Sole Asylum

February, 1997: The most important clothing brand of the century is now set to make the running in the next. What makes Nike tick?

To celebrate the long-awaited return of The Face, we have selected a stand-out story from each year of our extensive archive, from 1980 to 2004.

Remembered by writer Rob Buchanan

“I went to Atlanta to see Phil Knight speak at a convention – and conventions are terrible places to report, so I was a little frustrated at not having enough material. Then there was a second trip to Portland to meet the Nike people. The campus was cool, but the main thing that I got from that trip was people willing to spend time and talk openly, a lot more than I expected. The best reporting nugget was at the end of the story, the copywriter who worked for Nike’s ad agency. That was a second visit whilst in Portland to his office. He was young and juiced up (on coffee) and really willing to tell it how it was, at least from his standpoint. That last line I’m sure got him in hot water, but it also really got to the heart of the story. Nike came in early, they were bold and they thought of everything before anybody else did. Nike is always a hot story. They changed the sports footwear game in a way that I don’t know anyone who has come along since has managed to that extent. I’m sure there’ll be another revolution, but that was really the sports business revolution of my generation, for sure. It’s interesting to watch the NBA playoffs this year as it seems James Harden is so dominant and he’s not a Nike guy – he’s an Adidas guy. But he’s the only guy Adidas has or the only big player that they have. So Nike still has the upper hand.”

Rob Buchanan was a magazine feature writer in the US from 1984 to 2005. From 2005 to 2016 he taught journalism and environmental studies at Eugene Lang College. In 2016 he began working in Community Science and Marine Systems Technology for the New York-based environmental non-profit Billion Oyster Project.

Every spring anybody who’s anyone in the sporting goods business turns up in Atlanta, Georgia for the four-day orgy of buying and selling known as the Supershow. The heavyweights in this $40 billion industry are the shoe companies, and it’s their “booths” – sprawling, banner-encrusted sales pavilions – that dominate the main floor of the convention centre, three flights below the ground. They’re all here on Level C: struggling behemoths like Reebok and Adidas, fashionable newcomers à la Fila and Airwalk, ageing niche players like Saucony and New Balance...

All but Nike. Its showcase is tucked away upstairs, far from the roar of commerce and tantalisingly out of sight. The signage is a masterstroke of ostentatious understatement. No words: just a single red logo – the famed Swoosh – posted at the foot of an escalator. Needless to say, Nike’s opening-day sales presentation is the Supershow’s hottest ticket, an invitation-only affair that about half of Atlanta seems to want to crash. The 250 elect who make it on to the escalator buzz with anticipation. Not only is there the usual curiosity – what will they come up with this time? – but also the prospect of a rare public appearance by Phil Knight, Nike’s enigmatic founder and chairman. The show does not disappoint. Impeccably produced sports videos, ad snippets and gritty black-and-white photos are projected on a wide movie screen; models tramp across the stage with choreographed precision, and Nike sales and marketing executives stand to deliver snappy corporate haikus, all to the beat of an edgy, quasi-rave soundtrack. Midway through, Knight takes the stage. He’s a small man in his late fifties with wispy ringlets of blond hair and a thin, scraggly beard, but the bounce in his step hints at an athletic past. (As an undergraduate at the University of Oregon in the early Sixties he was a gutsy middle-distance runner.) The crowd leans forward, straining for some nugget of wisdom. Knight spent a lot of time in the Far East in Nike's early days – nearly all of the company’s footwear and clothing is manufactured there still – and his person radiates an almost Buddhist calmness and serenity.

