David Falk Q + A, Pt. 2
We discuss the creation of Air Jordan and Evan Turner’s parternship with Li-Ning.
The aforementioned summary of events were described in a book called Swoosh: The unauthorized story of Nike and the men who played there. Swoosh was the first book ever written about Nike, co-authored by JB Strasser—who was Nike’s first ever advertising manager and the wife of Rob Strasser—and Laurie Becklund (Julie Strasser’s sister) who was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times. There is a scene in the book that lays out one of the most important decisions in the history of sports marketing. It occurred during a meeting between Rob Strasser, Peter Moore (a Nike creative guru) and Falk. Here is the excerpt:
Then Falk pulled out a list of names he had dreamed up for the new Nike-Jordan line. Strasser and Moore scanned it. They stopped at the same one. Strasser pointed. Moore spoke. “That’s it. Air Jordan.” As Falk and Strasser continued talking loosely about contract terms, and about scheduling a trip for Jordan to Portland for a full-blown Nike presentation, Peter Moore was sketching in the black book that he always has in his hands. He quickly drew outlines of a badge with wings, with a basketball in the center with the words “Air Jordan” floating over it. By the time Strasser and Falk were done congratulating each other on the name, Moore had finished the logo.
I bring this historic moment to light to give a glimpse of what Falk brings to the table. As an agent, it is extremely important for your client to believe in your abilities and trust the advice given. All agents want to please their clients and the easiest way to do so is by helping them get what they want. Jordan had his mind set on wearing adidas for the rest of his life. He had never even worn a Nike shoe up to that point. But Falk convinced him to be open-minded about the process—let’s hear what the other companies are willing to do for you.
Let’s consider the alternative. Would Michael Jordan have risen to the same marketing heights as an endorser had he chosen to go to adidas? “Since Michael, everybody has been looking for the next Michael Jordan,” Falk explains. “Michael is sort of a historical accident. He came out when college players could play in the Olympics. That will never happen again. He played in Los Angeles during the Olympics in front of a billion people worldwide. He was a dominating player. I think that was his showcase, a springboard. Nike was a very small company in Beaverton, OR that almost no one had heard of, maybe a dozen years into their genesis. They had basketball players, a club of a bunch of pros but nobody really big. His selection of Nike and the job that they did from day one to market him was mutually effusive. I think Michael made Nike and established them as a serious brand. And obviously jump started all of his marketing activities which were the greatest in the history of sports.”
In Part 2 of our interview, Falk discusses the shoe game as it relates to his young, talented client Evan Turner, the Sports Management program he created at Syracuse University and his future goals in the business. We first profiled Falk in 2001 for SLAM 48—a beautiful issue with Steph on the cover in Brooklyn wearing a Nets jersey, of course. It’s a fantastic interview by our main man Scoop Jackson and Falk has a quote at the end of the piece that I believe still resonates today: “There’s no amount of money in the world that can compensate for that feeling when you come through for one of your clients. That’s what keeps me going in this business.”
SLAM: Tell me about the partnership between Evan Turner and Li-Ning.
David Falk: Evan Turner signing with Li-Ning; it’s the highest drafted player in history to sign with an Asian shoe company. The basketball population in China is off the charts. In theory, if Evan Turner never sold a shoe in America, he could be one of the largest endorsers worldwide. He could surpass a lot of very high level people if Li-Ning does a good job of marketing in China. Of course, they are looking for him to be a door opener for them for their business in America. If you look at the numbers now, I think Reebok has a 1 percent market share in basketball and I think adidas has 3 (percent). Li-Ning has never been in America, so if they can get 1 percent, they would tie with Reebok. So, it’s only upside for him. The combination of the Chinese market and the American market gives us the potential. And I underline the word potential for this to be one of the most impactful deals in the last quarter century in basketball. In many ways, it’s similar to Michael because of the ability of the player and the company to marry each other and make an enormous impact, sort of put the company on the map in the sport. For me, I’ve done a bunch of deals since Michael and I am best known as the person who invented Air Jordan—I did every marketing deal Michael ever did in his basketball career. It was a great thrill for me and something I am very proud of. I don’t think I created Michael Jordan or invented Michael Jordan. I had a vision to try to project Michael’s unique charm, character, personality off the court — in products. That was my job, to be sort of the brand manager. I think we picked really good companies and they always showed Michael as Michael. They never tried to have him play an actor or a superhero. He just played the guy next door and that’s who he was. To be in this business for 36 years, it has been challenging to find a player that can replicate some of the things you learned from doing Jordan. Obviously, I learned a PhD in sports marketing from working for Michael. If I could do it again, I probably would have done a few things a little differently. Since we will never have another Michael, you take all the knowledge you learned from working with great companies like Nike, adidas, Quaker Oats, Gatorade, Coca-Cola and bring them to bear for a young player like Evan Turner and try to do a good job.
SLAM: In Michael’s case, he wanted to be with adidas and it was your job to help him have an open mind about the process. Was this situation similar?
DF: I look at my job at this point in my career as more of a teacher than a dealmaker. And you want to be an educator and a mentor to a great young player like Evan who has great values. You want him to make the decision and feel comfortable in the decision he’s making, but you want to give guidance on what to look for. The money is obvious. Everyone is going to pay you a lot of money. The question is over time, where do you have a chance to make the most impact? It’s sort of like why the Fab Five was such a historical accident. Coaches can’t get five players to come together when most guys want to be the man in their own place. Nike has had amazing success. They’ve had Jordan, the most successful endorser of all time and then they got Kobe and LeBron, the two best players in the NBA. They got Kevin Durant who is the next great player in the NBA and a lot of guys in the wings. I have great respect for Nike and have signed the majority of my guys with the company over the last 30 years. We’ve had a great relationship with adidas over the years. But this particular player, Evan Turner, for what he’s looking for as far as having a signature product, to have a marketing campaign behind him, to be global and to try to create his own brand, I think this represented the best opportunity. That’s what I’ve tried to teach him in the few months we’ve been together. He’s a quick study. He was in every meeting and picked up the phone to hear what the companies had to say. It became really clear to him early on that Li-Ning was by far the most aggressive in terms of trying to market him on the level he wants to be marketed.
SLAM: Talk about your history in the shoe market.
DF: The first really big breakthrough shoe deal was in 1982 when I signed James Worthy with New Balance. It was the largest deal in the history of the industry. Not the largest rookie deal — the largest deal. Obviously Worthy wore Converse, and as a rookie signed with New Balance. Years later, Michael Jordan came out and everybody knows he wanted to sign with adidas. He signed with Nike. The next year Patrick Ewing came out and he wore Nike in high school and college. He signed with adidas. When Allen Iverson came out of college, he wore Nike. We signed him with Reebok. You have to find the right match for these superstar players in terms of visibility, quality of the product, marketing support. There’s an art to try to marry the right player. Just like there is an art for an actor in finding the right movie. You don’t want to be typecast and want to find a role that shows the diversity of your talents. I think finding a signature shoe relationship requires a lot of talent.