Marketing is a simple game… if you spot the next Michael Jordan

In 1996, I interviewed Michael Jordan in the changing room at the San Antonio Alamodome as he prepared for the All-Star game. It did not feel like an interview with a normal human being. An audience with the Pope springs to mind, or some other deity with wings (those Nikes) and an unworldly hang-time.

At the time, “His Airness”, who had recently returned to the Chicago Bulls following a sabbatical spent swinging a baseball bat, was apparently the most famous person in the world. And every single journalist in San Antonio wanted a piece of him. Just one word. The word of MJ… Nike must have loved it.

The TV arc lights followed him around. Microphones were jabbed in his direction. Other basketball greats – Shaq, Sir Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, Mailman Malone – strolled around without a care in the world. But Jordan strayed from the crowd. Ask anyone. Less, in marketing, can be more.

I was sitting in the media room at the Alamodome when an NBA Europe executive suddenly turned up, took me to the Eastern Conference changing room, told me to sit beside Jordan’s locker, and ordered me to start talking as soon as he sat down. Before the US journalists could dive in. It would be chaos…

I was there for one reason. The NBA wanted to expand into Europe – I was a British GQ journalist – and they knew only one magazine cover star was big enough to start turning a continent of football supporters into basketball fans. 

MJ, after all, helped create the Bulls. With his brilliance and drive, he turned them from a franchise more like a frat-house into the best team in basketball. MJ helped create Nike. Can you name a piece of footwear or apparel more iconic than the Air Jordan? And MJ helped to grow basketball itself. 

The Last Dance of the Bulls 

I was thinking about the Michael Jordan phenomenon again because, even after all these years, he is back. Once again dominating the game of basketball. True, the NBA season is on hold in case it catches a COVID cold, but the Netflix docu-series The Last Dance is a captivating event for all fans of the sport.

On one level, it’s the fly-on-the-wall account of the 1998 Chicago Bulls as they battled to win a second championship three-peat before the team – for some bizarre reason – was broken up. On another, it’s a remarkable business story with an unlikely American hero at its heart. 

Basketball and dollars! In the year to May 2019, Nike’s Jordan brand subsidiary earned $3.14 billion in wholesale revenue, with Jordan scooping an estimated $130 million. Or four times more than LeBron James who earned $32 million. Some basketball aficionados may claim that LeBron was a better player. But Jordan is on a different planet when it comes to sales of footwear. 

The Air Jordan phenomenon is the gift that just keeps giving… both in terms of eye-watering profits and in its amazing capacity to produce media-busting content. So unsurprisingly the search is on for the next MJ. Nike is punting on ZW – or Zion Williamson – who was the top overall pick in the NBA draft last year. Wearing Jordans, he will fit beautifully into Nike’s marketing strategy. His multi-year deal is worth an estimated $13 million annually. But it’s worth it. All those amazing dunks and moves can be chopped up and broadcast on media platforms around the world. 

“If Zion lives up to the hype, he is going to be a constant source of content creation for Nike,” John Kernan, the Cowen & Co. analyst, told Forbes Magazine. “Athletes are very monetizable right now with social media, and Nike will participate in all of that content every time he does something memorable.”

Jordan kickstarts football shirt sales 

Basketball and soccer are the only true global team sports, which explains why brands like Nike and Adidas are willing to pay such incredible sums to snap up stars that shoot hoops and score goals. The players lead their marketing campaigns around the world. It’s simple… from billboards and social media to paid TV ads and a prominent position in live broadcasts, their logos shine. 

Back to MJ. His reach is no longer limited to basketball. The Jordan brand now stretches into football where, among other activities, it sponsors the kit of the French champion Paris Saint-Germain. Sales of the club’s US shirts sales have soared a whopping 470%. Celebrities have been flocking to the PSG brand… Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Will Smith and Stephen Curry have all been snapped in the gear.

It’s as though PSG’s mind-bogglingly wealthy owners wanted a brand more than a football club. So who did they call? Jordan’s mates at Nike. “PSG is a powerful global brand,” says Bert Hoyt, general manager of Nike EMEA. “We share their vision for creating a lasting legacy in Paris and beyond and look forward to serving the men’s and women’s teams, alongside more exciting creative projects like last season’s hugely popular debut Jordan kit.”

There’s no escape for MJ

Wind back 24 years to the Alamodome locker room. After an interminable wait, Michael Jordan appeared and sat down right beside me. Not bored. Not interested. Impassive. But he soon warmed up and started talking with a thoughtful and serious intelligence. 

He had once said he had a vision about hitting a winning home run, running around the bases and out of the ground into obscurity forever. I asked him if he felt the same way about the end of his basketball career. “If it was a shot for the championship, it might happen,” he said with a wry smile. “I might leave and escape.”

There was no escape for the sportsman that became a megabrand. And guess what. Nike signed up MJ – then a humble if super-athletic young man with a dream – straight from NYC in 1984 on a five-year deal for, wait for it, just $500,000!

At Paragon, we can’t promise to find you the next Michael Jordan to help promote your company but we do enjoy the challenge of creating content marketing strategies and telling corporate stories in a fresh and compelling way. If you would like to talk to us about updating or refreshing your strategy, then we would love to help you. Why not contact our team?

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