“A vanity project, disillusioned by all the obscure or once-cool celebrities who lent their names to it”

Today, however, he’s all business: sales projections and long lists of new endorsement deals. “Last year we were up 27 per cent in footwear,” he says, with the slightest hint of a lisp. “Apparel was up 53 per cent, and cracked $1 billion for the first time. International sales will pass $2 billion for the first time this year. We believe we can continue to grow at 15 per cent a year, and we have a stated goal of doubling sales in five years, to $12 billion... We have 35 World Cup soccer teams under apparel contract... At the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, every hockey team in the competition will wear Nike.” After Knight sits down, there’s one last video – a parody of political advertising in which one of Nike’s biggest stars, baseball slugger Ken Griffey Jr, is nominated for the presidency, not of the major leagues, but of the United States. It’s flawlessly shot and edited, and funny enough, with clever cameos by all sorts of retro-chic cult figures and godlike überathletes, but after the first minute you find yourself beginning to shift in your seat. You find yourself getting just the slightest bit annoyed by the idea of the vast sums of money and creative talent spent on what is essentially a vanity project, disillusioned by all the obscure or once-cool celebrities who lent their names to it, and appalled generally at the endless rush to sign up anybody who ever said or did anything hip under the sign of the Swoosh. As if any of it had anything to do with shoes. You find yourself thinking, “Just who do these guys think they are, anyway?”

But of course the people at Nike are one step ahead of you – that’s their special gift. A few months later, when their summer advertising campaign breaks, the lead slogan in their magazine ads reads: “So who the hell do Nike think they are, anyway?”

The list of plausible explanations for how Nike got to where it is today, which is to say not only atop the sporting goods and fashion casualwear worlds but also the sports world in general, is nearly as long as the list of Nike endorsers. The jogging boom of the Seventies certainly pushed them along. The boom in sports TV had something to do with it, as did a run of brilliant advertising campaigns. And of course Michael Jordan, who turned out to be as competitive in his marketing career as his basketball one. But behind all of those things lurked a bigger phenomenon: the rise of sports as a vehicle of mass communication as wide-reaching as music – and a whole lot more suited to selling things. It was Phil Knight’s genius, his particular legacy to the history of capitalism, to forge a connection between the two realms.

“People don’t concentrate their emotional energy on products in the way fans abandon themselves to the heroes of their games,” Don Katz wrote in his semi-official history of Nike, Just Do It. “The products needed to be tethered to something more compelling and profound.”

Which is not to say that Nike was founded on fundamentally cynical principles. Quite the contrary: throughout the organisation, the one constant seems to be a belief in sport as a world of power, grace and natural meritocracy, where the playing field is still level and the old rules of fair play and true sportsmanship still apply. It is, perhaps, an earnest, essentially nostalgic worldview – a longing for the purity and innocence of childhood – but there’s no denying its emotional appeal. As Katz noted: “Knight believed... superior athletic ability speaks to everyone’s belief in some primordial capacity for a kind of true greatness that has been obscured over time by expediency, disappointment and the general clutter of contemporary life.” The great dilemma for Nike today is that it has become the proverbial 900-pound gorilla. As the company goes global, the real challenge is no longer about selling shoes, or even shoes and clothing. It’s about taking over the entire fabric of sports – managing athletes, organising leagues, creating events. The risk is that in doing so, the company will wind up killing off the very thing it professes to love.

From the outside, it sometimes seems an Orwellian spectacle, as if Phil Knight were droning “WE ARE SPORT” into the world’s television sets. And yet there’s something impressive, something that approximates to the dazzling energy of an athletic feat, in Nike’s surge to power. It’s like watching Michael Jordan soar to the basket. Sometimes you just have to stand back and marvel.

“From the neck up, he looked like Sigmund Freud, from the neck down, he looked more like the early Sylvester Stallone”

When I was a kid growing up in northern California, I had a 65-year-old neighbour who spent two hours a day in his garage lifting. Dr Turner was a remarkable man. From the neck up, he looked like Sigmund Freud (he was, in fact, a psychiatrist), from the neck down, he looked more like the early Sylvester Stallone. We all thought he was crazily self-obsessed as he continued to lift into his seventies, and left his wife of 30 years for a young patient. But then one day there he was on TV, rippling in the latest Nike ad. Suddenly all that lifting seemed all right.

