nastase was the first professional athlete to endorse Nike, signing a contract in 1972. The original tennis bad boy, the Romanian Illie “Nasty” won two Grand Slam singles titles but was hardly what we’d consider a good role model and company ambassador, as he cursed out match officials, antagonized his opponents, threw tantrums, and partied, drank, and womanized.
15. Nastase may have been the first officially recognized Nike spokesperson, but the heart of the company still belongs to Steve “Pre” Prefontaine, a running legend at the University of Oregon before his tragic demise in a car accident in 1975 at the age of 24. Phil Knight still refers to Steve Prefontaine as the “Soul of Nike” and there was a whole line of clothing dedicated to the man.
16. The world-famous “Just Do It” slogan and campaign was actually inspired by the words of a serial killer! In 1977, Gary Gilmore was sitting on death row, scheduled for execution by firing squad. Reportedly, moments before he was put to death, Gilmore stated, “Let’s do it,” his last words.
17. The slogan spread, becoming the base for Nike’s “Just do it,” campaign launched in 1988. The first “Just do it” ad featured then 80-year old running icon Walt Stack, jogging across the Golden Gate Bridge. The ad campaign and Nike slogan became so famous that it’s now enshrined at the Smithsonian National Museum.
18. Despite its early popularity and success, the Nike brand started to slip by the mid 1980s. Sales slipped and profits stagnated as other brands caught up, exposing Nike as a great concept that suffered from being a shoe only for runners, and without an iconic athlete as their spokesperson.
19. All that turned around virtually overnight when Nike took a chance on a gangly , unproven rookie out of North Carolina who was playing for the Chicago Bulls, high flying his way through the league.
His name was Michael Jordan.
20. When Nike first signed an enigmatic, high-flying rookie for the Chicago Bulls out of North Carolina, it completely changed the fortunes of the company, which had been coming back to earth.
21. But the legendary Jordan/Nike union that completely changed pro sports as well as fashion and the athletic industry almost never happened. Nike was originally most interested in signing former Maryland college star Len Bias, who was drafted and set to join the powerhouse Celtics. Bias was considered far more talented than Jordan at the time, and even had a passion for fashion and design, a good fit for Nike, who wanted his input on his own sneaker. But that partnership ended tragically when Len Bias passed away from an overdose shortly after he was drafted, and Michael Jordan became the logical second choice.
22. But Michael Jordan didn’t have his own line of Air Jordans at first, lacing up the Nike Air Ship when he first played.
23. In fact, when a young Jordan first saw the prototype sneaker built for him, the Air Jordan 1, he hated it! He thought the red and black coloring looked like his former college rival North Carolina State’s team colors. Even when reminded that he was in the NBA now, not college, and his own team the Chicago Bulls wore red and black, he was set to reject Nike’s overtures. Fortunately, his parents convinced him to fly out and meet with the Nike executive team, even if just to decline in person. But the meeting went well and Nike sold Jordan on their vision.
24. The Nike Jordan line of sneakers wasn’t just successful, it shattered expectations. Original projections anticipated $3 million in sales for the first three years of the Air Jordan line, but Air Jordans did $130 million in sales in the first year alone!
25. Despite the sneaker’s popularity, the NBA originally banned players – including Jordan – from wearing Air Jordan sneakers. But instead of signaling the death of Jordans, the ban had the opposite effect, giving Jordan, Air Jordans, and Nike a blitz of publicity, transforming them into the most sought after shoe from the streets to NBA courts.
26. Nearly 30 years later, Air Jordans are still the top selling athletic shoe line in the world. Even though Jordan hasn’t played pro basketball since 2003, he brings in about $60 million yearly in endorsements and royalties.
27. With Jordan on board, Nike expanded and solidified its dominance of the industry in the late 1980s with a creative ad line featuring movie producer Spike Lee as well as the advent of cross training shoes, endorsed by the iconic two-sport athlete, Bo Jackson.
28. Professional athletes weren’t the only ones popularizing Nikes in the 1980s, as Marty McFly – actor Michael J. Fox ‘s character in the hit movie, “Back to the Future,” donned Air Mags.
29. One of Nike’s all-time most popular sneaker lines, the Air Force 1, was introduced in 1982, but discontinued after only one year. Luckily, it was re-released in 1986, and went on to be their second-most famous design.
30. Nike caught plenty of heat from the media, community organizers, and even politicians in the late 1980s and early 1990s when many children and teens, especially in urban and disadvantaged areas, were being jumped, shot, and murdered for their Air Jordans.
31. There were plenty of other blunders and missteps along the way, but Nike did a great job of adapting to what the market was calling for. For example, Nike made acid wash denim golf shorts in 1991, but quickly cancelled the fashion faux pas. Nike took a hit for signing American sprinter Justin Gatlin to an endorsement contract right after served two bans for doping. They also once put a map of South Carolina on t-shirts designed for the Carolina Panthers football team (that played in NORTH Carolina), and sales dropped in the early 1990s as the grunge movement hit and Nike tried to keep up with their semi-line of Nike hiking boots.
