For a lot of us, Phil Knight has felt like the grandfather of sneakers, and as such, you would think he began his incredible journey with a pair of Swoosh emblazoned kicks; however, that wasn’t actually the case. It was a long and arduous road before the first Nike came about, and even when it reached that point, it was very much touch and go as to whether or not the brand would succeed.
Being a runner, Knight knew all about shoes. He knew what he liked, and what worked. So much so that during his time at Stanford University, he wrote a paper for his entrepreneurship class on the concept of importing Japanese running shoes in place of the current German forerunners (pardon the pun). Being a business buff, he knew Japan were at the forefront of, well, everything. Seemingly, if anyone did anything, the Japanese did it better, and Knight knew this. However, at the time, no one cared less about his idea. After submitting his paper, even he didn’t think about it for the rest of his studies. He must’ve done something right though, as he was still graded an A.
He had studied importing, exporting and how to set up a company while writing the university paper, and for a second, he thought his venture just might work. The first step though, was getting to Japan, which meant asking his dad for some travel money.
Once in Japan, he met with two ex-GIs who ran a magazine called The Importer. He readily tried to learn everything he could from them about getting his idea off the ground. They asked which shoes he was interested in importing; “Tigers” he said, a brand manufactured by Onitsuka.
The next step was to get in with someone at Onitsuka. And, in the late '60s, what better way to do that than call and make an appointment. Yep. That’s all it took. Knight picked up the phone, requested a meeting, and got it. I can’t in a million years imagine that flying with any sneaker company on the planet today. You’d be laughed off the phone.
Once at the Onitsuka head office in Japan, he met in the boardroom with the Onitsuka executives, led by export manager Ken Miyazaki who asked Knight the name of the company he represented. He hadn’t thought that far ahead and had to think on his feet. He immediately had a flashback to his bedroom at his parents’ house in Oregon, with his first-place blue ribbons pinned to his wall. “Blue Ribbon Sports” he said. Phew.
He pitched Onitsuka the idea that the American shoe market was huge, and that if Onitsuka could get their Tigers in there, it would be "hugely profitable." Luckily they enjoyed the pitch and said they had been thinking about the American market at that time anyway. Talk about timing… Perhaps that’s the reason he so easily managed a meeting. Onitsuka swiftly asked Knight if Blue Ribbon Sports would be interested in representing Tiger shoes. Simple as that.
He travelled the world before going back to Oregon, and his two main aims of his trip were to pitch the idea in Japan, and see the Acropolis in Greece. The irony that in years to come, he would have a certain relationship with the Greek Goddess of Victory
Upon his return to Oregon, Knight met with his old track coach, Bill Bowerman. He gave him the lowdown on his travels, and the opportunity that had presented itself. Bowerman wanted in. The next step was to get an order in. Going halves with Bowerman at $500 a pop, he placed his $1,000 order with Onitsuka. They arrived, boxless, and went straight to his parents’ basement.
These sold out. Fast. 900 more pairs were ordered.
Soon after, he hit a speedbump. He was going school to school, track-meet to track-meet selling them; that is until he received a letter from a school wrestling coach who said he had also been granted exclusive American distribution for Onitsuka.
Knight took the first flight back to Japan to find out what was going on. However, his helpful contact had left, and a Mr Morimoto had taken over. He opened up about his reasons for feeling he deserved exclusivity. He went back the next day, into another boardroom, and spilled it all again… but then everyone paused, as Mr Onitsuka himself entered the room. For a third time he opened up on his reasons for being there and divulged what he had to offer the Japanese sneaker company.
Mr Onitsuka sided with Knight and gave him the 13 western states
Everything seemed back on track for Knight, as he would buy from Onitsuka, sell out, and repeat. He just needed to convince his banker to back him too. Onitsuka was always late shipping shoes which meant the less time to sell them, and the less time to cover the loan. Every month was a month of pleading and bargaining for Knight.