A lot of Nike’s endorsers fall into the obvious, can’t-miss, Michael Jordan category – golf prodigy Tiger Woods, for instance, who signed a $40 million deal with the company before his first pro tournament. But there’s another, equally important strand of signees who can trace their roots all the way back to Nike's first “celebrity” endorser – the original tennis brat, llie Nastase. Like John McEnroe, Dennis Hopper and Denis Leary, they’re in the Nastase mould, spitting in the metaphorical face of sport’s autocratic ruling bodies. Others, like Dr Turner, are merely obsessive or eccentric. Lately there seems to be a trend towards signing athletes who don’t even wear shoes when they compete: Gabrielle Reece, the beach volleyball amazon, or skier Picabo Street. A marketing quandary? Not really – they can always market a cross-trainer.

Nike is headquartered in Beaverton, a leafy suburb of Portland in America’s northwest. Architecturally speaking, it’s not exactly open to the world: a long grassy embankment defends the place from public view. The first time driving by in a car, it’s easy to miss the place altogether. Inside, the 400-acre “campus” consists of a half-dozen low-rise glass and concrete towers set think-tank-style around a large reflecting pond. There are flowering trees, a Japanese garden; playing fields and a mile-and-a-half running path; an employee lounge decorated in the style of an English pub. No reason ever to leave.

The Nike way of being is cautiously informal. Nobody wears suits, but then again, no one has ever been spotted swimming in the pond. There are covered walkways between the buildings – it rains a lot in coastal Oregon – and each supporting column bears a bronze bust of some sports star or another. The idea, I suppose, is to conjure a sort of all-sport Hall Of Fame, but the busts are done in such a grotesque, gargoyle style you think they must be caricatures. Nobody laughs about them, though. At Nike, a sporting legend is something of a sacred cow.

Liz Dolan works in the John McEnroe building, one flight down from Phil Knight’s office. She came to Nike eight years ago, from Cartier, the jeweller, to establish a public relations department. “Last year we got sued by The Beatles [for setting a 60-second TV ad to the song Revolution],” Knight told her when he interviewed her the first time, “and our sales practically doubled. So what, I'm wondering, might positive PR do for us?”

“The first day I arrived,” Dolan recalls, “it was typically Nike – no desk, no phone. ‘Hi, I'm the PR director.’ ‘Oh, you’re here, OK.’ It was definitely like, ‘Get over it, if you thought you were such a big shot…’”

Dolan is a big shot today, the chief of marketing, but she doesn’t act like it. She’s friendly and direct and takes an hour to preview the summer ad campaign. Her main point: that Nike is not an arrogant marketing powerhouse, it’s a maker of athletic footwear and clothing, period. “This is all we do,” she says. “We care about athletes, and athletes care about winning, and that’s what keeps us in focus.”

“‘Just Do It’ isn’t some sort of annoying slogan,” she says, reading out one of her favourite pieces of copy. “‘Just Do It’ is some sort of annoying conscience that haunts and nags and double-dog dares us, that doesn’t accept excuses, apologies, a note from your mother. ‘Just Do It’ is the collective voice of every angel and every devil that sits on the shoulder of everyone who ever faced the big challenge…” Dolan looks up, smiling. “That’s pure Ernest Lupanacci,” she says. “A copywriter at our ad agency. I love that stuff. It’s not arrogant. Passion is not arrogance.”

Tinker Hatfield works in the next building over, the Michael Jordan building. His title is creative director of product design, which means that he supervises the staff of 45 footwear designers. His personal bailiwick is the Air Jordan, the company’s flagship shoe. The AJ is now in its eighteenth edition, and Hatfield has designed the last ten of them – a completely new look twice a year. The company makes 350,000 of them, and even at $150 they’re all “allocated” – meaning pre-sold. “We could easily sell a million pairs of them, or more,” Hatfield explains, “but we don’t want them all on the street.” Basketball remains Nike’s leading category, followed by clothing, cross-training, running and tennis. From a designer’s standpoint, he says, the recently developed outdoor category is the most interesting, but he worries the business “may already have plateaued”. Sharp-featured and sharply dressed, Hatfield hardly fits the image of a footwear designer.

