Shooting Hoops and Shopping Boots

Daniel Eggleston /
Sep 16, 2016 / Opinion

To build a positive legacy is something every sportsperson should strive to achieve. One way to do that is to crossover into the mainstream so you’re remembered by those that never even watched your sport. There are a number of ways a sports star can do this. They could attempt to forge a career in the movie industry. The likes of Vinnie Jones, Eric Cantona, Mike Tyson, Ronda Rousey and the most famous sportsman turned actor, former professional bodybuilder and seven time Mr Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger can attest that taking a trip to Tinseltown has certainly helped their respective careers.

If you don’t feel like learning to walk and talk at the same time there is another way to keep your name in the public’s consciousness long after your sporting days are over. Just sell out and stick your name on a product. Take former boxer George Foreman and his Lean Mean Fat-Reducing Grilling Machine, which according to reports has earned him over $200 million. To the normal person that is a considerable amount of of money. Not to Michael Jordan though. According to Forbes, he banked £100 million in 2014 alone for his numerous sponsorships. A large portion of that money can be attributed to his fashion brand, Air Jordan. After brokering a deal with Nike in 1984 the future star of Space Jam has put his name to shoes ever since. Although the deal was ground breaking at the time, he was not actually the first to go manoeuvre court success into selling shoes. In 1922 a small time semi-professional basketball player who’d played for the Buffalo Germans and the Akron Firestones talked his way onto the staff of a company that made galoshes by hobbling into their sales office and persuaded them into creating a shoe especially for basketball players. His name was Charles Hollis Taylor, otherwise known as Chuck Taylor, and the company was Converse. Although never rivals on the court, Michael Jordan and Chuck Taylor move from basketball to footwear and the success they both achieved means their legacies can be judged against each other.

Basketball careers

The way in which both sportsmen got their respective deals highlight the differences between them as players as well as the general interest in the sport at the time. In 1984, Michael Jordan was selected as the 3rd overall draft for the Chicago Bulls. Although he’d won national title at the University of North Carolina and a gold medal for USA at the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles he was still an unknown commodity. So when Nike signed Jordan to a five-year endorsement contract worth a reported $2.5 million plus royalties there were a few raised eyebrows courtside. Although he’d certainly been successful in his career so far, this was an unprecedented amount for a player new to the NBA who was ultimately an unknown marketing commodity. In 1985 he was given his brand, with Air Jordan 1 being the first released. Retailing at $65, it was the most expensive basketball shoe on the market. Not everyone was a fan though, with the shoes being banned by the NBA for breaking rules regarding the colour of player’s shoes. Fined $5000 for every game he played in them (which Nike paid for) Jordan proved his doubters wrong as he went on to win Rookie of the Year and led the Bulls to the playoffs, the first time in four years. Showing himself as one of the brightest prospects in the NBA, Nike’s deal with Jordan soon seemed a shrewd one.

In Chuck Taylor’s days the NBA was still yet to be created and so promoting the new Converse basketball sneakers had to be done a bit differently. To drum up interest Taylor toured the length and breadth of America providing basketball clinics to high school and college students. Although he never graced a NBA court he helped revolutionise the game and attracted new, young players to get involved. His work for the brand was rewarded in 1932, with his signature added to the All-Star shoes in 1932. Chuck Taylor’s biographer Abraham Aamidor notes that the addition of the signature didn’t actually add anything to the brand, as he was already synonymous with the shoes:

“People would order ‘Chuck’s shoe’ or ‘Chuck Taylor’s shoe’ instead of the Converse All-Star. So his signature was added just under the five-point star. Brilliant marketing, brilliant branding.”

Taylor’s determination to raise interest in both the sport and the company shortly came to fruition in 1936, as the Chuck Taylor “All-Star” became the official shoe of the Olympics and continued to be so until the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Although losing a contract as big as the Olympics was surely a downer for Mr Taylor, the next year was a pretty big one for him personally. In 1969 his contribution to the sport of basketball had been recognised as he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Both Michael Jordan and Chuck Taylor are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, both for different reasons but there contributions to the sport cannot be ignored. Chuck Taylor helped generate an interest in the sport within high school, teaching them how to play properly and which will have benefited even those that are playing today. Michael Jordan though is the most recognised player in the world and is widely regarded as the greatest player to ever grace the sport and so when comparing their respective basketball legacies, Jordan’s got Taylor beat.

Brand Legacy

The legacy left behind by the brands is actually difficult to compare due to the shift in fashions over time. One thing is clear though, Jordans have cornered the basketball shoe market. According to Forbes in 2014 they had a market share of 58% and with their sales figures rising 17% from 2013 they’re a brand that will only get bigger. It could be argued that as both brands were created for the basketball market, and Jordans own such a large share, that they could be categorised as the winners. That would be doing Converse a disservice though. It seems anyone who’s anyone has worn at least one pair of Chuck Taylor’s sneakers in their life. They were the shoe of choice of Rocky Balboa as well as Kevin Bacon’s character in Footloose and The T-Birds in Grease. You’ll also have found them on the feet of The Ramones, Kurt Cobain and any indie band you care to mention. Converse have transcended the typical shoe to become a cultural phenomenon.

Both brands have come a long way since their respective beginnings and this is thanks to in part to the two players they were linked to. Although Chuck Taylor’s basketball career is practically unknown he is a household name and whenever a pair of “Chucks” are bought his legacy continues to grow. Michael Jordan’s legacy as one of the greatest players in the game has never been in doubt and it’s probable even if he didn’t sign that contract with Nike, he’d still be the player he was. The fact he did sign allowed him to change the face of the game, as over the years other players have done a similar thing. His current control of the market also keeps his name continuously connected to the sport.

Although it’s difficult to decide who has the greater legacy, there is actually a winner in this battle of the ballers – Nike. Nike signing Jordan in 1984 and creating the eponymous brand helped them gain an unparalleled market share in the sport. According to the aforementioned 2014 Forbes report they had a market share of 95.5%. This means they practically control the world of basketball fashion.

In 2003 Nike acquired a bankruptcy circling Converse for a reported $305 million and with it gained control of another group of people with the similar rabid obsession fans of Jordans have. With Converse now worth $1.4 billion, the deal has been an undoubtable success for the company. With each company producing news shoes annually the names of Michael Jordan and Chuck Taylor get further mention. All things considered it’s safe to say that both men made the right decision to turn their hoop dreams into boot dreams.

Words by Daniel Eggleston

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