In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mars Blackmon, a character played by filmmaker Spike Lee, insisted to an entire generation that “it had to be the shoes.”
Appearing in the same massive Nike TV marketing campaign, Michael Jordan proved to the world it wasn’t.
But what the television commercials started was a new age of athletic fashion appeal.
To say it was a monumental leap is perhaps stretching the truth a bit.
Three decades later, athletic shoes have become part of mainstream attire.
There’s no question Jordan’s stardom helped skyrocket the market, and Nike, into uncharted waters.
Today, athletes across the spectrum are part of an endorsement market that, according to Footwear News’s Peter Verry, eclipsed $17 billion in U.S. total sales last year.
With Nike, adidas, Puma, New Balance and Under Armour leading the way, when it comes to shoes, the industry is a mix of game and business as competition is fierce for clients. And it’s not just basketball. It’s in all sports and with everyday people.
Of Nike’s $34 billion annual haul, some 61 percent ($21 billion) comes from worldwide shoe sales.
And while most would consider that an impressive haul, there’s still an enormous growth opportunity for Phil Knight’s Oregon empire in the apparel market.
By comparison, Nike booked $2.2 billion in gross sales in 1990.
That kind of success, coupled with the growth in apparel revenue, has helped Nike secure an eight-year, $1 billion uniform deal with the NBA, which begins this season.
Will it translate into increased revenue for the shoe giant as well as solidify the stature of athletes as high-priced spokesmen?
“We’re going to sell a lot of Nike gear,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “I think it makes perfect sense and will be a great opportunity for Nike.”
The 1980s were the golden age of television shoe marketing and arguably the most famous campaigns were the Lee-directed Jordan commercials and the Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson Converse commercials.
The latter featured a classic one-on-one playground game as well as prophecy between the 1986 league MVP (Bird) and the ’87 MVP (Johnson).
In the commercial, Johnson notes that Converse had made the next season’s MVP a shoe as well.
Johnson went on to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA title in an all-time classic Finals series over the Boston Celtics.
But clearly those shoe campaigns were part of a deeper war to win over consumers in an emerging market of the 1980s.
The New York Times, in a story published in July 1989, indicated the American athletic shoe market approached $4.5 billion with Reebok leading the way at the close of the decade.
Also indicated in that story was Nike’s rebound from less than stellar growth, signaling to the market that it was going to be a force in the apparel market with an increased focus on fashion.
Today, Nike is king among the athletic shoe manufacturers. Its local athletic representatives give insights as to why.
“I grew up idolizing Nike so when the opportunity came, it was a no-brainer for me,” Mavericks forward Wes Matthews said. “Jordan was the main reason, but Nike was that brand.
“Obviously, there were other brands and I wore them too. I played soccer and so I wore adidas gear for that. But for me, Nike was big and when your feet are your money makers, comfort with the shoe is important.”
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott had similar sentiments.
“For me, all the shoe companies made a presentation when that opportunity came to represent one came about,” he said. “I always used Nike’s so it wasn’t necessarily anything other than just being comfortable with them and playing football in them.
“But when I played baseball, I wore Mizuno mostly, because that’s what I knew and I associated that with baseball.”
Most consumers identify certain sports with athletic shoes and the market share can help explain the overall impact.
For instance, several analysts over the past couple of years indicate Nike’s hold as the worldwide gold standard has softened.
But as adidas is the clear No. 2 overall, the German-based company comes in a distant third in the football shoe market to Nike (73 percent) and Under Armour (16 percent).
Under Armour, a Baltimore-based company that burst onto the football scene 21 years ago, did so with an apparel focus after developing moisture-wicking athletic clothes that were highly regarded among football players.
At nearly $3.9 billion in total sales now, Under Armour has evolved to include lines in athletic shoes as well as gear for various sports.
Its athletic representatives include New England quarterback Tom Brady, Golden State guard Stephen Curry, skier Lindsey Vonn and golfer Jordan Spieth.
But 21 years into the game, Under Armour is a distant player among the titans.
Adidas and Puma, companies spawned from the bitter breakup of a company run by German brothers Adolf and Rudolph Dassler, routinely outsell Under Armour in the worldwide market.
On the shoe side, adidas is a major player in the basketball market.
“I played for an adidas AAU team and wore adidas the last couple of years in high school,” Mavericks guard Yogi Ferrell said. “That’s another reason I went to Indiana, so when I turned pro, I wanted something a little different and tried out Nike.
“The only way I compare a shoe is by comfortability and I’m quicker and have higher arches, so I have to wear a comfortable shoe. The Nikes were a bit thinner for what I like and a little smaller and I prefer a heavier feel for my shoes with a bigger build and a lot of room and that’s what adidas does for me.”
Recorded in 1985 and released in ’86, Run DMC’s song My Adidas might as well be part of the crush of 1980s shoe marketing.
It made athletic shoes, especially basketball shoes, part of the emerging fashion of hip-hop culture.
In a post-election piece that ran in The Atlantic last December, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about a pair of New Balance Sneakers presented at the Oakland Museum of California, in which vicious reactions raged from a neo-nazi blog that declared the brand “the shoes of white people.”
Cultural identity to various brands isn’t a new thing, but several DFW athletes dismissed politicizing shoes as hogwash.
“I don’t associate shoes with anything political and I’m not even sure why that idea exists,” Elliot said.
“I don’t think shoes are a political statement in any way,” Barea said. “For Nike, I’ve identified them with basketball since I was a kid and I remember all of us looking at the kind of Nike’s or Jordan’s we were wearing, admiring them and that’s it.”
Ferrell said he thinks trying to assign political identity is misguided or misunderstood.
“I feel like people make it more than what it needs to be,” he said. “I think the bigger thing is that when you go out and people see something different, they want to know what’s on your feet
“Maybe they’ve never seen them before, it’s the hottest new thing out or something that nobody has. I think people sometimes wonder if somebody’s special if they have a pair of shoes that nobody has. That’s not a political statement at all.”
Ferrell said one his fondest memories as a young basketball player, was getting the chance to order a custom pair of Nike Huarache’s.
“Honestly, for me playing, all I wanted was a pair of shoes and let’s play,” he said. “But my favorite pair as a kid was going on the Nike website to customize my Huaraches.
“I ordered them to the house and then went outside like every day looking for them to be delivered. I wanted to play in those so bad.”
Also count in the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt of Jamaica. The recently retired sprint superstar and multi-Olympic champion is a Puma man.
Outside of its shoe empire, Nike embarks on this new uniform deal with an eye toward growth in apparel.
The eight-year deal includes a first for the NBA, the Nike swoosh logo will appear prominently on the uniform as well as a team option to include a corporate sponsor.
Cleveland has secured Ford to appear on the front of Cavaliers jerseys and the Orlando Magic have Disney. The Mavericks haven’t announced a partner.
Nike will also include NFC tags embedded in NBA jerseys that will allow customers to connect with a Nike app offering premium content such as players’ favorite music and game highlights.
“I love the tap and play technology,” Cuban said. “The NBA and our players influence culture more than any other sport.
“Our players are the most readily identifiable, have the strongest social media presence and significant traditional media presence.”