Air: Michael Jordan and the revolution in sports marketing

Air” is a highly discussed movie that we now explore from a marketing perspective. In this context, we are keen to analyze the most interesting aspects of the movie, focusing particularly on how it weaves together the American dream, human value, marketing, and communication.

Directed by Ben Affleck, the film narrates the historic agreement between Nike and Michael Jordan. Set in the 1980s, it features a captivating plot and a star-studded cast including Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, and Viola Davis.

In 1984, Beaverton (Oregon), as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in The USA” was hitting the charts, Nike’s basketball expert manager Sonny Vaccaro was on the hunt for young talents to offer sponsorship deals to rejuvenate the brand. At the time, Nike was predominantly focused on running and held a significantly smaller market share in basketball compared to its competitors, Converse and Adidas. Vaccaro decided to invest his entire budget to secure a deal with the rising basketball star, Michael Jordan. Overcoming resistance from his CEO Phil Knight, Jordan’s manager, and Jordan himself—who was more inclined towards Adidas—Vaccaro’s bold strategy proved successful when he appealed to Jordan’s mother, offering her son a pivotal role in Nike’s commercial strategies, and creating a shoe and clothing line, the Air Jordan, exclusively for the young champion.

The legendary ’80s

The ’80s were a period of great prosperity and success for the United States, both economically and culturally. “Air” shows how the Nike-Jordan agreement exemplifies the era’s hallmarks: the rise of capitalism, the celebration of individualism, and the emergence of new business models. Affleck captures the essence of the period through meticulous reconstruction of settings and character dynamics, highlighting the vulnerabilities and ambitions of its protagonists. The success comes from a mix of knowledge, intuition, and persistence.

Nike and Jordan: a revolutionary bet

One of the film’s most intriguing aspects is the portrayal of the Nike-Jordan agreement, which forever changed how companies approach sports marketing. Nike would typically invest in 2-3 basketball athletes with a limited budget of $250k. The revolutionary idea was to bet everything on a single, yet-to-be-famous basketball player and create an entire product line dedicated to him. This seemingly mad strategy led to Nike’s extraordinary success.

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“A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it.”

Sonny Vaccaro

Besides the idea, the attention to detail was a winner: the Air Jordan 1 was produced specifically for Michael Jordan with color schemes against NBA regulations. Banned by the NBA and with Jordan fined for each game played in them, the prohibition only made the brand more attractive to consumers and literally made the product soar.

The story is told through the eyes of Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), a Nike manager who, against all odds, decides to bet on Jordan as the face of the brand’s advertising campaign. Vaccaro embodies audacity and vision, a man who, by betting on himself and his instincts, managed to change the rules of the game and create a new model of success.

A key figure is Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis), Michael’s mother, whose role was crucial in his decision to sign with Nike despite his reservations. Her presence, along with that of other Jordan family members, underscores the importance of human relationships and personal connections in business, a theme that runs through the film and offers one of its most interesting interpretations.

Dialogue and the art of persuasion in ‘Air’

The film highlights the importance of persuasion and communication, showing how the ability to convince others and effectively present ideas can make the difference between success and failure. This is exemplified by Sonny Vaccaro, whose communication skills help him overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to finalize the deal with Jordan. Two memorable dialogues stand out: the first during a covert meeting with Michael’s mother and the second, a crucial moment, during the presentation of Air Jordan to the entire family, where Sonny outlines the future awaiting him with Nike.

Sonny Vaccaro : [to Michael Jordan] “Forget about the shoes, forget about the money. You’re going to make enough money, it’s not going to matter. Money can buy you almost anything, it can’t buy you immortality. That, you have to earn. I’m going to look you in the eyes and I’m gonna tell you the future. You were cut from your high school basketball team. You willed your way to the NBA. You’re gonna win championships. It’s an American story, and that’s why Americans are gonna love it. People are going to build you up, and God are they going to, because when you’re great and new, we love you. Man, we’ll build you up into something that doesn’t even exist. You’re going to change the fucking world…”

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Pop culture, marketing, and Air Jordan

The film keenly analyzes the cultural impact of the Air Jordans and how these shoes became a symbol of sneaker culture, style, and the cultural inclinations of various generations. It shows how the success of Air Jordans is tightly linked to Michael Jordan’s charisma and athletic achievements, creating a popular icon that influenced the collective imagination and fashion of the ’80s and ’90s.

Affleck’s film sensitively captures this aspect, demonstrating how the Nike-Jordan deal not only impacted the history of sports and marketing but also pop culture and how people relate to and perceive their sports idols.

Air, a Must-Watch movie

“Air” is a movie that masterfully and sensitively tells a fascinating and lesser-known story from the world of sports and marketing, offering an engaging view of the American myth and the impact of Jordan brand on pop culture and sports marketing. It represents an opportunity to reflect on themes of individualism, success, and human relationships in the world of business and sports, making it a powerful entry among must-watch marketing movies – in addition to being an unmissable movie for all cinema and sports enthusiasts, particularly those interested in basketball.

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