The emergence of the Nike sports apparel corporation has mirrored the sky-rocketing popularity of sports, athletes, and personal athletic activity in the late twentieth century. Nike has fueled a great deal of this popularity, particularly by employing athletes as product spokespeople and infusing the world of sports with vast amounts of capital. Moreover, by becoming a bone fide cultural icon, "the swoosh," as the corporation's symbol is referred to, has become one of the most ubiquitous product emblems in American life—possibly second only to that of Coca-Cola.
Nike began in 1962 when Phil Knight took an idea he had proposed in his MBA thesis and made it a reality. His paper proposed that well-merchandised shoes from Japan could end Germany's domination of the U.S. athletic shoe industry. After completing his Stanford degree, Knight met in Japan with the Onitsuka Tiger Company, manufacture of quality athletic shoes, and convinced them of the merit of his plan to develop the U.S. market. When the Tiger representatives asked whom he represented, Knight on the spot created "Blue Ribbon Sports," the forerunner of Nike. Knight and his wife distributed Tiger shoes from their garage and financed the endeavor with their own money plus $500 investments from their son and from Bill Bowerman, Knight's well-known track coach at the University of Oregon. With Bowerman reshaping the Tiger products with new designs, Blue Ribbon Sports began producing its own products in 1971. In six years, revenues climb from $8,000 to $1.96 million. Legal wrangling with Tiger led to the dissolution of Blue Ribbon Sports and the birth of Nike, the debut of which took place at the 1972 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. By 1979, Nike claimed 50 percent of the U.S. running shoe market.
From the start, Nike pushed the similarity between contemporary sport and ancient warfare: Nike, the shoe, was intended to inspire athletes as just as Nike, the Greek goddess, had inspired Greek warriors on history's earliest battlefields. With such aspirations, the corporation's name suggests the added importance of sports in contemporary life. More than any other entity, Nike may be most responsible for the rapid commercialization of sport in the late twentieth century. In terms of sales, Nike is one of the most successful companies in the world. In 1998 Nike posted record sales of $9.6 billion, selling nearly 160 million pairs of athletic shoes. Shoes form the core of Nike sales, but the company has broadened into all types of sports apparel. Today, one out of every two pairs of athletic shoes in the nation is made by Nike. The sneaker, a fairly rudimentary article of clothing prior to the 1970s, became the vehicle through which the fan and athlete could connect to raise the role of sports in American life to new levels.
"It's the shoes," boasted one of Nike's most memorable ad campaigns. As opposing athletes tried to explain the exceptional skills of Michael Jordan, Nike spokesman and basketball star since 1984, this was the only explanation they could find. Conveniently for Nike, this explanation would also help to make "Air Jordans" the shoe that formed this new link between fans and their stars, as millions of fans purchased a pair in hopes that the shoes would give them a piece of Jordan's unique gift.
As evidenced by this episode, Nike began to commodify sports in a way never seen previously. The core of this restructuring revolved around using athletes to represent products to the public in carefully-crafted advertisements. Athletes, including Jordan, became characters to be packaged with products that somehow reflected their actual or contrived personal details. With such "product tie-ins," sporting events often appear as stages on which corporations such as Nike orchestrate "product placement," a term for noticeably positioning name-brand products in feature films. For instance, it has now become common for football's Super Bowl, or other significant sporting events, to be tied to the introduction of new ads, each attempting to outdo the others or to continue an ongoing narrative with the viewing public. Such efforts are aimed at reinforcing a bond between performer/athlete and fan/viewer that ultimately benefits corporations such as Nike.
These changes have helped to propel the world of sports into a big money business for athletes and lawyers, who are used as agents similar to those employed by Hollywood celebrities. The agent's task is to manage the career of the athlete into these new economic possibilities so that most athletes will not need to work after retiring from sports. Nike proved visionary in defining this process by associating itself with young athletes in a bond that often proves more lasting than an athlete's team affiliations. Most often, immediately upon turning professional, the modern athlete carries a brand contract to wear and represent certain apparel. Nike now has more than 3,000 athletes in the fold worldwide, including 82 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association, over half of the Major League Baseball and National Football League players, and players at more than 200 universities. In addition to learning characteristic athletic moves, aspiring athletes often choose the apparel of their favorite athlete as well. This tendency has been fostered, if not altogether manufactured, by Nike's effort to give athletes personal characteristics in the marketplace.
The most famous of the branded sports personalities was Michael Jordan, who served as the pioneer for the modern athlete. Jordan was signed to Nike representation prior to his emergence as the best basketball player ever, and as both the player and the Nike apparel he wore rose in prominence, Jordan's public image blurred the line between product and personality. Named the NBA's Most Valuable Player five times and responsible for leading the lowly Chicago Bulls from also-rans to powerhouse of the 1990s, Jordan's skills are undeniable. Yet his celebrity—fostered by innumerable advertise-ments—has allowed him to become the world's most recognizable figure. Though Jordan was the product spokesman for innumerable companies and has starred in feature films, it is his representation of Nike that was primarily responsible for his widespread recognition. Both Nike and Jordan reaped the benefits of his product development.
