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Clear The Dunkway, Michael Jordan Is . . .TAKING TO AIR : NBA Star Leaps Into Profitable Shoe Market

Times Staff Writer

The phenomenal success of Nike’s Air Jordans, the basketball shoes created for Chicago Bull star Michael Jordan, is due in part, footwear analysts say, to a tantalizing television commercial.

Of course, the commercial doesn’t tell the truth, or at least not the whole truth. But since everyone involved seems to be getting rich on it, nobody has complained. You can’t take truth to the bank.

According to the commercial:

“On Oct. 15, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On Oct. 18, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can’t keep you from wearing them. Air Jordans. From Nike.”

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Actually, the NBA didn’t ban Air Jordans, or else Jordan wouldn’t still be wearing them.

The only ruling the NBA made in reference to the shoes was that Jordan couldn’t wear them unless the colors were changed. Ever fashion-conscious, the league has a “uniformity of uniforms rule” that requires players to wear shoes that not only match their uniforms but also are at least similar to those worn by their teammates.

So, Larry Bird can wear green shoes because the rest of the Celtics wear green shoes.

But the Celtics couldn’t wear red shoes because their uniforms are green.

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The Bulls’ home uniforms are red with black and white trim. Their road uniforms are white with black and red trim. The Bulls traditionally have worn white shoes with red trim.

When Jordan appeared at an exhibition game in black shoes with a red swoosh on the side, the NBA assessed him a technical foul. He was guilty of clashing.

Nike came to the rescue, issuing Jordan white shoes with black and red trim to wear at home, and white shoes to wear on the road.

But even though the original Air Jordans were grounded, as far as the NBA is concerned, an advertising concept was born.

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“We took our problems with the NBA and turned them to our advantage,” said Chris Van Dyke, Nike’s director of corporate communications. “We decided to market the shoes as too hot to handle.”

In another commercial for the shoes, Jordan asks, “Who said man wasn’t meant to fly?”

The commercial shows him in his approach for a dunk, taking off at the free-throw line like a 747.

That is exactly what sales of Air Jordans have done since the commercials appeared during CBS’s telecasts of the Final Four. Taken off.

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Although they won’t be available in most of the country until July, they were released April 1 in six test markets--New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. The shoes also were sent to stores at Lexington, Ky., as part of a promotional campaign in connection with the Final Four.

Nike officials originally estimated that they would sell 100,000 pairs of Air Jordans before the end of the year.

At $64.94 a pair, that would have brought the company a respectable $6,495,000 in sales.

Less than a month since they arrived on the shelves in the test markets, Air Jordans already have surpassed $29 million in sales. That translates roughly to 450,000 pairs of shoes. Van Dyke said the company has taken orders for another million pairs in other parts of the country. They will fly in Peoria.

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“We’ve never seen a product sell like this,” he said. “It’s a phenomenon.”

Van Dyke called Air Jordans his company’s version of Cabbage Patch dolls.

Just as when Cabbage Patch dolls went on sale, there reportedly have been fights in stores in New York over the few remaining pairs of Air Jordans. In reporting a mugging outside a shoe store in New York, a man said all that was stolen were the Air Jordans he had just bought.

Van Dyke said that the company’s Philadelphia distributor had just bought a black Porsche 911 and put an Air Jordan logo on it because, he said, he owes his ability to make the payments to the shoes.

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Blaine Atkins, manager of the Allsports stores at Lexington, Ky., told Footwear News that he sold 200 pairs of the shoes in four days.

Joe Zitoli, manager of the Athlete’s Foot store in downtown Chicago, told Footwear News that he has received calls from as far away as Wichita, Kan., about availability of the shoes.

“Last Thursday, we got 86 pairs and now I’ve only got a half-dozen of the colored styles,” Vince Salvi, manager of a Philadelphia Foot Locker store, told the Philadelphia Daily News. “I wish I could get 500 pairs.”

Wearing a pair of black and red Air Jordans, Tim Smith, a salesman in Westwood’s Nike store, told a reporter that his store has received three shipments of 50 pairs each. The first two shipments sold out within three days, he said. The third shipment arrived this week.

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“The only reason the latest shipment hasn’t sold out is because we told everyone we weren’t getting them in until next week,” he said. “They came early.”

Last year, if you were a 15-year-old inner city male and wanted to be hip you had to wear Michael Jackson’s glove.

This year, Nike wanted those 15-year-olds to be wearing Michael Jordan’s shoes.

But in its marketing research, Nike discovered that the shoes have a much wider appeal. Not only have Air Jordans become popular on city playgrounds, they also are the best-selling shoe in the suburban shopping malls. The people who really have been making the cash registers ring are the Yuppies.

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What’s so revolutionary about Air Jordans?

Nothing, really.

They have air soles--little cushions of air in the rubber--but those have been around for a while. Most NBA players under contract to Nike wear the company’s top-of-the-line basketball shoes, Air Ships, which sell for $74.95. They not only have air soles but more reinforcement at the front of the shoe, which softens the impact when players land. Air Ships also are more durable than Air Jordans.

But Air Jordans are lighter and more flexible, preferable for a player, such as Jordan, who spends so much time defying gravity.

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Another selling point for the shoes is Jordan himself.

One of the country’s best college players for three years at North Carolina, he was a captain on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and probably will be the NBA’s Rookie of the Year. He is handsome and personable and also knows a little about selling clothes.

Besides the shoes, Nike has an Air Jordan apparel line that includes a pair of red and black harlequin muscle pants.

During the NBA’s slam-dunk contest at the All-Star break, some of the players grumbled because Jordan wore the pants during the competition. They thought he was telling them that he could win the contest without even taking off his warmups.

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But Jordan wasn’t trying to show up the other players. He was showing off the pants.

Van Dyke said Nike has sold an additional $4 million worth of apparel.

Jordan also has profited. ProServ, the marketing firm that represents him, said that he could earn as much as $500,000 a year, including royalties, from the Nike endorsement. Wilson has a Michael Jordan autograph model basketball, which earns him $200,000. He has a four-year, $5-million contract with the Bulls.

He is incorporated under the name of JUMP--Jordan Universal Marketing and Promotions.

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But as visible as Jordan has become, footwear analysts believe that Air Jordans would be just another pair of sneakers if they weren’t shoes of a different color. Their uniqueness has resulted from the combination of air soles and soul.

The white shoes with the black and red trim are the best sellers, but the forbidden red on blacks aren’t far behind.

Besides, if the shoes were white, they wouldn’t have been banned by the NBA.

And if the shoes hadn’t been banned, the commercial wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic.

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The NBA doesn’t mind being the heavy in the commercial.

In fact, Nike received the NBA’s approval before going ahead with the advertising campaign, which was developed by Chiat/Day of Los Angeles. As NBA spokesman Terry Lyons pointed out from the league office in New York, the commercial gives exposure to Jordan’s rare talent, which reflects positively on the NBA.

Asked if he had bought a pair of Air Jordans, Lyons said, “I can’t wear them around here.”

Does that mean they’ve been banned in the NBA office, too?

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“No,” Lyons said. “I’m afraid they’d be taken away from me on the way to work by some kid with a gun.”

‘We took our problems with the NBA and turned them to our advantage. We decided to market the shoes as too hot to handle.’

--CHRIS VAN DYKE, Nike’s director

of corporate communications

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