Air Jordan: The Best Sports Marketing Campaign Ever

Ben WeixlmannSenior Writer IMay 30, 2008

The 1984/85 NBA season brought a lot of excitement. Upper-echelon talent was in abundance in this draft, including Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and...Sam Bowie? Or, so the Portland Trail Blazers thought when they selected Bowie second overall instead of Jordan.

Jordan was just coming off a tremendous season at the University of North Carolina, in which he was voted the College Player of the Year.  He also led the USA to a gold medal in the 1984 Summer Olympics.  His marketability was higher than ever before.

That is when Nike got on board. Phil Knight, CEO of Nike, put together a promotional squad to brainstorm the most profitable way to market Jordan to basketball fans. In fact, Nike had an advertising campaign in mind even before Jordan toed the NBA hardwood. Whatever plan they had in the works, it was nixed when a much easier campaign fell into their laps.

It turned out that when Jordan and Nike agreed to debut the new line of "Air Jordan" basketball shoes, the original design did not conform with NBA guidelines for uniformity of jerseys. 

Jordan's infamous shoes, black with a red swoosh, to go along with cream white laces somehow didn't match the Bulls' jerseys to NBA satisfaction. Three games into the season, the NBA took action by banning the shoe. This caused a huge stir, and gained Nike and Jordan oodles of publicity.

In a book written by Jordan, For The Love of The Game, he details this exact situation. "I kept wearing them," Jordan said, "and [Comissioner] David Stern started fining me."

The news of the banning spread rapidly across the country.

Knight and Nike couldn't have been happier with the result. When Jordan expressed his insecurity with the situation, citing his image, Nike assured him that they would pay every single penny of the fines, and so Jordan continued on wearing the shoes.

Jordan goes on to say, "It would have cost millions of dollars to come up with a promotion that produced as much publicity as the league's ban did."

In the 21st-century, where Super Bowl ads run close to $2.5 million for a thirty-second spot, this Nike campaign was unbelievably successful. It reached audiences everywhere, most likely because Jordan was making equally substantial news headlines for his performance on the court.  Not only did he win Rookie of the Year, putting up an absurd 28.2 points per game, but he was named to the All-NBA Second Team.

Nike continued to milk the NBA for all they were worth. Throughout the season, they ran a commercial that spotlighted Jordan. The camera ran slowly down his body, from his head to his feet, and once they hit his shoes, "a big "X" was stamped on the screen," (FTLTG). The announcer thereafter said "banned". 

Shortly thereafter, the Air Jordan shoes were flying off the shelves. Now easily the most recognized basketball shoe ever created, the Air Jordan campaign started by the NBA's own parameters.

Man, Knight must be happy he caught that break.