The Incredible History Of Nike

Culture | 10/10/19

It’s hard for most people to imagine a world without Nike shoes. Prior to the mid-1960s, though, the athletic footwear landscape was dominated by companies like Converse and PF. Then a former University of Oregon student named Phil Knight became interested in footwear and turned the industry on its head.

Nike first became known for its innovations like the waffle shoe bottom and the company’s air technology. The brand is also well known for its athlete endorsements, specifically the one with Michael Jordan. Here is a timeline mapping out the history of the company.

Learning About Business The Hard Way

View of reporters and other workers at their desks in the city room or main news room of a newspaper
Underwood Archives/Getty Images
Underwood Archives/Getty Images

When Nike founder Phil Knight was growing up in Oregon, his first passion was sports journalism. It was a natural interest as his father, Bill, published The Oregon Journal. Bill, however, refused to give him a job at the paper.

Phil, still wanting to write about sports, got a job at his father’s competition, The Oregonian. Knight was also a budding track star and following his shift, he would run a full seven miles back to his house.

A College Track Star

Knight track
Twitter/JohnCarca
Twitter/JohnCarca

All the running to and from work paid off in a big way for Phil Knight. He attended the University of Oregon and in addition to working as a sports reporter for the school paper, he was also a member of the track team.

Knight was a very talented runner whose personal best time was a 4 minute, 10 second mile. During his time on the team, Knight also developed a relationship with Coach Bill Bowerman who would play a big role in his future.

Knight Becomes Intrigued By Sneakers While At Business School

Young-Phil-Knight
Pinterest/helmboots
Pinterest/helmboots

After earning his degree in 1959, Knight immediately enrolled in the US Army. He spent one year in active duty, then served in the reserves for seven years. Following his time in the Army, he entered business school at Stanford.

While in school, he developed a significant interest in athletic sneakers, particularly those made in Japan. One of his school papers was titled, “Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Did to German Cameras?”

An Overseas Partnership

Tiger
Pinterest/lordbertrum
Pinterest/lordbertrum

His interest in Japanese manufacturing gave Knight an appreciation for the Onitsuka brand and their “Tiger” model shoe. He found the shoe to not only be comfortable and well made, but also to be quite affordable to make.

Knight made a special trip to Kobe, Japan to meet with the company founder Kihachiro Onitsuka. The meeting went well and the company agreed to allow Knight to become the American distributor for their popular shoe line.

Creates Blue Ribbon Sports

Blue Ribbon Sports
Pinterest/emahjick
Pinterest/emahjick

Now that Knight had a line to represent, he needed to begin his own company. To get an educated opinion on his new shoe line, Knight showed the Onitsuka Tiger to his former Oregon coach, Bill Bowerman.

Bowerman was impressed with the shoe and wanted to buy a pair for himself. Beyond that, Bowerman also wanted to become a partner in Knight’s new venture and offer product ideas. Bowerman and Knight officially started Blue Ribbon Sports in January of 1964.

The Company Gets A Name And A Logo

Swoosh
Pinterest/vinsinaty_12
Pinterest/vinsinaty_12

Sales for the Onitsuka Tiger went well and the company began to produce their own sneakers, too. Knight also decided on a new name for his venture, Nike, named after the Greek Goddess of Victory.

Along with the new name, the company also needed a logo. The Nike swoosh was created by college student Carolyn Davidson. While Davidson was paid only $35 for the creation, Knight later gave the designer a few hundred shares of stock in the company.

A Design Inspired By Breakfast

Bowerman
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Pinterest/apetogentleman

The relationship between Onitsuka and Nike began to deteriorate in the early 1970s. Nike had to design all of their own shoes now and much of that was left to the innovative Bill Bowerman. He had a great idea one morning when his wife cooked him waffles.

Bowerman became intrigued with the idea of making the bottoms of the shoe have a waffle design to aid in traction. The company created the waffle trainer and the shoe became the company’s first smash hit.

Nike Lands Their First Athlete

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Monte Fresco & Mike Maloney/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Monte Fresco & Mike Maloney/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Today, no shoe company could survive without a star athlete to represent their brand. Ilie Nastase was one of the best tennis players in the early 1970s and was known as much for his play as his temper. In 1972, Nike signed him to a deal.

The endorsement ended up being a smash hit for Nike. Nastase won two majors, the 1972 US Open and the 1973 French Open, while wearing a pair of Nikes. He ended up being the first of many champions for the brand.

The Company Lands Its First Ad Agency

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Andrea Mohin/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images
Andrea Mohin/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Nike is now famous for running a number of iconic ad campaigns, and for that focus on advertising began back in the 1970s. Thanks to the success of the waffle trainer, Nike looked for new ways to get their products in front of more customers.

The best way to do that was through a partnership with an advertising agency and Nike did just that when they signed with John Brown and Partners. The agreement resulted in an ad campaign called, “There is no finish line,” which was a big success and spawned a hit poster.

