In his latest directorial film, Air, Ben Affleck presents the motivating story of how Sonny Vaccaro, the talent scout of Nike’s basketball division, managed to convince both Nike and NBA rookie Michael Jordan to sign a shoe deal. The impact this shoe deal had, and more importantly, the effect Michael Jordan had on basketball, popular culture, and lifestyle, are matters known to all followers of sports. Yet Air does not become repetitive or uninteresting and instead successfully delivers on the emphatic tale of the revolutionary shoe deal. Air is definitely not simply a glorious Nike advertisement, as it could have very well been, but rather a thoroughly enjoyable sports drama film that is easy to recommend.
‘Air’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?
The time period of Air is set before any other matter—it is 1984, with President Ronald Reagan still having a strong political hold over the nation ahead of the elections, Adidas constantly growing their influence over the American market, and the Boston Celtics having won their fifteenth NBA championship. Amidst all these stories of success is one of gradual failure that is to become the central focus of the film—American sports brand Nike failing to create a hold in the sport of basketball. In the total market share of basketball shoes at the time, Converse led with a whopping 54% hold, followed by German brand Adidas with 29%, and only the rest (17%) going to Nike. In such a scenario, Nike co-founder and CEO Phil Knight was considering shutting down operations at the Nike Basketball Division, located in Portland, Oregon. As a sort of last attempt to salvage some business, the company has appointed basketball talent scout Sonny Vaccaro, who has also been associated with Nike for a long time. With the NBA draft close by, a meeting is held at the office where executives try to come up with new basketball players from the rookie draft who they would sign as a Nike endorsed athlete. While most discuss players below the top 3 prospects, Sonny is sure that doing so won’t have any positive impact on the company.
Sonny Vaccaro is introduced in the film with scenes of him going to Las Vegas after college basketball tournaments in order to gamble and place bets on NBA games, establishing him as a man who likes to take risks. Having closely followed all college games and tournaments, Sonny is certain of who Nike should sign—an up-and-coming basketball player from North Carolina named Michael Jordan, who has already shown tremendous potential and leadership skills. But a great uphill task lies ahead of Sonny, as both sides are not interested in such a deal—Nike considers Jordan to be too costly to approach, while Michael Jordan himself does not like Nike at all and instead prefers rival Adidas.
How Does Sonny Convince The Authorities At Nike To Approach Jordan?
As a talent scout, Sonny Vaccaro closely works with Rob Strasser, the Vice President of Marketing at Nike Basketball. It is Rob who Sonny has to bring on to his side at first since the man is also not very sure that pursuing Michael Jordan would be a good thing for the company. But Sonny is absolutely determined, and he even has a specific plan in mind. This plan is based on a TV advertisement that Sonny watched only the previous night, in which American tennis player Arthur Ashe talked about how common people could now buy the same racket he had won the Wimbledon championship with, as Head was selling a new brand of tennis rackets with sponsorship from Ashe. At the time, Nike had considered spending a total of $250,000 to sign at least three NBA rookies to shoe deals. But Sonny clearly tells Rob that he wants to spend the entire budget to sign Michael Jordan and then create a similar brand under Nike that would sell similar shoes worn by the athlete. In essence, Sonny wants to sell the idea and image of Michael Jordan through Nike shoes and wants buyers to think of the athlete while buying the products, not just about the product itself.
Howard White, Vice President of Nike Basketball Athlete Relations, is up next for Sonny, to whom Sonny pitches his plan of spending the entire budget to sign just one player. Howard is also someone Sonny has been closely working with, and the two had earlier talked about Adidas’ rise as well. During the current meeting, Howard is more accepting of Sonny’s plan, but the man reminds him of the sheer difficulty of carrying it out. Even presenting this idea could get Sonny fired, as the top boss, Phil Knight, is already under financial pressure for the company’s failure to sell basketball shoes. What was even more troubling was Michael Jordan’s own absolute disinterest in signing with Nike, as the young athlete was a dedicated fan of Adidas. Howard tells Sonny that despite Jordan playing for UNC, which had a deal with Converse, he had refused to let go of his Adidas shoes. Michael would wear Converse shoes only during the game when he was stipulated to wear them and would wear Adidas right before and after when there was no compulsion on him. In fact, Michael Jordan had also apparently said that he would not sign with Nike even if they gave him a new Mercedes-Benz 380SL, which was the car of his dreams.
The next and final man Sonny has to convince inside Nike is the CEO himself, Phil Knight. This meeting is solely about finances, as Phil is completely unaccepting of Sonny’s demand to acquire one player for the price of three. By this time, Nike had gone public and had a board of directors to please and consult before making any decision, and Phil was now very conscious of his board. Sonny is bemused by the fact that, despite earning considerable profits overall, Nike was unwilling to invest more money in the basketball division. He clearly states that in order to make money, the company will have to invest more, and signing Michael Jordan would be totally worth the investment. Phil remains unconvinced, though, as he points out the fact that the NBA had very little viewership at the time, to the point that the NBA finals were not even telecast live.
How Does Sonny Manage A Meeting With The Jordan Family Next?
Sonny Vaccaro knew that Michael Jordan was being represented by famous sports agent David Falk and called up the man to discuss the matter. Falk simply declines the approach, saying that Jordan has no interest in Nike and that he would not advise his client otherwise until Nike sends in an official written contract offer. Thinking of how to face this tough battle, Sonny meets his good friend, George Raveling, who had crucially been the coach of the US basketball team at the Olympics, which Michael Jordan was a part of. Despite knowing that it was against the technical rules and ethics, Sonny bypasses the agent altogether and drives up to North Carolina to directly meet with Michael’s parents at their house. While the father, James, is slightly more welcoming towards the Nike scout, the mother, Deloris, wants to maintain professional relations since the woman is quite concerned about who her son should get associated with. It is to Deloris that Sonny pitches his entire plan and also tries to convince her that Nike would be a better fit for the young man than the other competitors.
