Vaccaro, 83, was a key figure in Nike’s push to sign Michael Jordan in 1984.
At times controversial, he also pioneered giant sneaker deals with universities.
In retirement, Vaccaro has been a driving force behind expanding the rights of college athletes.
When Sonny Vaccaro first set foot inside Nike’s offices, Michael Jordan wasn’t yet a household name.
It was 1977. And Vaccaro was in Beaverton, Oregon, trying to sell the company some sneakers.
Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon, is the main character in “Air,” a new movie about how Nike signed Michael Jordan to the gold standard of athletic endorsement deals because of the enduring success of the Jordan brand. But his contributions to the global sportswear industry went well beyond the hotly debated events depicted in the film, which was released on Wednesday.
Vaccaro grew up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and attended Youngstown State University on a football scholarship. No one in his family went to college, Vaccaro said in an interview over a pancake breakfast in 2021.
“Everyone either worked in the steel mills, or worked on the railroad, or they worked in the coal mines,” he said.
In 1965, he started the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, a high school basketball showcase which would become a hotbed of amateur basketball and a popular gathering spot for college coaches. Novel at the time, it became a model for the branded high school tournaments that are now standard among sportswear companies.
In 1977, Vaccaro tapped a connection from his work promoting basketball and got an introduction to Nike and cofounder Phil Knight.
Vaccaro had worked with a local cobbler in Pittsburgh to make nine prototype sneakers. He wanted to sell the designs to Nike, which was then a private company with less than $29 million in annual revenue.
Vaccaro flew to Nike’s offices in Beaverton, Oregon. Over lunch at a Chinese restaurant with Knight and a few others, he pitched his shoes, he said.
The account is corroborated by “Swoosh,” an unauthorized Nike history published in 1991.
Nike wasn’t interested in Vaccaro’s bicycle shoe, his “disco” shoe, his shoe with a Velcro closure, or the leather shoe with cut-out holes.
But they were interested in Vaccaro’s basketball tournament. Nike subsequently hired Vaccaro and tapped him to expand his basketball and collegiate businesses, a chapter of his career that’s covered in the 2015 ESPN documentary “Sole Man.”
Vaccaro expanded Nike’s college business, at first, by signing deals with college coaches, many of whom he knew from his Dapper Dan days. While players couldn’t accept payments from sneaker companies, coaches could.
In 1984, Nike signed Jordan, coming out of the University of North Carolina, to the most envied endorsement deal in sports marketing history. At the time, Nike had stumbled, missing the aerobics boom, leading to a rare round of layoffs. The deal helped kickstart an enormous corporate comeback.
Nike’s Jordan business did $5.1 billion in sales in its most recent fiscal year. The retro release of the sneakers Jordan wore during his playing career still sold out in seconds.
While there’s no debate that Vaccaro backed Nike’s big bet on Jordan, how credit for the deal should get allocated is still being debated, despite the “Air’s” version of events, in which Vaccaro is the heroic central figure.
“The signing of Michael Jordan, yeah, success has had a thousand fathers, and failure is an orphan,” Knight told USA Today in 2015. “A lot of people want to take credit for signing Michael Jordan, most obviously Sonny Vaccaro.”
“Everyone’s trying to rewrite history,” Vaccaro said in the same report. “It goes beyond Jordan. I am the savior of Nike.”
Jordan deal aside, Vaccaro by 1987 had pioneered the first “all-school” college apparel deal, through which every varsity athlete on the University of Miami’s campus wore Nike gear. It also gave Nike prime shelf space at the campus bookstore.
“I was more interested in the bookstore,” Vaccaro said at the breakfast. “Every mother and father who’s not a football fan or a baseball fan goes to the bookstore.”
Nike’s explosive growth across college campuses, and its ability to outbid rivals, also made Vaccaro an easy villain for people critical of corporate encroachment into higher education.
“They demonized me all the time,” Vaccaro said.
All-school apparel deals have since become the norm. In 2016, Ohio State announced a $252 million deal with Nike, one in a flurry of mega-deals done by Nike, Adidas, and Under Armor.
Vaccaro joined Adidas in 1991 after leaving Nike. There, he signed Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, among other future stars, adding rocket fuel to the escalating race to sign the next great basketball talent. Vaccaro ended his career at Reebok.
But instead of enjoying retirement in Palm Springs, Vaccaro became a driving force for the expansion of the rights of college athletes, including the creation of a name, image, likeness rights, first by throwing his weight behind a historic lawsuit against the NCAA. Vaccaro also made rounds at universities, talking about the flaws of the amateur sports system.
Vaccaro has spoken extensively about “Air” in interviews and seems pleased with it.
“I can go to my deathbed not being embarrassed by anything that I saw,” he told the Athletic.
As for the shoes that kicked off Vaccaro’s sneaker career, it’s unknown what happened to them.
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