The true story of Air movie: Sonny Vaccaro, Michael Jordan & the Nike deal

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Let’s be honest: a good movie is often the best way to learn the beauty of a true story. Especially when that story is not known by everybody, hidden in the lost details behind every significant event in history. That’s what makes the film Air such a pleasure to see: released on Amazon Prime in 2023, it tells us how the historical deal between Nike and Michael Jordan was closed, with the negotiations powered by the vision of Sonny Vaccaro. The birth of the Nike Air Jordan line marked a turning point in the history of basketball marketing. Let’s learn more about all that happened.

You can watch the official trailer for Amazon Prime’s Air here on Youtube.

Air movie, the true story of how Sonny Vaccaro got the deal with Michael Jordan for the Nike Air Jordan shoes

Yes, the movie Air, released on Amazon Prime in 2023, is accurate and tells the true story of the historical deal negotiated by Sonny Vaccaro for Nike in 1984, when Michael Jordan became the symbol of their Air Jordan shoes. In that period, Sonny Vaccaro was a sports marketing executive at Nike’s basketball division: after watching Air, he personally confirmed that the movie “embellished some things, but I can honestly say there were no lies.”

In the 80s, Nike wasn’t considered anywhere close to a top brand for basketball shoes. As the movie Air explains, the most popular basketball shoes in the world were made by the German brand Adidas. They were the company with the biggest budget allocated to marketing, and they were able to get NBA’s best athletes. 

In 1984, Michael Jordan was a rising star, ready to start his first NBA season with Chicago Bulls, and every shoe brand wanted him. Adidas was the favorite candidate for a deal with him, and people close to him confirmed that Michael Jordan personally loved Adidas: he wore Adidas shoes when he practiced and then switched to Converse for the official matches.

The reason why Sonny Vaccaro was the one who managed to bring Michael Jordan to Nike and close the deal was that, among the marketing executives of all companies involved at that time, he was the one who believed in Michael more than everyone. As this beautiful article on NSS Sports explains, Vaccaro was pushing to use the whole budget for that season just for Michael Jordan. “My position was: all the money we have, just give it to him.” And when Rob Strasser, one of Nike’s executives, asked, “Would you bet your salary?” Sonny confirmed with no doubts.

The movie Air is entirely focused on how the negotiation for that deal evolved, and it’s true, the deal was a very complicated story. Sonny Vaccaro skipped the standard practice and contacted Michael Jordan’s family directly, talking directly with Michael’s mother, Deloris. He asked his old friend George Raveling, one of the coaches of the National Olympic team, to contact Micheal Jordan and set up a meeting. And the first time Vaccaro and Jordan met in Tony Roma’s restaurant in Los Angeles, they didn’t even like each other. Vaccaro was an Italian American man with a peculiar look, and Michael Jordan would say afterward that he wouldn’t be sure he wanted anything to do with “such a shady guy.” And on his side, Vaccaro was surprised to discover how Michael Jordan was obsessed with having a car. “If you sign this contract, you will have as many cars as you wish,” Vaccaro told Jordan. But Michael Jordan wasn’t keen on compromises. “I want a car, now,” he said to Vaccaro.

After that meeting, Michael Jordan didn’t want to sign with Nike. But Vaccaro was still convinced of his marketing vision and was sure that Nike’s offer would beat the competitors. That meeting we see in the movie Air is part of the true story: the Jordan family went to Nike World Headquarters in Oregon, and that’s when Sonny Vaccaro explained that Jordan represents the future of Nike. As Vaccaro said, “We bet it all; I myself was betting my job and Nike was betting on its future, it was an incredible situation.” At that point, Deloris Jordan asked Vaccaro: “So you’re turning my son into the future of this company?” And Vaccaro answered: “If Michael is not with us, we’ll fail.”

According to the story told by Sonny Vaccaro, Michael Jordan was pretty silent during that meeting. At some point, he just asked Vaccaro again about his car, and Nike executives showed him two models they were ready to buy for him. Legend has it that Michael Jordan was tired of those meetings and didn’t even want to come to Nike that day. It was her mother, Deloris, the one who convinced him to come. But Jordan didn’t intend to attend any more meetings after that.

As Celebrity Net Worth explains in this article, Nike offered Michael Jordan $500,000 a year in cash for five years, a record-breaking deal for those years. The agreement also included 25% of profits for all Air Jordan shoes sold, sharing with the athlete the revenues Nike would make with the product with his name on it. That was the first time a contract of that kind was closed in American basketball. And despite all that, Michael Jordan was still reluctant to sign with Nike and went back to Adidas, asking them if they could match those conditions. But Adidas was still in the middle of the succession process after the death of Adi Dassler some years earlier, and they decided not to match Nike’s offer.

The contract was signed in the Autumn of 1984, and it’s remembered as the deal that changed the course of history in American basketball. It was also the turning point in Nike’s history, as it progressively became the iconic brand they are today. With his persistence, Sonny Vaccaro saved Nike, the Air Jordan became one of the most popular shoes of all time, and that deal still represents one of Michael Jordan’s primary sources of income.

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