Part 1 of SLAM’s conversation with David Falk can be found here.
by Nima Zarrabi / @NZbeFree
In 1984, Nike was gaining little traction in the basketball shoe market despite its collection of 120 NBA players representing the brand. Converse was making a bigger impact with far less talent under contract thanks to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas. The realization led the Nike basketball team to transition into a new model. A strategy was put into place that began with cutting cash payments to many of their basketball players and the brand practically challenged its players under contract to leave for their competitors.
When it came to basketball, the key players for the Nike brass were Rob Strasser and Sonny Vaccaro. Strasser is known as one of the men who helped build Nike and was one of Phil Knight’s closest confidants until the late ’80s. He had an incredible impact on the brand especially when it came to Nike basketball.
Vaccaro’s role in the basketball culture has been well documented and his work for the swoosh was critical—Sonny was the best foot solider in the Nike army. He knew all the players, the coaches and fully understood the art of the basketball hustle. Vaccaro didn’t agree with Strasser’s idea to cut ties with most of Nike’s talent, but was overruled. Strasser wanted one basketball star that the brand could make a marketing push behind. Someone fresh, talented, healthy, charismatic—an athlete who fit the Nike brand image. They immediately took notice of Charles Barkley of Auburn, who had both talent and flair—Nike liked that.
But Vaccaro had another person in mind. Someone he would pound his fist for: Michael Jordan. Vaccaro described Jordan as the best player he had ever seen, claiming he could practically fly through the air. But he was a self-proclaimed adidas nut at that time who had never worn Nike. That didn’t faze Vaccaro. Jordan was about to begin his junior season at North Carolina and Vaccaro believed he would leave school early to enter the Draft. He warned the powers at Nike that they had better have an action plan in place. When asked if he was willing to bet his job on Jordan, Vaccaro said yes.
Strasser went to work. In a quarterly meeting with an agent by the name of David Falk, a man Strasser had negotiated 50 prior deals with at the time, he brought up Jordan. If anyone could sign Jordan, Strasser felt Falk would be the guy. Falk told Strasser that players from North Carolina didn’t leave school early. Strasser told Falk, “You never know. Let’s stay in touch and see how things develop.”
As predicted by the Nike team, Jordan came out early for the 1984 Draft and chose Falk as his representation, who immediately laid groundwork for meetings with Converse, adidas and Nike. Falk was working for Pro Serv, a powerful sports agency founded by Donald Dell that had represented numerous star tennis players such as Arthur Ashe, Yannick Noah, Ivan Lendl and Stan Smith. Through his experience, he understood that tennis players had signature shoes and were paid royalties on products that carried their names. Falk wanted Jordan to be treated like a tennis player, not a basketball player. Nike agreed with Falk. They would allow Jordan to have royalties and his own sub-brand. The next step was to figure out how to market Jordan’s image to the American public.