“I’m not,” he says. “I’m an architect. I’ve got pictures of buildings in my office.”

Over in the Mike Schmidt (a legendary baseball player) building, Keith Peters has taken over from Liz Dolan in the PR department. He’s tall and gaunt, late thirties, a peaceful running freak in a high-pressure job. “Everybody out there is gunning for us,” he sighs. “That’s what it is to be number one.”

“The big issues lately have been Nike’s reliance on factories in the Far East, where workers earn as little as £1.50 a day”

Peters has a full plate. The big issues lately have been Nike’s reliance on factories in the Far East, where workers earn as little as £1.50 a day, and the irony of inner-city youth stealing their mothers’ welfare cheques in order to buy a new pair of AJs every six months. Then there’s the question of how to mesh Nike’s hard-charging, winner-take-all mentality with the gentler outlook of the environmental movement, a prime target of marketers in the outdoor category.

What was his worst day on the job? “Without a doubt, the 1995 World Championships in Goteborg, Sweden, when Quincy Watts’ shoe came apart in the backstretch of the 400.” Peters winces at the memory. “The glue hadn’t bonded; it was a hot day... he wound up finishing fourth, and he was beyond mad. We could only be contrite, but in terms of what this company is about, that was the worst – to let an athlete down.”

“I thought people here were going to throw themselves off the top of the Jordan building,” Dolan adds. “I know the person who made his shoes, and I’m sure he still wakes up in the night screaming.”

Phil Knight founded his company, originally called Blue Ribbon Sports, in 1971. At first, he merely imported a Japanese shoe, the Onitsuka Tiger, but after a few years, having made his own connections with manufacturers in the Orient, he started his own line – a bold gamble from his perspective, a betrayal from Onitsuka’s. The name Nike, after the Greek goddess of victory, came to one of his partners in a dream. Knight paid a Portland graphic designer $35 for the Swoosh design, and it took him time to warm to it. The problem: it had absolutely no structural function.

The Montreal games of 1976 were Nike’s first Olympics. Adidas spent a rumoured $7 million there; Nike gave away a total of $526 worth of merchandise. Four years later, the sneaker wars were in full swing. A nadir of sorts came on a winter’s day in 1982, when an NBA forward named Darryl Dawkins, having signed conflicting endorsement contracts, took to the court wearing a Nike high-top on one foot and a Pony on the other.

In 1984 Nike went after the best American athletes available: Mary Decker, Joan Benoit, Alberto Salazar and Carl Lewis. Converse had already paid $5 million to be an official sponsor of the Los Angeles games, so Nike entered by running the first major national TV campaign by a shoe company – the first example of so-called ambush marketing. With no particular shoe to highlight, it simply pushed the brand.

Adidas still had 124 of the 140 teams, and it won the medal count 259 to 63, but all three gold medals in the men’s track were Nike’s. And then, just as Nike hit its stride, they got blindsided by a soft leather shoe that women loved, the famed Reebok Freestyle. Nike executives were indignant at the flimsy pretender. “We will never make shoes for fags who do aerobics,” one of them said. But on the strength of the Freestyle, Reebok became an empire overnight, and actually passed Nike in gross sales in 1987. Two years later, the tide began to turn. Two words: Michael Jordan.

Starting with the 1992 Barcelona games, Reebok made a tremendous effort to bolster its “performance image”; last year, in Atlanta, it signed 52 National Olympic Committees to clothing deals along with a host of individual shoe endorsers. But was it really going to beat Nike at its own game? Nike had the US track and field team and all its stars: Lewis, Dan O'Brien, Michael Johnson. “We had seven of the starters on the ‘Dream Team’,” Peters recalls. “Monica, Andre and Pete in tennis, the Kenyan track team, the US and Italian soccer teams, a lot of the Baltics…”

Sounds like Monopoly.

