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Kiki Rice & the Evolution of the Air Jordan Rollout

Last Updated: August 17, 2023
A NIL deal allowed the UCLA guard to debut the latest pair of Mikes. Learn how MJ’s empire is maneuvering its marketing to meet modern hoopers where they’re at.

Even in 2023, Michael Jordan soars above all adversaries.

Leaping over Adidas and any brand once set on signing him in 1984, Jordan Brand currently sits as the second biggest shoe company in the entire world.

Mike’s massive market share maps out to $6.6 billion in revenue over the course of Jordan Brand‘s last fiscal calendar. The Jumpman spans sport and culture, adorning football jerseys for Florida while releasing shoes tied to Travis Scott.

Regardless of range, there’s only one product that serves as the true North Star for the flourishing footwear company: the annual Air Jordan game shoe.

This week, the Air Jordan 38 arrives at retail for $200.

Kiki Rice Jordan
Photo courtesy of Jordan

Designed for peak performance while still paying homage to the legacy line’s rich past, the advanced aesthetic and aspirational pricing place the AJ 38 above its peers. Such positioning harkens to memorable Mike models, designed to elevate the game’s excellence and esteem.

Amassing equity on the court, the annual Air Jordan shoe still holds weight. However, it’s lacking one key component on-court: Michael Jordan.

Retired for 20 years, the brand has kept its namesake line both alive and new through annual innovations and All-Star endorsers. While the likes of Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook have all tried to fill MJ’s shoes, a new name entered the chat when a 19-year-old female freshman point guard debuted Michael’s new model.

“I had a ton of people asking me, ‘What shoes are those?'” UCLA point guard Kiki Rice told Boardroom. “When I put those on at shootaround everyone was like, ‘Are those the new Kiki shoes?'”

On the heels of the Air Jordan 38 launch, Boardroom breaks down how MJ’s storied signature series has remained relevant in the market over five different decades.

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The Black & Red Blueprint

In 1984, Nike devised a plan: Market Michael Jordan as though he was a tennis player.

By making an African American team sports star not just a spokesperson but a brand in himself, Mike’s signature shoe could crossover from court to casual wear with the same strength as Stan Smith. Advertising would mimic racquets endorsed by Arthur Ashe, eliciting the idea that the product could give you both power and confidence.

At the time, Nike needed it as they were miles behind more established sportswear companies when it came to shoe sales. This proved particularly true when it came to hoops.

“Basketball was below tennis in total sales,” Ron Hill, former Nike Product Merchandiser, told Boardroom in 2022. “Running was first and tennis kind of had a street appeal. Basketball was a distant third.”

In inking MJ, Nike suddenly put all their chips in on one player and one wild, rushed rollout.

Kiki Rice Jordan
Focus on Sport via Getty Images

“We signed Michael right after the ’84 Olympics,” Brad Johnson, Former Head of Category at Nike Basketball, told Boardroom in 2022. “He signed this huge $500,000 contract and we had to get him in some shoes.”

Because of this, the Air Jordan empire was literally being built as it was already in flight. For weeks leading up to MJ’s rookie season and in the midst of it, the brand worked between multiple time zones to make Michael a game shoe that was specific to his needs on the court and also capable of coming to market.

Weeks into his first year, the Air Jordan 1 was ready for wear. Due to the league’s lacking broadcast deals and Chicago’s status in the standings, MJ and his signature shoe were rarely seen by the masses as his status ascended. Because of this, Nike leveraged the nationally televised broadcast of All-Star Weekend to show the shoe to the world.

“The All-Star Game was the one time where the NBA said the colors didn’t have to relate,” Johnson said.

Making the most of the “Banned” colorway in the Dunk Contest and the approved “Chicago” style in the exhibition, the Air Jordan 1 elicited eyeballs from all over the country at 1985’s All-Star Weekend.

It was an almost happenstance situation that set up the shoe’s marketing momentum for years to come.

“Until that time, basketball shoes were introduced in the fall,” Hill said. “We needed a vehicle to sell spring shoes.”

