Taking his talents to the nation’s capital, learn how Michael Jordan’s DC days re-energized his signature series right in the nick of time.
In 2023, Jordan Brand became the second-biggest footwear company in the world, raking in a whopping $6.6 billion in revenue.
Twenty-three years prior, it was in a different space.
Adjusting to life without Michael Jordan in Chicago, the upstart subsidiary was losing traction like, well, an old pair of sneakers.
”The formula was to create this cool shoe, advertise with Bugs Bunny or Spike Lee, and then Michael plays 82 games into the playoffs in that shoe,” Jordan Brand chairman Larry Miller told Boardroom in 2022.
“Now you’re taking a big piece of that formula out with Michael not playing in that shoe.”
Leaving the game behind, a new class of endorsers was tasked to fill Mike’s shoes.
While it was enough to keep the brand’s lifeblood alive on-court, it wasn’t enough to bounce back the bottom line.
Appearing dead on arrival in only its infancy, Jordan Brand became blessed by a new narrative right when it needed it the most.
Following our three-part oral history of Michael Jordan’s rise from NBA MVP to NBA owner, Boardroom offers a bonus chapter of how the GOAT’s days in DC kept his footwear franchise alive when it was on life support.
Hear from Mike’s peers, industry execs, and ambassadors on how the Wizards’ comeback changed the trajectory of the Jordan Brand.
MVP to CEO
When Michael Jordan prepared for his Last Dance in Chicago, the Bulls had no succession plan that involved their franchise player.
Nike, on the other hand, had it all figured out.
Ahead of MJ’s last season in Chicago, Nike launched Brand Jordan: a Swoosh subsidiary made in the image of Michael.
Expanding beyond signature sneakers to sponsored schools, team shoes, and enhanced apparel, the Jumpman label was predicted to do $300 million in its first year.
A storybook ending kept Jordan Brand hot throughout 1998, but sales started to shudder after his retirement in 1999.
Larry Miller (Jordan Brand Chairman): When we launched the [Air Jordan] 15 without Michael playing in that shoe, it was a big deal for us.
The formula was to create this cool shoe, advertise with Bugs Bunny or Spike Lee, and then Michael plays 82 games into the playoffs in that shoe.
Now, you’re taking a big piece of that formula out with Michael not playing in that shoe.
Inspired by a women’s watch from Paris and designed by the great Tinker Hatfield, the avant-garde Air Jordan 15 failed to connect with a global audience the same way its predecessors provoked sales.
With MJ no longer competing in NBA action, the shoes were seeded to college talent at Cincinnati and North Carolina while worn by the likes of Mike Bibby, Ray Allen, and Reggie Miller at the pro level.
Michael Jordan and thus the 15 were sold as an overarching theme of greatness guiding basketball rather than a boots-on-the-ground race towards innovation.
Elegance, grace, and maturing were the calling cards for the early era of Jordan Brand, soundtracked by Mary J. Blige’s renditions of Stevie Wonder classics.
In 1999 and into 2000, the 15 played the forefront while MJ played the background.
Team bank styles moved the model out of the modern signature slot, while moccasin makeups alluded to transitioning into a more sophisticated space.
In a matter of months, each SKU was on sale with new energy, sensing fresh blood in the once Nike-owned market.
Over at Reebok, Allen Iverson was becoming a cultural phenomenon much like Mike before.
Because of this, Nike, Inc. as a whole was trend-chasing versus trend-setting for the first time in decades.
“When I showed up as an intern, Nike Basketball was not in good shape,” Maverick Carter told Boardroom in 2022. “People don’t remember, but AND1 was kicking ass with The Mixtape Tour.”
Earning reports reflected the dire times in Beaverton.
Ahead of taking the front office job with Washington in January 2000, reports stated that Air Jordan sales had fallen 42% the previous fall, making for “its weakest showing ever.“
Quickly, the competition seized on the opportunity.
In 2001, Adidas inked McGrady to a multi-million-dollar extension, claiming his first signature shoe sent their basketball business up 40% in sales.
