The True Story Behind the New Ben Affleck-Matt Damon Movie
Feb 25, 2023
Ben Affleck’s next directorial is a true story based on Nike salesman Sonny Vaccaro’s successful signing of then-rising superstar Michael Jordan. Played by Matt Damon, Sonny Vaccaro’s relentless efforts resulted in the biggest collaboration that the sporting industry has ever seen, making Nike the unparalleled giant that it is today. Premiered during Super Bowl LVII, Air’s trailer featured Matt Damon donning the cap of an unrelentless Sonny Vaccaro and Ben Affleck featuring the hesitant Nike co-founder Phil Knight. Written by Alex Convery, Air is being pushed by Amazon Studios for a theatrical release as the stage is set for the true story behind one of the most historic sports brand deals to unravel.
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Nike’s Air Jordans continue to be a prized possession as a result of Sonny Vaccaro’s efforts. Vaccaro’s plan to create a shoe line based around Jordan became the biggest gamble ever in the shoe industry, turning fortunes in favor of Nike which was facing a crisis in the mid-80s. The signing eventually helped Nike topple Adidas and Converse. Nike offered Jordan a ridiculous USD 500,000 per year to Jordan to sign him even before his first NBA season. The deal made up for the USD 5000 fine that Jordan had to pay every time he hit the court with the signature shoes on. Air also features Viola Davis as Jordan’s mother, who played a pivotal role in turning Jordan’s decision in favor of Nike.
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Air Jordans Were Born Out Of Vaccaro’s Vision
Image via Amazon Studios
Before the iconic signing, Converse was the favored shoe for the top basketball players in the NBA, and Sonny Vaccaro was a man with abundant connections in the basketball world. As someone who used to host basketball tournaments for high school kids, Vaccaro had developed useful friendships with coaches of the time, including Dean Smith, who coached Jordan in the University of North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball team. In these terms, Vaccaro was a man who knew how to be in the right place at the right time. As a self-made man in the world of basketball, Vaccaro got in touch with Nike with an idea of an exclusive show line. While Vaccaro had the clout, it was not enough to swing Nike’s opinion in favor of him.
Vaccaro’s initiative did help him in some way as Nike’s director of marketing, Rob Strasser, acknowledged Vaccaro’s connection and hired him to convert the coaches he knew into Nike testimonials. With $5000 on offer, Vaccaro would end up attracting coaches like a magnet. In fact, Vaccaro even managed to get a young player named Larry Bird featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a pair of Nikes on. While Vaccaro couldn’t materialize his vision of a shoe line, he did get some hold on Nike’s top brass. But Vaccaro’s vision was rekindled when he witnessed a young boy named Michael Jordan scoring the winning points for North Carolina. Vaccaro has witnessed and identified a legend in making.
At the time, the team’s coach, Dean Smith, had a deal with Converse and the team wore the brand during matches. However, Jordan’s personal preference lay with Adidas. On the other hand, Vaccaro wanted Jordan to join hands with Nike. He placed his idea of signing Jordan and designing a shoe collection based on him in front of Nike executives. Rob Strasser placed his conviction in Vaccaro’s belief in Jordan as the idea was a novel one. While creating a marketing strategy around a player who had barely made his mark among the basketball fraternity might seem ludicrous, Rob Strasser proceeded and decided to have a meeting with Jordan’s agent, David Falk.
Nike Needed Jordan More Than Jordan Wanted Nike
Image via Amazon Studios
Nike’s desperation to crack the sports shoe industry played an effective role in the decision to proceed. After its public listing in 1980, the stocks were already hitting a low and the company also posted a loss in 1984. If there was any time when Nike needed to be saved, it was when Michael Jordan appeared as a risky but game-changing gamble. Jordan’s personality and charisma were partly to blame for the lucrativeness he seemed to bring. At a meeting at Falk’s office, “Air Jordans” materialized when Rob Strasser and Nike’s creative designer, Peter Moore, met for a brainstorming session. As per the legend, Falk had suggested the name “Air Jordans” and Moore quickly penned the logo.
With the idea ready, it was important for Vaccaro’s mission that Jordan ditch his love for Adidas and convert to Nike — the least favorite contender at the time. Vaccaro met Jordan through his friend George Raveling, who was assistant to the national team coach, Bobby Knight. But contrary to Vaccaro’s expectations, Jordan did not welcome Vaccaro’s Nike proposal with the warmest demeanor. The first date between Jordan and Vaccaro was a nightmare. But the real negotiations began after the day the U.S. team won the Los Angeles Olympics. Jordan was offered $2.5 million over five years with a 25% royalty on every shoe sold by Nike. While an unbelievable offer for any player at the time, the fact that Jordan was yet to prove his worth only amplified the risk for Nike.
Nike also understood that it would take more than just 21-year-old Jordan’s approval to make the cut. Thus, Nike brought Jordan and his parents to Oregon to have them witness a presentation put together by Strasser and Moore. In front of his parents, Jordan did not say much, but he presented his dissatisfaction with the blue colors of North Carolina missing. Jordan’s mother, Deloris, played by Viola Davis, guided much of the conversation on Jordan’s behalf to ensure her son would get the best out of the situation. Strasser’s job was half done when he was able to convince Deloris that Jordan would end up becoming richer than any basketball player.
Nike’s Proposal To Jordan Was Unrivaled
Image via Amazon Studios
Although he remained silent during the first pitch, much later, Jordan did acknowledge that he was impressed with Strasser’s initial presentation. Jordan still tried to get Adidas to propose a similar deal to him, but when that never happened, Jordan debuted for Chicago Bulls with a pair of Air Jordan 1s. While Adidas and Converse could have offered Jordan a bigger deal, they lacked one thing that Nike had — the conviction in Jordan’s abilities. More than his abilities, Nike was confident that Jordan’s charm would make him bigger than his game. On the day itself, Nike found out that Jordan was being fined for not wearing a pair of shoes similar to his teammates, but in the end, Nike covered the cost, and it became the biggest marketing avenue for the shoe manufacturer. From thereon, Nike never had to reflect on its decision as $126 million worth of Air Jordans were sold within the first year, against the target of $3 million. Besides the massive sales that it garnered, Air Jordans went on to become a cultural insignia in the sporting world.
Today, it’s argued who was the real hero behind the deal that changed Nike’s future. According to an interview that Jordan gave to USA Today, Jordan gives the credit to his friend George Raveling who pursued him to meet Vaccaro. While Strasser and Vaccaro’s association with Nike did not end on a high note, they both played their parts in allowing magic to happen off the court before Jordan could replicate the same in the NBA. Despite debates about who deserves the credit, the true story behind the birth of Air Jordans and Jordan’s long-standing association with Nike is one that needs to be told. With a promising ensemble cast, Air will hopefully bring an honest and entertaining version of the story behind Nike’s courting of a legend.
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