“More like Risk.”

Well, who didn’t you have?

“Nourredine Morceli. Adidas snuck up and lured him away. You can’t have everybody; it’s boring.”

When Alonzo Mourning, a Georgetown basketball star, signed With the Charlotte Hornets three years ago, it was Nike, not the Hornets, that guaranteed his $16 million, five-year salary deal. “I don’t work for Charlotte,” he blithely informed reporters. “I work for Nike.”

Sports management is one of the new fields that Nike is moving into – being agents, essentially, for star athletes. In addition, the company is taking a bigger and bigger role in organising new sports leagues – the new US Major League Soccer, for instance, and the US Professional Women’s Basketball League, are both heavily subsidised by Nike.

“Would you be willing to have the Swoosh tattooed on your chest?”

You start to think that a good question for Nike athletes would be, “Would you be willing to have the Swoosh tattooed on your chest?” Then you remember there actually are a few Nike employees – among them several of the circulating technical experts called Ekins (that’s Nike backwards) – with the Swoosh tattooed on their thighs, at the spot where a pair of running shorts vents. That way the brand appears with every stride.

Still, it’s difficult to see too far down the road. After Nike and the Hollywood agency CAA struck a sport management partnership last year, there was speculation that Nike would be moving into the entertainment business. After all, it’s an “experience” company providing sport “software”. And certainly, it’s among the best ever at using TV.

Dolan downplays the notion. “All we’ll ever be doing is sport,” she says. “It’s not about world hegemony, except to the extent that sport is an extremely powerful force all over the world. Yes, our business ten years from now will include other products. I mean, with the knowledge we have about running or basketball, we should be doing our own coaching videotapes and things like that... If we care about sport and are good at communicating that to people, then there are other things we could do... But it’s not entertainment.”

What about running the sports themselves?

“We will expand into that. Businesses do run those things already.”

Before I leave Portland, I swing by the offices of Weiden and Kennedy, Nike’s leading ad agency, to talk to Ernest Lupanacci, the copywriter. Lupanacci, who’s 29, describes himself as “being raised on the brand”.

“When you're a teenager,” he explains, “you can’t drive, you can’t drink: all you’ve got is sport. I remember the excitement when Nike came out with a lacrosse shoe for the first time. If you were into sport, that’s what you did – you waited for the new shoe.”

You also waited for the new ads. “They were saying, ‘Here’s who you are,” Lupanacci recalls. “We were like, ‘Fuck, they know who I am – they must know something about the shoes. It was about this relationship [to sport], not the product. It was an invitation to come and be cool.”

Striding around his office, Lupanacci is the archetypal Gen X-er. He’s got the headband and the climbing pants and the tall latte going; a box of Pop Tarts hangs on the wall. As for the job itself, Lupanacci confesses that being obsessed by sport is pretty much a full-time job. “We have a basketball court in the office,” he says. “On weekends, we snowboard on Mount Hood, or we go windsurfing, or we watch three football games back to back to back. People try to do ads like us. They can’t. They don’t understand sport.”

So the people at Reebok, for instance, just don’t understand sport?

“I don't know,” he says. “I mean, what was that ‘Planet Reebok’ campaign all about?” He drops into a mocking baritone: “‘Planet Reebok. No limits. No lawyers. No Slogans.’ What was that? ‘No Slogans?’ That’s practically an admission they couldn’t think of one.

“I know what it’s like over there [at Reebok],” he says. He’s stepping over the line just a tiny bit here, but what the hell. “We come out with a new campaign, and they freak out. They’re all sitting around a table going, ‘Fuckin’ Nike!’” He pounds out the rhythm on his desk: “Fuckin’ Nike! Fuckin’ Nike! Fuckin’ Nike!”

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