That same year, Reebok cashed out Iverson by making him a lifetime partner.
Meanwhile, Nike’s cash cow was waiting in the wings and creeping on a comeback.
Guess Who’s Back
By returning to the hardwood in the fall of 2001 ahead of a hot holiday season, Jordan Brand had a chance to climb back on top.
Miller: It was an exciting time, but it was a little scary for us.
Michael coming back? We hadn’t planned on that, so we had to shift our focus and approach.
Returning to basketball in October 2001, the team at Jordan Brand had only months to get the game shoe ready for a proper rollout.
In the interim, MJ played preseason games in the “Ginger” Air Jordan 16, a lifestyle-leaning basketball shoe inspired by the suede Timberlands thanks to a mustard suede gaiter.
While basketball fans worldwide adjusted to seeing MJ suit up in blue, DC residents instantly became infatuated with Air Jordans that were suddenly their own.
Nyrik Lee (Former Wizards intern, Marketing Director at The Museum DC): The “Ginger” 16s had the [Washington, DC] on fire.
It gave us a sense of pride like Chicago people. He went to All-Star Games; he handed out buckets; and he showed y’all the old man can still do it in these shoes in this city.
It gave us a super sense of pride wearing his sneakers. The different models that he played in all did well here.
Soon, the fervor spread to major markets.
For the 2001-02 NBA season opener in NYC, Michael Jordan debuted the Air Jordan 17 on national television.
Taking place weeks before Christmas, it would be months before fans could call them their own as the shoes released in February 2002 in accordance with All-Star Weekend.
Retailing for $200 and packaged in a silver suitcase, they were far and away the most expensive Air Jordan to date.
For the first time in years, the Jordan Brand game shoe was validated by the GOAT, making the heavy price tag all the more aspirational.
Miller: We launched the 17, and it launched successfully. It was a challenge, but it was a good challenge.
Lee: The 16s, 17s, and 18s? Those were big-deal sneakers because he was here. It feels like now we’re a part of his legacy.
Jordans were already super big here. If you hear a person like Kanye talk about coming to the DMV area and Jordans, it was already a thing.
The 17s and all the joints that he played in here? It made us feel like we were a part of this thing.
Operating in Three Time Zones
When working on the original rollout for the Air Jordan 17, there was no confirmation Michael Jordan would be back in action.
Aiming to add youthful energy to the brand very much in flux, Jordan Brand aligned Los Angeles Clippers stars Quentin Richardson and Darius Miles with the shoe.
Having run with MJ at Hoops Chicago, the Midwest kids were tapped to lead the shoe ahead of the confirmed comeback.
Quentin Richardson (NBA veteran, Jordan Brand ambassador, Knuckleheads co-host): It was a dream come true. You grow up wanting to have a commercial and a shoe endorsement.
When we got that call that Jordan Brand was doing a commercial with us? We were over the moon.
We had to fly to New York. Once we got there, wait a minute, Spike Lee — Mars Blackmon — is about to direct the commercial?! We had our own individual trailers; we thought we were movie stars.
You couldn’t tell us nothing. Literally. That was one of those “we’ve arrived” moments where you’re just feeling yourself on a whole different level.
After starting a new millennium coming off a weak Q4 in 1999, Jordan Brand was suddenly mounting momentum from all angles.
In LA, the brand had two young superstars who could juice modern models and retro releases alike.
Over in DC, the GOAT was back on court, adding credibility to new designs and new colorways.
Back in Beaverton, the execs instrumental in all of it were seeing the future of their business take proper shape.
Miller: The folks who were a part of the team and truly believed in what we were trying to do? MJ was on board, Phil Knight was on board and incredibly supportive, and that allowed us to get through some of the issues to get to the point where the brand’s been able to accomplish what it has so far.
Gentry Humphrey (Former Jordan Brand VP): As rough as people think MJ’s Wizards days were, they forget there were some pretty phenomenal moments.
At 40 years old, he’s giving folks 50 and 51, doing the things that he did. He still was able to keep people on the edge of their seats each and every night he hit the court.
