Ok, we need to talk. We need to discuss loyalty. Did that make you shudder? Did you suddenly bristle with antagonism? Well, before you call your therapist to talk about your commitment issues, you can relax. This has nothing to do with you… yet. It does, however, have a lot to do with Michael Jordan, the 1992 Dream Team, and an international crisis you probably never heard of surrounding a logo on a tracksuit.
Intrigued? Good! Grab a mop and take a seat because I’m about to spill some tea!
In the influencer marketing world, we know about loyalty. We can spot an influencer that could care less about a product they are talking about. Honestly, we know you can too. In the “here today, gone tomorrow” world of social media, loyalty and genuine interest in a product is at an absolute premium.
What if influencers were attracted to your products because they like what you have or they like your approach? What if they just like you and what you stand for? Not to plug ourselves too hard here, but that’s our approach here at kynship.co. Feel free to check us out and see our organic approach to influencer marketing that has net millions for our clients. Now back to the show!
The Nightmare That Was the Dream Team
MJ is the GOAT. Nope, we aren't going to argue the Lebron-Jordan debate because it’s not a debate. Politics are a debate. Applebees vs. TGI Fridays is a debate. This is MJ. The King of basketball who reigned supreme during the NBA’s toughest era. No “if’s and’s or but’s.” We believe that everyone should believe in something. Unless you believe Lebron is better than Jordan.
1992 was the first year professionals were allowed to participate in the Olympics. Some speculate that the rule change was made in response to steadily declining ratings for Olympic events. Regardless of the reason, a team of NBA superstars was assembled to represent the USA with Michael Jordan being the obvious face of what would forever be known as the Dream Team.
With the new rules, MJ and the boys were off to Barcelona to compete in the 1992 Olympics. The “boys” by the way, consisted of some no-name talent with forgettable names like Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, and Larry Bird. The world knew if the USA was going to pull off a victory in the 92’ Olympic games it was going to take a miracle.
Just kidding. The team shocked literally no one when they essentially wiped the floor with the competition and moonwalked their way to the podium. I don’t even think Karl Malone broke a sweat since he was playing off the bench. Imagine a team so stacked that you had the “Mailman” in his prime not even in your starting lineup.
When asked about the talent they had assembled, head coach Chuck Daly was quoted as saying “It was like Elvis and the Beatles put together. Traveling with the Dream Team was like traveling with 12 rock stars. That’s all I can compare it to.”
These guys were crazy talented for any era. You would be hard pressed to put together a better team with players from the past 15 years and the NBA has had some otherworldly talent. Naturally, sponsors were quick to sign them.
Companies of all types clamored for these guys to wear their clothes, eat their food, and drive their cars. They had massive bank accounts and they weren't afraid to cut six-figure checks like it was nothing.
While nothing could stop them on the court, there was a minor glitch in what was otherwise a well-oiled Team USA.
Just before the 1992 Olympic games the battle of the brands was just gaining some serious traction. The market was taking sides and so were their high profile spokesmen. The biggest marketing joust was between Reebok and Nike.
The Devil’s in the Details
Nike had endorsement contracts with most of the athletes on the Dream Team. In terms of its relationship with the NBA, you could say that it was reaching the adolescent stage. They were putting millions into their sponsorship deals with players that were nowhere near the caliber of Michael Jordan. They were also raking in millions from the eighth run of MJ’s namesake “Air Jordans.”
Naturally, Nike went all in on the Dream Team. This was the opportunity of a lifetime and they were the first to throw some serious endorsement dollars at the event. That's not to say that other companies weren't far behind them.
Unfortunately, there was a big problem from a small Barcelona company. A Spanish businessman named Juan Amigo Freitas had purchased a trademark from a Barcelona sock manufacturer that had registered a statue of the Greek goddess “Athena Nike” in 1932. This was no small matter. Nike did not own the rights to their own name in the country of Spain, and they had no recourse.
The bruises didn’t stop coming for the company. Under Spanish law, Nike had to remove and completely replace all of the billboards they placed across Barcelona.
Trust me, there were a lot of Nike billboards all across the city. In the blink of an eye, Michael Jordan was ousted from the Nike advertising campaigns. He was the face of the Olympic games and Nike was the trusty sidekick. Just like that, they vanished overnight.
With the athletic wear sponsorship wide open, Reebok leaped at the opportunity. They bought the rights for the player’s tracksuits, jerseys, and warm-up gear. All of the garb the players would wear on the court and at the inevitable trip to the podium would be sporting a Reebok logo.
To add insult to injury, Reebok spent only $4 million on the endorsement deal. Nike was not only kicked out, but their main competitor was getting their emblem shown to an international audience for a fraction of what they had invested.
The Relationship That Almost Never Was
Michael Jordan was and in many ways still is the poster child of Nike. Both Nike and Michael Jordan teamed up to what would become a meteoric rise to superstardom for both parties.
The loyalty to Nike for Jordan wasn’t in the paychecks. His loyalty was grounded in the fact that Nike believed in him during his rookie year. While he was a standout at the University of North Carolina, that means very little when it comes to transitioning to the pros. A hard-to-swallow fact that is the reason why draft-bust betting pools exist.
The business relationship between Jordan and Nike almost never happened. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had blockbuster (for the time) endorsement deals with Converse shoes. Yup, Chuck Taylors were THE shoes of the NBA. Converse however wouldn't entertain a deal with an untested rookie. Referencing the big name lineup they already had, the company told Jordan directly, “We cannot envision prioritizing you over them.”