And sell, it did. Arriving at retail in April 1985, the Air Jordan 1 carried cachet in stores in a manner no Nike Basketball shoe had before.

“At that time, Michael had around 1 million units between men’s, boys, and infant sizes,” Johnson said. “The average shoe at that point was about 60,000 units, so it was about 20x the volume.”

Coming to the conclusion that Michael needed a second signature shoe, the stage was set for annual updates. Nike’s marketing plan for most Jordans to follow would be prestigious play, unorthodox ads from Wieden+Kennedy, and an All-Star arrival.

“All-Star was the first time we introduced a basketball shoe in the spring,” Hill said. “Our business went up 40%.”

Kiki Rice Jordan
Andy Hayt / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

A spring schedule allowed Nike to push previous pairs under Christmas trees and extend the sales cycle for basketball shoes far after kids competed in tryouts.

Air Jordans were a yearlong business launched by the best in the game sending ripple effects for the entire Beaverton brand.

“It came in February and was the pinnacle product for that year,” said Johnson. “It set the direction for Flight, for Force, for Nike Basketball. Air Jordan was the branding position because it became so successful.”

For much of Mike’s run with the Bulls, an All-Star unveil and playoff push set the tone for annual Air Jordans soaring at retail.

Approaching his Last Dance, Mike broke embargoes on occasion, starting seasons in the new model or pulling out next year’s shoe in the midst of a heated series.

Upon exiting Chicago, Nike would make good on MJ’s earnings by starting his own subsidiary: Brand Jordan. Though the SG-turned-CEO would sign young talent to tout his annual Air Jordan on the court, February release dates would remain common with Mike still sporting pairs in advertisements.

Eventually, the model would have to be reset.

Passing the Torch

When Nike announced Brand Jordan in the fall of 1997, analysts predicted Mike’s new Swoosh subsidiary to clear $300 million in sales in its first fiscal year.

The commotion around the Last Dance and its storybook season saw Jordan’s revenue rise 57% in 1998 where Nike’s new subdivision was concerned, allowing premium pricing to tees, tanks, and shoes sporting the Jumpman.

Once MJ retired in 1999, the sales slumped.

According to The New York Post, Jordan Brand product purchases were down 42% through Fall 1999. Heading into the new millennium, Mike still stood as the world’s top commercial spokesman despite trading in his jersey for a suit.

Once again, he’d change clothes.

Kiki Rice Jordan
Luke Frazza / AFP via Getty Images

From the fall of 2001 to the spring of 2003, MJ led the front office and backcourt for the Washington Wizards. This unexpected comeback made Mike the lead endorser for the Air Jordan 17 and Air Jordan 18, allowing the ultimate validator to endorse models of the $200 variety and $175 entry point on the court and in commercials.

However, the bump would only last two additional seasons. Just weeks after MJ’s final retirement in DC, the brand had to find the next player to formally fill his shoes.

Following the 2003 signing of Carmelo Anthony for $40 million, Niked upped the ante by inking LeBron James for more than twice that sum. Seizing a shift, the Beaverton brand reached out to Anthony’s agent to see about moving him to Michael’s subsidiary.

“I didn’t even need to consult with Melo,” agent Calvin Andrews told Boardroom in May. “It was a beautiful match and they put a lot of energy behind Melo.”

As a rookie, Melo became the face of the Air Jordan 18.5 and soon the Air Jordan 19. Per usual, the Air Jordan 19 debuted at All-Star Weekend with Melo wearing it in the Rising Stars Challenge. Weeks later, they’d release at retail to keep the spring cycle.

It was a new face, but the same system.

“The qualities of Melo embody many of the qualities of MJ,” Anthony DiCosmo, VP of Sports Marketing at Jordan Brand told Boardroom in May. “That’s why he came here and this was the place for him.”

In Melo, they had a young athlete capable of translating the legacy line to a modern audience.