Across the NBA, the fanfare of being able to play against Michael Jordan in Air Jordans ramped up interest in retros.
For the likes of Richardson, Ron Artest, and eventual footwear free agent Kobe Bryant, the same shoes they wore while dreaming of lining up against MJ as kids could now be realized as reality when going toe-to-toe with the GOAT.
Metta Sandiford-Artest (NBA champion, NBA Defensive Player of the Year): I remember trying to get Jordans because I was a Nike guy, and I got product. I was in Indiana, and Michael was coming into town, and they wouldn’t give me Jordans because Reggie Miller was our Jordan guy.
I needed the Jordans ASAP, so I drove to Chicago to Nike Town after a shootaround in Indiana.
I got to the game late, but I wore the Jordans. I wasn’t about to miss out on playing against MJ in the MJs. I was trying to lock him up in his own shoes. That was difficult.
Richardson: You have the photographers at every game, and I went up to one of them that I was familiar with. I said, “Yo, I don’t care what’s going on, every time I’m there with Mike take pictures!” I needed that, and I’ve got some of them still.
The one home game I wore the “True Blue” 3s because those were Clippers colors. I’ve got a picture in my house on a mantel of him driving by me in 17s.
During the DC days, game recognized game, as players instantly gravitated to Air Jordans of the new and retro variety.
In the industry, it still took buyers and execs time to realize the secret sauce of what would soon be a billion-dollar business.
Miller: We were in the process of building a brand and there were a lot of people internally and externally that didn’t think we could do it.
There was one retailer in particular who said, “You know what? This will never work. But I’m going to go with you guys because you’re Nike, and I feel like I have to, but it’s not going to work.”
Two years later, I see the same guy at the Magic Show in Las Vegas. He came up and said, “You know what, I owe you an apology. I didn’t believe in you guys and what you’ve done has been great. By the way, can I get some more Jordans?”
Throughout two seasons back on the court, MJ was able to add inordinate energy to various releases of the retro, performance, and team variety.
It was Jordan’s DC days that brought proof of concept to new colors on old shoes — namely, the “Cool Grey” Air Jordan 11 Retro.
Humphrey: To have him validate the colorway with the level of respect he had with consumers was huge. You’ve got a great product, and the guy who sparked the whole interest in them? That’s nothing but positive.
Richardson: That “Cool Grey” 11 stood out and went harder than anything I’d ever seen. [When Mike wore them], it confirmed that we were right because everybody else felt how we felt.
For the last two decades, the holiday Air Jordan 11 release has become an annual event.
At retail, the model drives nearly one million sales units worldwide while amassing roughly $1 million of aftermarket value through resale transactions.
As a member of the Washington Wizards, Jordan wore retro releases of the Air Jordan 3, Air Jordan 7, Air Jordan 9, and Air Jordan 11 — all in SKUs unseen during his Chicago reign.
Upon exiting DC, MJ was able to hand off a $40 million baton to Carmelo Anthony, tasked with leading Jordan performance in his absence.
The early 2000s paved the way for the brand’s retro business to totally take flight, allowing the company to hit $800 million in sales by 2007 — over 2.5x times their projected earnings when launched in 1997.
All these years later, Jordan Brand brings in well over $6 billion annually.
Already in 2024, nearly a quarter century since sales slumped beyond belief, Jordan Brand is outfitting college football’s best and doing $1 billion in Remix products alone.
The Jumpman is worn by basketball’s best in America and abroad, outfitting NASCAR vehicles and Parisian futbol powerhouses alike.
It’s a testament to an athlete-turned-entrepreneur willing to take risks in new markets and see tough times through.
David Falk (Legendary Agent): I think Michael is singularly in a class by himself of any player in probably any sport as far as being marketable over a long period of time. The fact that Jordan Brand is approaching $6 billion years after he retired is a testament to his long-term popularity. It’s become like an institution.
Michael changed the game for today’s generation of players. I’m looking for the next person who’s going to ratchet that up to the next level, who’s going to do something really revolutionary.
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