The First Air Shoe Debuts

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Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Dina Rudick/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Today, the word Air is synonymous with Nike. That wasn’t always true. The innovative company debuted its first shoe with Air technology in 1979. The shoe was originally designed for runners and made its first appearance at the 1978 Hawaiian marathon.

Since then, Air technology has been incorporated into a number of different models. The star basketball player Michael Jordan represented a famous line of shoes known as Air Jordans. The company also had a major hit with its Air Max shoe.

Nike Goes Public

A graph displaying the Nike stock price
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Today, Nike is a publicly-traded company that is worth over $36 billion. The beginning of that wealth hit in 1980 when Nike went public. The company was growing fast and already had a 50% claim of the American shoe market.

If Phil Knight wondered if his company was viable or not, that question was resoundingly answered. The company’s first IPO made Phil Knight a multi-millionaire overnight as he ended the day with shares worth $178 million.

The Company Lands Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls goes for the slam dunk
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Before 1984, Nike had made endorsement deals with a number of different high-profile athletes. But that year, they landed the biggest name ever. That was the year Michael Jordan signed with Nike.

Today, the former basketball player controls his own billion-dollar Jordan brand through the company. The partnership has been mutually beneficial as Nike had a number of hit shoes and Jordan has become very wealthy. The Air Jordan 33 was introduced in October of 2018.

A Sneaker Revolution

Air Max
Pinterest/gregoryrostek
Pinterest/gregoryrostek

In the late 1980s, Nike was rolling along. Michael Jordan was the biggest sports star in the world and his signature shoes sold off the racks like hotcakes. The company had developed a new shoe called the Air Max and had an interesting way to release it.

The ad campaign for the Air Max featured the song “Revolution” by the Beatles. The Beatles were famously unwilling to have their music used in ad campaigns. The 1987 release of the Air Max featuring a Beatles song was a first for both brands.

Bo Knows Nike

GettyImages-90122017
Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images
Ronald C. Modra/Getty Images

In 1989 and in pretty much any other year, there was no cooler athlete than Michael Jordan. There was one dual star for both the Kansas City Royals and the Oakland Raiders that came pretty close, though.

Bo Jackson was an unstoppable running back and a home run swatting centerfielder. Taking advantage of his multiple gifts, Nike created an ad campaign that showed Jackson playing a number of different sports. The campaign was a hit and Jackson became Nike’s next superstar endorsee.

Their Very Own Store

Nike Town store opening in New York City
James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images
James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images

Before 1990 when people wanted to buy a pair of Nikes they had to head over to their local Foot Locker or Champs Sports. But by that year, Nike had more than enough variety in their products to open their own store.

As Oregon is the birthplace and hometown of the company, it was only natural for the first Niketown to be built in Portland. Since then, there have been a number of grand openings and there are 985 Niketowns around the world.

A Negative Expose

nike factory
Yvan Cohen/LightRocket via Getty Images
Yvan Cohen/LightRocket via Getty Images

For all the success that Nike has achieved since the founding of the company, that success had not come without controversy. In 1992, reporter Jeff Ballinger revealed the horrid conditions that some employees making Nike shoes worked in.

The exposé was a major scandal for Nike and the company moved to improve the working conditions in Indonesia as well as in other countries. Soon after the Ballinger piece, Nike created their first set of factory code of standards.

Nike Adds Tiger Woods To The Team

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Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Of course, no athlete will ever be more synonymous with Nike than Michael Jordan. But the company also wanted to move into other sports outside of basketball and running. When Nike wanted to increase their golf brand, they found the perfect face in Tiger Woods.

Woods began his relationship with Nike in 1996 and the partnership was a smash success for many years. When the golfer faced a cheating scandal and was divorced from his wife, the company stuck by him. The move looks to have paid off as Woods had a spectacular victory in the 2019 Masters.

Inking LeBron James And Kobe Bryant

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Kevin Sullivan/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images
Kevin Sullivan/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Michael Jordan ended his playing career in 2003. While Jordan, to this day, still has a yearly Nike signature shoe, the company was on the lookout for the new face of their basketball program. They ended up finding two in Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

James was entering the league out of high school and has become the closest thing the Jordan the sport has ever seen. Bryant, already a superstar in 2003, left his agreement with Adidas to become a Nike brand ambassador.

Time For New Leadership

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Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Since the very first day of the company, Phil Knight had been running things. The entrepreneur had gone from selling shoes out of the trunk of his car to being the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company.

In 2004, Knight turned 66 and decided it was time for him to step away from full-time management of the company. His first successor was William Perez, who had come to Nike from May Department Stores. Today the company is run by Mark Parker who has been CEO since 2006.

A Controversial Endorsement Deal Works Out

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Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images
Angela Weiss / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

In 2018, Nike debuted an ad campaign that featured activist and former San Francisco 49er, Colin Kaepernick. The quarterback had been blackballed from the NFL following his decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

There was immediate backlash to the campaign, as numerous conservative groups threatened to boycott the brand. In the end, though, the campaign was a hit for Nike and the company’s shares rose by over 5% after the release of the ad.