With Converse out of the deal, I’m sure you are assuming MJ strolled right over to Nike and signed a deal on the spot. Not even close. Michael wanted the next best basketball shoe in the game, Adidas.
Michael Jordan loved Adidas. He knew it was the next best thing since Adidas represented “everyone else that mattered.” His Manager, David Faulk recounted the discussion in the documentary “The Last Dance.” “Adidas was really dysfunctional by that time” said Faulk. “And they had just told me, '' We'd love to have Jordan. We just can’t make a shoe work at this point in time.”
“I wanted Michael to go with Nike because they were the upstart.”
Some would say the 21 year old Jordan was stubborn and behind closed doors, they would call him a brat. “I couldn’t even get him to get on the damn plane and go visit the [Nike] campus,” recalls Falk. “So I called his parents.”
Jordan recalled that his mother, “made me get on that plane and go listen.” Nike brought a deal to the table that no sane person could turn down.
“Back then, the best guys might have gotten like $100,000 or so,” says Nike executive Howard White in “The Last Dance.” “He got probably $250,000. It was like, You will pay him what? A young rookie that’s done nothing? You must be out of your mind.” As part of the deal, Jordan also got his own shoe line: Air Jordan.
Loyalty is Unwavering
The most important detail to remember here is where Jordan and Nike were in 1984. Back at the very beginning of their relationship, the genesis if you will, Jordan was a rookie that believed in himself more than others believed in him. Nike in the eyes of the American consumer made track shoes, not basketball shoes. Nike had no place on a basketball court anywhere, let alone the NBA. Their relationship was galvanized at a time when those who mattered most to them financially didn't give them a second look.
When Nike was pushed out and the competing Reebok stepped in, it wasn’t about money or endorsement deals; it was about loyalty and those who were there for him in the very beginning.
Jordan wasn’t going to leave his brand behind. He wasn't going to cast them aside on the world's biggest stage. This was a relationship that was far bigger than money. It was a relationship built on respect and belief in one another. He would not wear a Reebok logo on the podium.
“One of the most difficult things was dealing with some of Michael Jordan’s endorsement issues” recalls David Falk. “He was in a class by himself, breaking a lot of ground, and a lot of that conflicted with what the U.S. Olympic Committee assumed they were entitled to do with all their athletes.” Having the committee force his hand to turn his back on Nike did not sit well with him.
Michael shared his disdain for the decision with his teammates. Teammate Charles Barkley leveraged his status as well to try and pressure the United States Olympic Committee to not force them to wear a logo they didn’t want to represent on the podium. They threatened to boycott the medal ceremony altogether. “I don’t believe in endorsing my competition,” Jordan said. “I feel very strongly about loyalty to my own company.”
The USOC was not budging. They doubled down and stated that all players, regardless of their affiliation to other brands, “Were required to wear” the Reebok tracksuits on the podium. Ironically, none of the Dream Team players had an existing relationship with Reebok.
The best basketball players in the world were none too thrilled to be bullied by anyone, let alone the USOC. The team rallied around Jordan and supported his decision. Rather than forgo the gold medal ceremony, Jordan decided to think outside the box.
Now That’s Patriotic!
Images of the Dream Team accepting their gold medals at the 1992 Olympics are among the most iconic photos in American sports history.
To take the gold medal home, the Dream Team had to face a well-rounded Team Croatia. The leader of Team Croatia was none other than Jordans soon-to-be teammate Toni Kukoc. Shockingly, Kukoc joining MJ’s Chicago Bulls would eventually be a point of heated contention for the superstar and the Chicago front office. That story is for another day.
Team USA easily routed the Croatians 117-85. Team USA with its unsurprising victory set the stage for the image above. A picture may be worth a thousand words but look closer and there's more than meets the eye. The riptide of a behind-the-scenes story is all about why he is draped in an American flag.
Michael’s goal wasn’t to be more patriotic than Kid Rock on the 4th of July. His was an act of defiance that proved just how loyal he was to Nike. He wasn't alone in his veiled patriotic shenanigans. MJ was joined by Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson, all of them with “Old Glory” carefully positioned across their shoulders.
The Baltimore Sun stated the next day, “When the U.S. basketball team took the medal stand yesterday after beating Croatia, 117-85, for the expected gold medal, all 12 players -- half work for Nike -- had unzipped their jackets so that the collars obscured the patch. Jordan, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson took the extra precaution of carrying an American flag over their right shoulders. And so, as the national anthem played, there was no Reebok patch in sight.”
Checkmate! Jordan had done it! Refusing to be forced into turning his back on the only company that was there for him in the beginning, he played within the rules and represented exactly what he wanted at the Olympics.
“Everyone agreed we would not deface the Reebok on the award uniform,” said Jordan. “The American flag cannot deface anything. That’s what we stand for. The American dream is standing up for what you believe in. I believed in it, and I stood up for it. If I offended anyone, that’s too bad.”
That's the level of savagery we have come to expect from the GOAT.
So when all is said and done what is the true message here? That's simple, money can buy a relationship, but no amount of money can buy true loyalty. Because they believed in Michael so much, Nike literally “bet the farm” on him. They went all-in when others wouldn't give him a seat at the table.
When you bring someone on to represent your product how do you want them to feel about you when they aren't acting within the parameters of a contract? My guess would be you would want them to be loyal to you because of how you treated and approached them. That only comes with an organic connection that's based on honesty and belief in one another. You want a Michael Jordan.
Are you searching for your MJ? You can find the power in organic influencer marketing here. Hey, Nike did it and it worked out pretty well for them!