“He represented the brand in a major way,” Quentin Richardson told Boardroom in May. “Once he came into his own as a rookie? He took the mantle and ran with it.”

As Melo arrived, so did the need to give him his own signature sneaker under Jordan Brand. Over the course of the late ’00s and through the ’10s, the annual Air Jordan would change faces from Wade to Westbrook.

Like Melo before them, they’d earn their own signature series, resetting the same cycle all over again.

Entering the 2020s, it was clear the age-old model needed to be revamped.

Embracing the New

Over the course of the last decade, the performance basketball market has been dominated by signature shoes and diffusion lines leveraging low cuts and a price point close to $110.

For the annual Air Jordan series — often led in high-cut composition and coming in closer to $200 — it’s a position play worth occupying but a tough sell to kids born after Mike’s last All-Star appearance in 2003.

This is where NIL athlete Kiki Rice comes in.

Born months after MJ said goodbye to the game and just weeks before Carmelo took over the line, Kiki’s apprenticeship as the next ambassador of the annual Air Jordan series was a surprise even to the star herself.

Kiki Rice Jordan
Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

“The first time I wore them was the shootaround the day before the game,” Rice said. “Usually I don’t change shoes that often, but the opportunity to debut a new shoe? I had to do it.”

Tasked to unveil the Air Jordan 38 in the Sweet 16, Rice rolled the dice and balled out. Upping her average against Aaliyah Boston and then-undefeated South Carolina, the freshman phenom didn’t pull off the upset but did break a barrier.

“Being able to debut that shoe to me demonstrated Jordan’s focus and commitment towards the women’s game,” Rice said. “They could have chosen a male player and I felt incredibly honored to wear those.”

Turning heads on the court and getting tagged on social media, the buzz around Rice — Jordan Brand’s first NIL athlete — and the shoes she showcased created commotion and a modern moment. Since showing up on Kiki’s feet in March, Jordan’s strategically seeded pairs to high school standout Kiyomi McMiller and revered shooting coach Chris Matthews, better known as Lethal Shooter.

Like Kiki, both McMiller and Matthews are Jordan Brand ambassadors but not NBA All-Stars. Through creativity and content, they speak to an audience that breathes basketball but came into the world after Mike retired.

“The future is our kid consumer,” Bryant Klug, Senior Footwear Designer for Jordan Sport, told Boardroom in February. “Getting them excited about the products, especially signature product innovation.”

While Jordan Brand used All-Star Weekend 2023 to unveil the Jordan Tatum 1 — the first signature shoe for Celtics star Jayson Tatum — they’re reinventing the wheel when it comes to rolling out their storied flagship sneaker.

Such pivots are not lost on the athlete of choice.

The daughter of two Ivy League athletes, Kiki possesses the professional poise that defined the inaugural class of Jumpman athletes announced a quarter century ago. Youthful in her love of Marvel movies and well-curated Instagram page, she’s among the youngest members of the select but still growing Jordan Brand family.

“That’s one of the things that I love about Jordan,” WNBA star and JB athlete Jordin Canada told Boardroom. “They give us the opportunities to headline new products and be able to showcase them ahead of the men. They’re putting us at the forefront of things.”

Kiki Rice Jordan
Grant Halverson / NCAA Photos via Getty Images

On Aug. 18, the world will have a chance to wear the shoes Kiki wore first.

The Air Jordan 38 arrives at retail reset for the fall, made of 20% recycled materials and baring nods to 1993’s Air Jordan 8.

The shoe — and its rollout — are a case study on knowing your roots but being up to speed with the times.

It’s a shoe Kiki has had in her possession for five months, bucking the annual All-Star unveil and placing a 19-year-old woman as the face of a footwear series long fronted by men in the NBA.

“I have a big poster of all the Jordan shoes in my dorm,” said Rice. “I felt extremely honored to debut those shoes because I know the Jordan athletes that have gotten to debut shoes?

“They are the kind of players I want to be.”

Around the world, kids are already saying the same thing about Kiki Rice.

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About The Author
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.