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Adidas Passed On Michael Jordan, But Maybe That Doesn’t Matter

Michael Jordan wasn’t tall enough for Adidas’s German execs. And that cost Adidas a fortune.

Adidas Passed On Michael Jordan, But Maybe That Doesn’t Matter
[Photos: Flickr users DJ Quietstorm, adifansnet, Adidas]

The Adidas of today is suffering, especially in the North American market, where its sales dropped 7% between 2013 and 2014. In turn, Adidas has planned a Brooklyn design studio, having poached three of Nike’s top designers to run it in what’s become a white-collar caper of a lawsuit with insinuations of stolen IP.

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But things could have been so much simpler for Adidas. In 1984, before Nike signed Michael Jordan, the young University of North Carolina graduate wanted a deal with the German shoe company. And as WSJ reports, Adidas declined for what now sounds like a ridiculous reason: At 6’6”, he wasn’t tall enough:

Adidas distributors wanted to sign Mr. Jordan, says someone who was an Adidas distributor then. But executives in Germany decided shoppers would favor taller players, and wanted to sponsor centers, the person says, adding: “We kept saying, ‘No—no one can relate to those guys. Who can associate with a 7-foot-tall guy?’ ”

Adidas signed centers of the era, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—it still sells sneakers named for him. Mr. Jordan in 1984 signed with Nike, which built his name into a blockbuster basketball business.

Indeed, even 12 years after Jordan retired from the NBA, Jordan Brand, which operates as a subsidiary of Nike, is bigger than ever. Forbes has an incredible list of stats on the matter: The Jordan Brand’s U.S. sales rose 17% last year to reach $2.6 billion in revenue, which gave it a 58% market share of the U.S. basketball shoe market. It currently outsells Nike’s Lebron James-branded line eight to one.

Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Of course, Adidas made the wrong choice. Jordan would go on to become not just one of the most recognizable sports figures in the U.S., but one of the most recognizable people on the planet. But Adidas’s prior history with athletes leading up to that fateful moment suggests the shoemaker wouldn’t have found the same type of success.

Just look at how Adidas has utilized Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s brand in more recent years. Its shoes of today are either almost entirely unchanged (like these throwback versions), or it’s simply slapping Jabbar’s name on an aesthetic update to other athletes’ signature shoes.

But the Jordan brand has a long-tail design language, much like any automobile you know. Aside from the iconic Jumpman logo that appears on every item, Air Jordans have traditionally featured distinctive high quarters–the part of the shoe that’s on the left and right side of your foot, leading to the laces. Its other aesthetics have shifted vastly over time, but the result is that when you see a Jordan, it feels like a Jordan, even when it’s sewn like an Italian suit label, or you’re looking at two decades of results that pop up in a Google Image search.

[via url=http://www.wsj.com/articles/how-adidas-aims-to-get-its-cool-back-1427072066]Wall Street Journal[/url].]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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