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A vision that blossomed into an empire.
That’s how co-founders Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight would define Nike’s birth.
The world’s leading athletic apparel and sneaker supplier began in the trunk of Knight’s car while he was on the track team at the University of Oregon in 1959. Bowerman, Knight’s head coach with the Ducks, wanted a lighter and more durable shoe for his runners so he partnered with his star player and experimented with thinner materials and several different soles on sneakers.
In 1964, Knight and Bowerman entered a handshake agreement to form ‘Blue Ribbon Sports’, a shoe company that sold most of its product during its first year to athletes at local track meets. This came one year after Knight convinced Tiger — a Japanese shoe manufacturer — to let him sell shoes in the states during a business trip to Japan. Knight’s expertise in marketing paired with Bowerman’s dominance in athletic innovation created an instant tag-team force in the industry that exceeded measures German-based brands Puma and Adidas were taking during that era.
Blue Ribbon Sports officially became ‘Nike’ in 1972, named after the Greek goddess of victory. The company’s swoosh logo, perhaps the most recognizable graphic in the world, was created the previous year by Carolyn Davidson, an advertising student at Portland State University. For her troubles, she billed the company $35.
Nike’s first shoe with Davidson’s unique swoosh design appeared in 1972 and the rest, as they say, was history.
Nike soon became the “it” brand in exercise fashion, seeing sales rise to $270 million by the late 1970s. The next two decades were the wonder years for Nike, triggered by Michael Jordan — perhaps the greatest athlete ever — falling into Bowerman and Knight’s lap as the company’s lead spokesperson. The ‘Jordan I’ in 1985 helped Nike’s bottom line and spawned a long-lasting lineage of signature kicks worn by the company’s standouts.
Nike outfitted Brazil’s World Cup champion national team in 1994 and created the squad’s uniforms the following season. Around that time is also when the company secured Tiger Woods as the face of the franchise. On the links, the African-American prodigy became a global icon over the next decade sporting the swoosh.
College football legends Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden were two of the first coaches to sign with Nike in the early 1980s, putting in motion a decade’s worth of additional income on top of salaries earned by coaches. The checks became so substantial by the mid 90s that most schools re-wrote coaches contracts that diverted sponsorship dollars to the athletic department instead.
Penn State and Florida State remain Nike’s flagship programs.
Nike’s Pro Combat football uniform series, lightweight and aerodynamic threads that kicked off a new area of cutting edge on-field apparel in 2010, was first unveiled at swoosh heavyweights Alabama, Pittsburgh, Miami, Boise State, Florida, TCU, Oregon State, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. What Nike has done for the home state Oregon Ducks on the gridiron is beyond the imagination of most designers. The Ducks have donned 40 different uniform combinations since 2010 including carbon fiber-geared pants and wing-tipped jerseys with iridescent numerals.
In 2012, the Seattle Seahawks debuted Nike’s Elite 51 uniform series during the company’s first season as the NFL’s chief outfitter. During fall 2013, the Jacksonville Jaguars will unveil a revised Elite 51 scheme, modernizing the franchise’s bronze, teal and black scheme. The new uniforms — which have four color combinations — include an aggressive, redesigned font and claw marks on the shoulders.
Nike’s current five-year deal as the NFL’s exclusive on-field outfitter cost the swoosh $1.1 billion, four times greater than Reebok’s previous 10-year deal with the league.
On a basketball front, the swoosh dominates the industry with the introduction of sublimated graphics on jerseys in the late 2000s as well as expertly designed uniform and medal stand apparel during the 2012 London Olympic Games. Eleven of Team USA’s 12 men’s basketball players were Nike athletes with the only exception being Kevin Love.
Nike owns 92 percent of the U.S. basketball shoe market — 58 percent coming from Jordan Brand. The swoosh’s signature stars are even more popular overseas based on sales with Nike promoting players such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James often in Europe and Asia as global icons.
Based in Beaverton, Ore., Nike saw revenue in excess of $24 billion in 2012 and employs more than 44,000 people worldwide. The swoosh currently owns two subsidiaries, Converse and Hurley, acquiring each in the early 2000s.