32. When Nike used the Beatles song ‘Revolution” in their 1987 commercial (the first time a Beatles song was ever used commercially), they forgot one little detail – to get permission from Apple Records, the Beatles’ record company, first. Apple sued Nike for $15 million, though it came out that Nike had paid $250,000 for the use of the song – but only for one year – and they thought they had the blessing of Yoko Ono. Either way, Nike discontinued the ad with ‘Revolution” in March of 1988, but Yoko Ono did give the company permission to use John Lennon’s song ‘Instant Karma” in a later ad.
33. Nike signed a long-term partnership deal with the Brazilian national soccer team, kicking off its foray into competing for brand recognition and market share in the world’s most popular sport.
34. During the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Nike released television and billboard ads that stated, “You don’t win silver, you lose gold,” which enraged a lot of bronze and silver medal winners and alienated many fans.
35. When Niketown in Boston, Mass prominently displayed t-shirts with the slogans, “Get High” and “Ride Pipe,” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino criticized the company for displaying “distasteful” T-shirts. In a statement, Menino wrote, “Your window display of T-shirts with drug and profanity wordplay are out of keeping with the character of Boston’s Back Bay.”
36. Nike doesn’t own the factories where its products are made, which is common across the entire fashion industry. But it has also been widely criticized for its use of foreign labor, accused of exploiting workers in developing countries in ‘sweat shop’ factories. During the 1990s, Nike was derided for using child labor in Cambodia and Pakistan. In 2001, a documentary on BBC uncovered deplorable, unsafe, and exploitative labor practices – including child labor – when it featured six girls who worked at a Nike factory in Cambodia.
37. These days, Nikes are still manufactured in China, Indonesia, and Vietnam, but the first generations of Nike sneakers were actually made in the U.S.A.
38. The foreign-made sneakers may have advantages when it comes to cost savings, but that wasn’t the case when a U.S. cargo ship carrying containers of Nikes was lost at sea, causing random Air Solo Flight, Strike Force, and Pegasus sneakers to be spotted floating in the Pacific Ocean for a long time.
39. The athletic chain Footlocker stopped carrying high-end Nike shoes in 2003, as they were concerned with the growing violence and theft the expensive Jordan and other Nike lines was causing.
40. Nike almost cemented the most dominant NBA basketball player outside of Jordan when it was on track to sign a young Shaquille O’Neal, who had been offered a contract with shoemaker Reebok. But when Phil Knight met Shaq at the Nike headquarters to finalize the mega-deal, he was shocked and offended to see that Shaw was wearing all Reebok gear. Knight didn’t take kindly to the joke and took his Nike offer off the table. Reportedly, Phil Knight still holds a grudge against Shaq for the snub.
41. Although we now see Tiger Woods as the face of Nike golf, the idea of expanding from a running and basketball sneaker into a gold shoe and apparel company started way back in 1984 when employee Bob Wood conceived the idea and wrote it into the business plan.
42. The famous “Columbia Blue” color, popular in Nike shoes and clothing and officially North Carolina’s uniform color, is actually started with another college team, the Columbia Lions of the Ivy League.
43. In 1980, Nike completed its initial public offering by selling 2,377,000 shares of Class B common stock. In 1986 Nike revenues exceed $1 billion for the first time, and by 2004, their annual worldwide revenues surpassed $13 billion.
44. They now own control more than 60% of the athletic shoe and apparel market, including buying up smaller competitors like Converse, which they acquired for $305 million in 2003. Interestingly enough, the biggest threat to Nike’s dominance comes from upstart Under Armour with their athletic gear, not a rival shoe company.
45. The Lance Armstrong-inspired ‘Livestrong’ campaign was one of Nike’s most successful, despite the fact that founder Phil Knight thought the Livestrong bracelet was “one of the dumbest ideas he ever heard.”
46. In 1996, Nike opened its flagship store in New York, Niketown. But the world’s largest Nike store isn’t in the U.S. at all, but on Oxford Street in London, England, covering three levels and about 42,000 square feet.
47. While Michael Jordan helped put Nike on the map, their sneakers have a bond with the NBA that goes much further back. In fact, the first basketball sneaker ever made by Nike, the Blazer, was named after Geoff Petrie of the Portland Trailblazers.
48. In 2003, Nike 2003 took a gamble by signing high school basketball stars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. The gamble paid off huge as Lebron became a tour de force that rivals Jordan, and Anthony became a superstar.
49. In June of 2015, Nike inked an 8-year deal with the NBA, making them the official apparel supplier for the league. The deal, which kicks out incumbent supplier Adidas, starts in 2017–18 season and will feature Nike logos on all NBA game jerseys for the first time.
50. Lebron James reportedly signs a $1 billion lifetime contract with Nike, the first sports figure in history to reach that echelon.