Former Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro stars in a new movie about how Nike signed Michael Jordan.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

  • Vaccaro, 83, was a key figure in Nike’s push to sign Michael Jordan in 1984.
  • Sometimes controversial, he also pioneered huge sneaker deals with universities.
  • In retirement, Vaccaro has been a driving force in expanding the rights of college athletes.

When Sonny Vaccaro first stepped into Nike’s offices, Michael Jordan wasn’t yet a household name.

It was 1977. And Vaccaro was in Beaverton, Oregon, trying to sell the company some shoes.

Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon, is the lead character in the new movie “Air,” about how Nike signed Michael Jordan to a golden level of athletic endorsement deals because of the Jordan Brand’s enduring success. But his contribution to the global sports industry is even better than the hotly debated events depicted in the film released on Wednesday.

Vaccaro grew up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and attended Youngstown State University on a football scholarship. No one in his family went to college, Vaccaro said in an interview about Pancake Breakfast in 2021.

“Everybody either worked in the steel mills, or worked on the railroads, or worked in the coal mines,” he said.

In 1965, he started the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, a high school basketball showcase that would become the epicenter of amateur basketball and a popular gathering place for college coaches. Novel at the time, it became the model for the branded high school tournaments that are now standard among sports companies.

In 1977, Vaccaro tapped into a connection from his work promoting basketball and was introduced to Nike and co-founder Phil Knight.

Vaccaro worked with a local cobbler in Pittsburgh to create nine prototype sneakers. He wanted to sell the designs to Nike, then a private company with less than $29 million in annual revenue.

Vaccaro flew to Nike’s offices in Beaverton, Oregon. While eating lunch at a Chinese restaurant with Knight and a few others, he tripped on his shoe, he said.

The account is confirmed by the “Swoosh”, an unofficial Nike history published in 1991.

Nike was not interested in Vaccaro’s cycling shoes, his “disco” shoes, shoes with Velcro closures or leather shoes with holes cut out.

But they were interested in Vaccaro’s basketball tournament. Nike later hired Vaccaro and tapped him to expand its basketball and collegiate businesses, a chapter in his career that was covered in the 2015 ESPN documentary “Soul Man.”

Vaccaro initially expanded Nike’s college business, making deals with college coaches, many of whom he knew from his Dapper Dan days. While players cannot accept payments from sneaker companies, coaches can.

Matt Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro in the new “Air” movie about how Nike signed Michael Jordan.
Ana Carballosa/Amazon Content Services

In 1984, Nike signed Jordan out of the University of North Carolina to one of the most enviable endorsement deals in sports marketing history. At the time, Nike stumbled, missing the aerobics boom, leading to a rare layoff. The deal helped kickstart a major corporate comeback.

Nike’s Jordan business generated $5.1 billion in sales in its most recent fiscal year. Retro releases of the sneakers Jordan wore throughout his playing career still sell out in seconds.

While there is no dispute that Vaccaro backed Nike’s big bet on Jordan, there is still debate over how credit for the deal should be allocated, despite “Air’s” version of events, in which Vaccaro is the heroic central figure.

“Michael Jordan’s signature is, yes, success has a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan,” Knight told USA Today in 2015. “A lot of people want to take credit for signing Michael Jordan, obviously Sonny Vaccaro.”

“Everyone is trying to rewrite history,” Vaccaro said in the same report. “It goes beyond Jordan. I’m Nike’s savior.”

Aside from the Jordan deal, by 1987 Vaccaro had pioneered the first “all-school” college apparel deal, whereby every varsity athlete on the University of Miami’s campus wore Nike gear. It also gave Nike Prime shelf space in the campus bookstore.

“I was more interested in the bookstore,” Vaccaro said over breakfast. “Every mom and dad who isn’t a football fan or a baseball fan goes to the bookstore.”

Nike’s explosive growth on college campuses, and its ability to outperform rivals, also made Vaccaro an easy villain for those critical of corporate encroachment on higher education.

“They always demonized me,” Vaccaro said.

All-school apparel deals have since become commonplace. In 2016, Ohio State announced a $252 million deal with Nike, one of a series of mega-deals by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.

Vaccaro (red shirt) speaks at an Adidas basketball camp in 1998 with Kansas coach Roy Williams (gray shirt) and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (black shirt).
Damian Strohmeyer/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Vaccaro left Nike and joined Adidas in 1991. There, he signed Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, among other future stars, adding rocket fuel to the growing race to sign the next great basketball talent. Vaccaro finished his career at Reebok.

But instead of enjoying retirement in Palm Springs, Vaccaro became a driving force for the expansion of rights for college athletes, including name, image, equality rights, throwing his weight behind the landmark lawsuit against the NCAA. Vaccaro also made the rounds at universities talking about the flaws of the amateur sports system.

Vaccaro has spoken extensively about “Air” in interviews and seems happy with it.

“I can go to my deathbed not being ashamed of anything I’ve seen,” he told The Athletic.

As for the shoes that launched Vecaro’s sneaker career, they don’t know what happened.

By admin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *