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Sneakers are a universal commodity. Even if they’re collecting dust at the bottom of a closet, who doesn’t own a pair or two? However, sneakers are more than just shoes—they represent a form of expression, comfort, and athleticism. But how did sneakers evolve from a simple necessity worn for sport to a valuable industry worth billions? The answer lies within Air Jordan 1s.
In 1984, Michael Jordan’s original go-to basketball shoes were Converse All-Stars, the official sneaker of the NBA at the time. Things changed when Nike approached him in the hopes of collaborating on a basketball sneaker. Jordan’s agent, David Falk, was able to get Jordan a whopping $2.5 million deal spanning five years. An annual drop schedule was created to debut the new Air Jordan shoe line which proved to be immensely profitable over time.
Partnerships between athletes and brands have been a staple in the professional sports industry for as long as there have been star players to promote, beginning with Michael Jordan. What made the Air Jordans line so revolutionary was that prior, only non-team-based professional sports players, such as golf and tennis pros, had individually branded products. When Jordan debuted his new tri-colored sneakers at a game in 1985, the backlash from the NBA was fierce—they had ruled that players could only wear sneakers matching the rest of the team. But, this backlash also served as publicity for the new company. Nike used Jordan’s individuality as a player as a marketing tactic to advertise to consumers who wanted to stand out with their footwear and emulate the icon that was Jordan himself. This idea has been replicated repeatedly since, as sponsorship deals between sneaker brands and professional athletes are increasingly profitable today, with social media shooting sports stars into the stratosphere of celebrity. These athletes are promoting entire lifestyles—opening up the sneaker market to consumers everywhere.
Since inked in 1984, the deal between the Jordan Brand and Nike has made Jordan over $1.3 billion, making it one of the most profitable athletic endorsement deals ever. It functions as the birthplace of the cultural movement of the sneaker industry as, without the Jordan brand and its inception in the heart of professional sports, sneaker culture would likely not be the phenomena it is today. The sneaker industry is currently worth more than $70 billion, making it a valuable industry to understand and market. Yet, despite its influence on fashion, the industry can’t ever forget its roots in professional sports and Air Jordan. The Jordan brand’s transition from selling athletic shoes to highly sought out streetwear items marks the intersection of athletic commodity and the sneaker-reselling industry, which is an increasingly large part of the fashion industry itself.
In an interview with Nicole Luber, Vice President of Strategy at the Bleacher Report, we were able to glean insight into the intersection between sneaker culture and the sports industry from a media company’s perspective. In talking with her about the role sports companies play in the industry, Luber commented that, “Traditional sneaker companies like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armor have become content creators themselves and carry impressive rosters of athletes.” B/R Kicks, Bleacher Report’s Instagram account that follows sneaker culture through the NBA, is able to amplify the stories of their athletes, resulting in narratives that work as great content for fans. And, the social media aspect of B/R Kicks, “has given fans the ability to interact with their favorite players and teams in a way that never existed before.” Those same fans become sneakerheads themselves, which, as Luber defines it, is anyone who loves and appreciates sneaker culture. B/R Kicks tagline, “We're all sneakerheads,” represents the range of fandom, universal love and appreciation for sneakers in sports.
Sneakerheads have turned to platforms like Goat and StockX, where they can take their limited edition pairs of deadstock sneakers and Air Jordans and turn them into immense profit. Consumers are willing to pay upwards of $600 for a pair of kicks—way over retail value. The original 1985 Air Jordan 1s retailed for merely $65; now, a deadstock pair could be worth over $200,000 on a platform like StockX. With sneaker prices nearing that of designer shoes, many couture designers have dipped their toes in the water and released designer sneakers; some, such as Virgil Abloh and Kim Jones of Dior Men’s, even including reworked Air Jordan 1s in their collections. The evolution of sneakers has allowed them to become luxury goods, with the sneaker-reselling industry propelling them into the eyes of couture designers—permanently intertwining sneaker culture with fashion. Sneaker culture has impacted the sports industry in other ways, too. In our interview, Luber also noted that, “Players walking into the arena has become the fashion runway for sports. They make statements with their clothing and sneaker choices. It has become a staple of pre-game coverage.” This evolution from merely sneakers to full-fledged fits speaks to how fashion is becoming intrinsically tied to sports in that athletes’ fashion on and off the court matters.
Sports are a unifier, and we would argue that the best way to emulate an idol is to wear what they wear. America’s obsession with sneakers is all about this status symbol they’ve come to represent, thanks to gracing the feet of the stars we love to watch on the court. It's fitting that the man who redefined the game of basketball on the court is the same man who redefined the sneaker game off of it. The sneaker industry has grown beyond its courtside roots and taken up shop in the greater fashion industry, with sneaker culture a part of mainstream fashion as we know it.