In the meantime, Bowerman went to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and fared well with two of his runners getting medals. He added on a trip to Onitsuka. They loved Bowerman as he knew exactly what he needed in a shoe; softer inner, better arch support and a heel wedge to relieve stress on the Achilles. That’s what he was after. Onitsuka then made him prototypes based on his feedback, which he, in-turn, gave to his runners who “crushed the competition”.
Come 1967, Bowerman used his in-depth knowledge of sneakers to then create a Frankenstein version, consisting of the Onitsuka Spring Up’s midsole, and the Limber Up’s outsole. Onitsuka sent a prototype to Bowerman, and he strongly approved. The only issue; what to name it. Azteca came swiftly suggested by Bowerman and Onitsuka agreed. That is, until adidas came knocking at the door threatening legal action. They already had a sneaker called the Azteca Gold. Bowerman quickly asked who the guy was who beat up the Aztecs… and the Cortez was born. This was just another reason Knight wanted to beat adidas at their own game, even though years before he had adored his first pair of adidas Oregon green and yellow track spikes that Bowerman had given him in college, all he wanted to do was dominate them.
In 1968, although BRS was doing healthy numbers, Knight took a job at Portland State University as an assistant professor as he was not yet able to take a proper wage himself. And in 1969, sales were hitting all-time highs, forcing Knight to hire more and more sales reps.
By 1970, sales for Onitsuka were expected to exceed $22 million; a decent portion of which was attributed to the work Blue Ribbon Sports was displaying in the US. A survey at the time even showed that 70% of all American runners owned Tigers.
At this point, Knight signed a contract with Onitsuka for another three years. He said at the time he thought the contract seemed flimsy and that it would’ve been good to have had a lawyer look over it. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing.
They were up against it still, with late shipments and trying to meet sales targets to stay afloat, so Knight toyed with the idea of going public with Blue Ribbon and selling shares in the company; an easy $300,000 overnight. However, Knight soon found out that Onitsuka were in talks with someone on the east coast to be a new distributor for them in the US, and also that Kitami had said he wasn’t happy with BRS’s sales. In the export manager’s briefcase were 18 other companies’ information and booked appointments with each of them. BRS had been distributing Onitsuka’s sneakers in the US for seven years.
With this new knowledge that the future of BRS may no longer be as fruitful as he first thought, he sought out another sneaker manufacturer. He placed an order for 3000 pairs but this time, when he was asked for the name of his company, he said he’d get back to them.
He got back in touch with Carolyn Davidson, a struggling artist he knew from Portland State, and asked her to create some advertising for them, and maybe even a logo.
Knight wanted something that evoked a "sense of motion" and it would go on the first soccer shoe he would buy through the new Mexican manufacturer. He thought the new logo Davidson created looked “new, fresh, and yet somehow, ancient. Timeless.” Not bad for $35 work.
Now, a name to go with that logo.
The two initial frontrunners were ‘Falcon’ and ‘Dimension Six’.
It came down to the very last minute; production had already started on the new “Swoosh” emblazoned soccer shoes, and the US Patent Office needed to register a name, and the graphic designer needed something for the ads.
Johnson, his first employee, suggested Nike. He said it came to him in a dream.
Knight took the Tiger, placed the Swoosh on it, and headed back to the factories of Japan. Nippon Rubber, run by Bridgestone Tyres, were able to fire them up a Cortez prototype (with Swoosh of course) on the spot.
It was at this point he had them make up samples of tennis shoes, basketball shoes, the lot. Then he sat down and proceeded to name them one by one in a flurry of genius (or perhaps necessity). The basketball sneaker named the Blazer after the Portland Trailblazers. Then another shoe, the Bruin (famously worn by Michael J Fox in Back to the Future II).
Before Nike’s ascension into sneaker folklore, there was one final close-call with Onitsuka, as his export contact paid one last visit to a Blue Ribbon Sports store to check up on Onitsuka sales, only to slip out back to find box after box after box of Nike sneakers… Sneakers they shouldn’t have been selling. Things came to a head, and it was all over between Onitsuka and Nike.
A while after, Onitsuka combined with two other companies to become the powerhouse known as ASICS, and needless to say, things worked out okay for Knight too.
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