Hear the gasps. Air Jordan has changed planes in midflight. The phenomenally successful, midpriced (from $24.99 for the infant's model to $65 for the version that he wore) line of air-soled red, white and black basketball shoes that gave Michael Jordan his nom d'avion has been grounded by Nike in favor of an Italian-made, mostly white shoe that bears a swatch of fake iguana skin on the side and sells for $100 a pair. Even as sports marketers forecast trouble ahead for the new shoe—Scare Jordan?—the first shipments were sent to retailers Nov. 1.
"Nike has changed the rules of the game," says Bob Carr, editor and copublisher of Sporting Goods Business magazine. "The real action is at about $50 a pair. This shoe doesn't have any real technological advances, but they're selling it for $100. It doesn't even have Nike's [swoosh] logo on it. They'll have their work cut out for them selling this one. This shoe has not been well accepted by the trade." But Nike spokesman Kevin Brown says that the hefty price is part of the company's strategy to aim for a more exclusive market—he also points out that manufacturing costs for this shoe are somewhat higher than for the old model because it is produced in Italy, as opposed to South Korea—and he says he's confident that the new line will do well.
The original Air Jordan line, which included more than a dozen models, helped then struggling Nike ride out rough financial times. The company sold more than $110 million worth of the footwear—that's 2.3 million pairs—after introducing Air Jordan in March 1985, and grossed an additional $18 million on an accompanying line of sports apparel. The shoe established Jordan as the endorsement king of professional team sports. "He turned the entire shoe industry upside down by himself," says his agent, David Falk of ProServ. "He outsold entire companies across the board."
Air Jordan transformed Michael Jordan into a corporate dream property: He now earns $2 to $3 million a year through long-term endorsement contracts with Nike, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Chicago-area Chevrolet dealers, Wilson (for his own line of basketballs), Excelsior International (for Time Jordan watches, which carry the Guy Laroche imprimatur) and Johnson Products (a personal-grooming line). All are large, reputable companies that complement Jordan's clean-cut image—and one another. In Chevy commercials, for example, Jordan might carry a Wilson basketball, wear Air Jordan attire, maybe even don a Time Jordan watch.
What made the original Air Jordans fly? The shoes were eye-catching and evocative. The NBA forced Jordan to tone down the colors to better match the Bulls' uniforms. Shrewdly, Nike let Jordan solo in the AJs for most of his rookie year—thereby whetting demand—before marketing a single pair. Then the company couldn't produce enough of them. But as early as the fall of 1985, Nike saw sales starting to cool slightly. Rivals had flooded the market with red, black and white imitations. When Jordan broke a bone in his foot and missed 4½ months of last season's action, the decline accelerated.
"The first generation of Michael's shoe products were basically Hula-Hoops," says Brown. "They were so unique that you were able to sell a lot of them, and they were pretty profitable. The problem was, they weren't unique enough to serve as a base for an expanding line [of shoes and apparel]. It was like a rocket—it goes up real quick, and then it stops."
The new Air Jordan line will rise gradually and grow for years, Nike hopes. The classy $100 shoe—"a shoe that would look great with a tux," in Brown's "words—is light, with a partly polyurethane sole, and available (for now) in only one model, the one Jordan himself is wearing this season. The shoe and an accompanying line of new, pricey European-style apparel will be sold in just 30 stores in 19 select metropolitan areas over the next two months. "If you're the coolest boy on the block and you're aware that you can buy these shoes anywhere, maybe you decide you don't want them," explains Brown.
Then again, if you see Michael Jordan in them, maybe you do.