In recent years, Nike's popularity has fueled some harsh criticism. The ubiquity of the "swoosh" has seen it publicly worn and associated with criminals and oddity: just before the Heaven's Gate cult members poisoned themselves in 1997, they each laced up new black Nikes. Of course, any symbol worn by so many people is liable to such accidental notoriety. More damaging, Nike manufacturing has been directly linked to the exploitation of child labor abroad. With most of Nike's shoes manufactured in Indonesia, Vietnam, and China, the company risks allowing local workplace ethics—which run counter to Western standards—to infiltrate their production. Exposé articles in 1998 disclosed that Nike plants forced workers into a sub-standard, "sweatshop" environment and often employed younger workers. The episode has turned into a public relations nightmare for Nike, allowing it to become for many Americans a symbol of "unethical big corporations." The company hired former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young to inspect the plants. When Young reported that the factories were "lean, organized [and] adequately ventilated," Nike began one of its mammoth ad campaigns in order to inform its American buyers.
Interestingly, though, the "sweatshop" has proven to be a daunting association to shake publicly, which may say more about Americans' feelings about themselves than about Nike. In an era of global capitalism, many consumers see Nike as a symbol of American greed. Indonesian Nike workers, for instance, are not allowed to wear the shoes or purchase them at cost (How could they when they earn U.S. $2.20 per day without overtime?). In fact, all Nike shoes are made for export; none are sold in Indonesia. The idea that a luxury item such as sports shoes exploits children abroad has led many Americans to question the culture of consumption that makes $150 sneakers part of everyday life. This is exactly the type of questioning that Nike has avoided as it constructed one of the most successful corporations of the late twentieth century.
Becklund, Laurie, and J. B. Strasser. Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1993.
Collins, David R. Philip Knight: Running with Nike. Ada, Oklahoma, Garrett Educational Corporation, 1991.
Greenberg, Keith Elliot. Bill Bower & Phil Knight: Building the Nike Empire. Woodbridge, Connecticut, Blackbird Press, 1994.
Hays, Scott. The Story of Nike. Mankato, Minnesota, Smart Apple Media, 1999.
Katz, Donald. Just Do It: The Nike Spirit in the Corporate World. New York, Random House, 1994.
LaFeber, Walter. Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism. New York, Norton, 1999.
Founded in 1962, Nike, Inc. was one of the first designers of special shoes for athletes. The corporation has been at the fore-front of advertising (see entry under 1920s—Commerce in volume 2) and marketing techniques since the 1980s. Although Nike has continued to identify itself with athletes and athletic achievement, Nike sneakers are just as likely to be worn by nonathletes who simply want a stylish designer casual shoe.
Nike got its start in Eugene, Oregon, and was the creation of two men, Bill Bowerman (1911–1999) and Philip Knight (1938–). Bowerman was a track-and-field coach at the University of Oregon who was constantly searching for an athletic shoe that would help his teams run faster and jump higher. Knight was a businessman who had been a runner on one of Bowerman's teams when he was in college. Knight and Bowerman teamed up in 1962, first to import Japanese running shoes,
then to experiment with their own designs. They called their company Blue Ribbon Sports.
Though Knight and Bowerman were successful in creating shoes that improved athletes' performance on the field, they had to figure out how to sell their shoes to a wider market. In 1972, they adopted the name Nike, after the winged Greek goddess of victory, and their trademark "swoosh." The trademark was designed by Carolyn Davidson, a Portland State University graphic design student. Knight and Bowerman also designed an advertising campaign that featured ads, not for specific shoes, but for victory itself, employing through the years famous winning athletes like basketball's Michael Jordan (1963–; see entry under 1990s—Sports and Games in volume 5) and tennis champions John McEnroe (1959–) and Monica Seles (1973–). Nike ads often feature sweating athletes in dramatic motion with the company slogan, "Just Do It."
Beginning in the 1980s, some people began to criticize Nike's employment practices. They pointed out that Nikes are not manufactured in the United States but in countries like China, Indonesia, and Vietnam, where labor is much cheaper and workers are treated badly. These critics have organized many demonstrations and boycotts of the company's products.
The quality of Nike's shoe design and its creative approach to advertising has made the company a continuing success. Millions of people have bought Nike shoes, both as athletic wear and as a fashion statement. By 2000, Nike was selling 40 percent of all sneakers sold worldwide, earning billions of dollars in sales, and employing thousands of workers in its factories around the world. Nike sponsors hundreds of athletic teams and events, and the Nike "swoosh" has become one of the most recognized symbols in the world.
For More Information
Clifford, Mark L. "'On the Inside, It's Hell': Despite Improvements, Nike Workers Face Tough Conditions." Business Week (July 29, 1996): pp. 46–48.
Collins, David R. Philip Knight: Running with Nike. Ada, OK: Garrett Educational Corp., 1992.
Hays, Scott. The Story of Nike. Mankato, MN: Smart Apple Media, 2000.
Miller, Annetta. "Just Doing It." Newsweek (October 2, 1995): pp. 64–66.
Nike.http://www.nike.com (accessed March 13, 2002).
Strasser, J. B, and Laurie Becklund. Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There. New York: HarperInformation, 1993.
Nike, the Greek goddess of victory, may originally have been considered an aspect of the goddess Athena* rather than a deity in her own right. According to the Greek writer Hesiod*, Nike was the daughter of the river Styx and the Titan Pallas. Zeus* honored her for helping him win the battle of the gods against the Titans. The Romans knew Nike as Victoria and considered her the protector of the Roman senate.
deity god or goddess
Titan one of a family of giants who ruled the earth until overthrown by the Greek gods of Olympus
Nike was usually shown as a small figure carried in the hands of Zeus or Athena. As the goddess of victory, she appeared as a winged figure holding a laurel wreath above the heads of those
*See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
who won competitions. However, in her identity as Athena Nike, she was portrayed without wings.
See also Athena; Greek Mythology; Roman Mythology.