Beyond great is a subjective term, although there’s no denying that Michael Jordan remains one of the greatest professional basketball players of all time, if not the greatest player. What’s beyond great about this feature film is watching how MJ and Nike got together—against all the odds. It’s the story of a young athlete’s exceptional but nascent talent, the business of sports, people taking chances, a mother’s vision, and the power of a sneaker design.
In 1984, when the film opens, Nike has been a public company for four years. Founder Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) started it back in 1964 with his former track coach at the University of Oregon, and Phil is still running the show. Going public has made Phil a rich man (net worth north of $100 million) but now he has a different set of headaches.
Nike is best known for its running shoes; the basketball division is much smaller and not particularly profitable. Most NBA teams wear Converse sneakers. Adidas, too, has a big share of the market, with Nike clocking in at a distant third. Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is a salesman in the basketball division. The NBA draft has just ended, and Sonny’s job—along with the other salesmen—is to sign one of these athletes to an endorsement deal. They don’t have a big budget, and Sonny’s boss Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) wants to divvy it up among three athletes. Sonny decides he wants to sign Michael Jordan, the former UNC player who won a national championship his freshman year. Pretty much everyone at Nike thinks Sonny is out of his mind:
- MJ is almost certainly going to sign with Adidas. He loves and wears their sneakers. His UNC team wore Converse, but he always practiced in Adidas.
- Michael was a third-round draft pick (not a first or even a second) who’s jut signed with the Chicago Bulls; some people at Nike make the point MJ didn’t even make his high school varisty team as a sophomore, and they can point to a whole list of college stars whose stars didn’t burn bright as NBA players.
- MJ’s agent tells Sonny that MJ has NO interest in even talking to Nike. He doesn’t like their shoes, and he’s got meetings set up with Adidas and Converse, the only two companies he’s considering. Plus Nike can’t afford Michael. It would take their entire budget to sign him to an endorsement deal. But Sonny won’t give up. He’s willing to risk his job to go for it. Phil isn’t on board, and Sonny hasn’t even figured out a way to talk to Michael. Until Nike colleague and former basketball player Howard White (Chris Tucker) tells him, “The Mamas run things in black families,” and Sonny travels to Wilmington, N.C., to talk to MJ’s parents in person. There he meets Deloris Jordan (Viola Davis, absolutely superb), who is clearly a force in MJ’s life and believes in his talent. She agrees to give Nike a chance–provided she isn’t completely sold on what Converse and Adidas have to say.
In the end, the Nike basketball sneaker—christened Air Jordan—is key. So is the speech Sonny gives to MJ and his parents about talent and destiny and allowing everyday people who buy Air Jordans to participate in the dream. As impassioned as the speech is, Deloris wants more. She thinks her son deserves a percentage of each Air Jordan sold.
Not only was this a good deal for Michael, it ended up being a boon to Nike’s business. In 1985, first-year sales of the Air Jordan were $126 million—Nike was expecting no more than $3 million. Today the Air Jordan line does about $4 billion in sales annually. It’s believed that MJ’s passive annual income from the deal is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Nike and Phil Knight, who continued to hold a major stake in the public company, became much richer. It enabled Phil, who retired from Nike in 2016, to donate $2 billion to various charities and worthy causes. Michael Jordan has inspired countless boys and girls and other athletes. And who’s to say that his percentage deal with Nike didn’t help inspire him to become beyond great.
Not only is AIR a good sports story, it’s a good business story. Maybe a beyond great story.