Soon enough, the entire Jordan family goes on a series of meetings with the shoe companies, starting with Converse and then Adidas. In the meeting with Converse, CEO John O’Neill wants to make a solid impression with his Rolex watch and an advertisement for the company featuring the three best basketball players at the time who all had contracts with Converse—Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Julius Erving. Deloris raises the point that Michael would only be the fourth-best player with Converse if he signed with them, to which O’Neill wants to sell the fact that the young athlete will be associated with the same name as the three greats. This makes it clear that Converse did not consider Michael Jordan to have the potential of becoming the very best, and Deloris takes note of this. Next, the family travels to Germany for a meeting with Adidas officials, and Michael seems very convinced by the sheer quality of shoes that the company makes and also the hold over sports fashion and popularity that it had at the time. But Deloris again asks the crucial question of who the company’s leader was at the time, which shows clear cracks in the shining armor of Adidas. At the time, Adolf “Adi” Dassler, the founder of Adidas, had passed away, leaving the company in the hands of his children. But around 1984, the board members were not very clear as to who was the leader, and this was evident in their opposing answers when Deloris asked the important question.
It was actually Sonny Vaccaro who had told Deloris to ask these two questions to Converse and Adidas, respectively, and he had also predicted the exact answers that she would get. Sonny had bet Deloris that if his predictions were correct, she would at least give Nike a chance and convince Michael to have a meeting. Deloris keeps her word, and the Jordan family visits the Nike basketball office in Portland, too, for a meeting. By this time, Sonny had teamed up with Rob Strasser and the company’s shoe designer, Peter Moore, to come up with a prototype of a shoe that they would offer to Michael. They were determined to create a line of shoes specifically for Michael and decided to name it “Air Jordan,” based on the athlete’s superb ability to jump high while taking shots. While the NBA had a rule at the time stating that on-court shoes must be 55% white, the Nike team decided to flout this and add a lot of color to the prototype Air Jordan. The fine of $5,000 per game for disregarding the NBA rule would be paid off by Nike, which would not only garner a lot of public interest but also result in a much-needed change of rules. After all this is presented to the Jordans during the meeting, they, especially Michael, still seem unconvinced.
It is then that Sonny puts aside all pretenses of being formal and gives an emphatic speech in which he talks about the potential that he sees in Michael Jordan. Stressing the need for the player to have his own shoe line to add to the legacy that Sonny was sure he would definitely create on the basketball court, the Nike scout wants to focus on how the shoes would forever keep his name in the discussion even after his playing days were over. Air also smartly shows glimpses of Jordan’s actual career in between this speech, making Sonny Vaccaro look like an absolute future-seer.
‘Air’ Ending Explained: What Was Deloris Jordan’s Final Counteroffer?
After spending a couple of days desperately waiting for some news about the Jordan deal, Sonny gets to hear from Howard that Adidas was matching the offer of $250,000, which meant that Nike now had very slim chances. Expecting a negative call from the agent, David Falk, Sonny is extremely surprised to get one from Delores Jordan instead. It becomes clear that she and Michael were pleased with Nike’s offer, as she was convinced that Nike was the only company placing faith on Michael’s greatness in the sport. However, there was one counteroffer from Deloris’ side. Along with the promised $250,000, Deloris wanted to ensure that Michael would earn a small percentage from every Air Jordan shoe sold globally. She is very confident that Michael Jordan will soon disrupt the NBA and take the sport’s ratings to an all-time high, and therefore he will be helping Nike, too, rather than the other way around. Sonny is once again disheartened, for he is sure that Phil Knight would not approve of such a demand, especially since nothing like this has happened before.
However, Phil Knight’s reaction is quite different when he hears about this from Sonny. By this time, Phil had also started to believe in the bet that his friend and employee Sonny was taking and in the talent of Michael Jordan. Phil had also been reminded of the risks that he had taken during the early days of Nike, which ultimately got the company to where it is now. The CEO now decides to accept the counteroffer, despite the chance that it would put a lot of pressure on him from the board members. Sonny calls Delores up once again and informs her that Nike has agreed to pay Michael a certain percentage of every Air Jordan shoe sold anywhere on the planet.
Air then ends with information about the real people who were involved in this whole contract saga. Having generated a maximum of $3 million from a single pair of shoes in a year until 1984, Nike broke all records in the first year itself, selling $162 million worth of Air Jordan shoes. As of now, the Air Jordan brand brings in a stupendous $4 billion in sales for Nike per year. Sonny Vaccaro continued to work as a talent scout and a sports marketing executive, and he was also very involved in the O’Bannon vs. NCAA class action lawsuit in 2014 but ended up being on the losing side of it. Rob Strasser continued with Nike and is hailed as the one to revolutionize sports marketing at Nike’s basketball division. Howard White became and still is the Vice President of the Air Jordan brand of Nike. The renowned shoe designer Peter Moore then went on to use the Jumpman logo from one of Jordan’s performances for the Bulls, and the logo is now synonymous with the Air Jordan brand. Phil Knight served as the CEO of Nike Inc. until the 2010s, and the company also bought rival Converse in 2003. Meanwhile, Michael Jordan went on to become the greatest basketball player of all time and also one of the best athletes in the world. He made great profits from the Nike deal during his decorated playing career and also reportedly still makes about $400 million per year from his revenue share deal with Air Jordan. On the other side, Nike has also become the leading brand in basketball, much of which is due to Michael Jordan’s deal with them, and Air is a reminder of that very fact.