A Nike Executive Had a Vision No One Else Saw. Now He's Being Portrayed on the Big Screen by Matt Damon in 'Air' Since the 1980s, sales of Air Jordan have generated billions. Now, the man behind the legendary deal is the subject of a new Amazon Studios film.
Before Michael Jordan and his signature Air Jordan shoes were soaring to record-breaking heights (on the court and off), a little-known salesman named Sonny Vaccaro helped create one of the most influential sports marketing deals in history — and helped turn Nike into the shoe behemoth that it is today.
Vaccaro is a former Nike consultant who persuaded the company to create a shoe line around the soon-to-be Chicago Bulls' new draft pick, Michael Jordan — even though the rookie hadn't played in a professional game yet.
The gamble paid off, of course.
When the Air Jordan shoe hit the market in 1984, it generated $126 million in sales in its first year alone, per Sports Illustrated. (Nike was hoping to make $3 million in three years.)
Today, the Jordan brand continues to sell, bringing in $5.1 billion in sales in fiscal 2022, per Front Office Sports, and $19.4 billion in revenue over the last five fiscal years.
The story of Vaccaro's role in finessing the Air Jordan deal is set to be depicted on-screen in the new Ben Affleck-directed movie, "Air" — with Oscar-winner Matt Damon playing Vaccaro. The Amazon Studios film is set to hit theaters on April 5 and is predicted to land on Amazon Prime in May.
With all the chatter about the new film, here are the details about the man behind the movie.
Who Is Sonny Vaccaro?
Before Sonny Vaccaro made a name for himself as the man who put Air Jordans on the map, he was known in the 1970s for paying college basketball coaches to put their players in Nike Sneakers, according to The New York Times.
Originally from Trafford, Pennsylvania, Vaccaro got his start as a gambler in Las Vegas before working for Nike as a promotions consultant where he developed connections with dozens of prominent college and high school coaches, according to the Washington Examiner. He also oversaw the annual Dapper Dan game in Pittsburgh, which is known as the first national high school all-star basketball game.
What Was Sonny Vaccaro's Role in Creating the Air Jordan?
When Vaccaro saw Michael Jordan score the winning points for the North Carolina Tar Heels at the 1982 NCAA championship against Georgetown, it inspired him to pitch Nike to sign the athlete and design a shoe collection around the soon-to-be star.
Business leaders at Nike weren't initially convinced they should develop a marketing strategy around a 21-year-old, but with the company losing money in the early 80s, the brand was willing to take a risk.
Vaccaro courted Jordan for three months before he signed a $2.5 million deal over five years with a 25% royalty on every shoe sold. Jordan debuted for the Chicago Bulls on October 26, 1984, wearing a pair of Nike Air Jordan 1s, which proved to be a lucrative marketing strategy and generated millions in shoe sales.
However, Jordan doesn't think Vaccaro is solely responsible for orchestrating the deal.
"Sonny (Vaccaro) likes to take the credit. But it really wasn't Sonny, it was actually George Raveling," Jordan told USA Today in 2015. "George Raveling was with me on the 1984 Olympics team (as an assistant coach under Bob Knight). He used to always try to talk to me, 'You gotta go Nike, you gotta go Nike. You've got to try.' Sonny didn't influence me to go to Nike. He got a deal proposed."
Vaccaro later reject Jordan's comments on the Brown and Scoop podcast and called his remarks "ridiculous," according to Sporting News.
Where Is Sonny Vaccaro Today?
Following the success of the Air Jordan shoe, Vaccaro started the ABCD Basketball Camp in 1984 with Nike, per Biography, where college coaches can scout the best high school players in the country. The camp closed in 2006.
After starting the camp, Vaccaro was fired from Nike in 1991 without public explanation. "It was nothing personal. It was just business," Vaccaro told Footwear News.
He went on to work for Adidas and notably signed Kobe Byrant in 1996. He also worked for Reebok before leaving in 2007.
In 2014 Vaccaro got involved in the lawsuit O'Bannon v. NCAA which spoke out against rules restricting the compensation of college athletes. A judge ordered that it is unlawful to bar payments and said athletes have the right to their commercial image.
In 2015, Vaccaro was featured on ESPN's 30 for 30 series on an episode titled "Sole Man."
Vaccaro, now 84, spoke to Footwear News about being played by Matt Damon and how the legendary deal changed sports marketing forever.
"You have all these people in one movie with Matt being me, and then spending personal time with him, I never would have believed or dreamed that any of this would have happened," Vaccaro told the outlet.
He added that he was involved in the making of the movie and said his opinion was valued by the production team.
What Is His Net Worth?
Following Vaccaro's career in sports marketing, the businessman has an estimated net worth of $5 million, per Celebrity Net Worth.
When Vaccaro was first hired by Nike in the 70s, he was only paid $500 a month, according to NSS Sports. The terms of his salary for the duration of his time at Nike are unclear.
Entrepreneur was unable to confirm this amount at the time of publication. It's unclear if Vaccaro was compensated for "Air."