It doesn't matter whether you're into sneakers, music, fashion or sports, chances are you'll be familiar with Nike. Since its 1964 inception, American-born Nike has seemingly dominated the sneaker and trainer market with an abundance of designs, functional pieces and clothing styles, but where did it come from and how did it grow into the world's largest footwear company?
There's no doubt if you're searching for the history of Nike there are a million questions you need answering, so here at The Sole Supplier, we've made it our mission to bring you the definitive guide of the Nike brand's history. From humble beginnings to the name choice, to some of its most iconic products, we're taking a look at a timeline of some of Nike's iconic moments that helped shape the brand into the force it is today.
Our story begins with two men named Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight. Bill Bowerman was a track and field coach at The University of Oregon who re-united with his previous student Phil Knight after he had a brief stint at Stanford University. Bowerman was fascinated with the idea of optimising athletic footwear and running shoes for performance, and so in turn he began tinkering with different models after picking up some tricks and tips from a local cobbler. On January 25th 1964, the duo decided to found Blue Ribbon Sports, a Eugene Oregon-based footwear company which for many years operated out the back of a car at track meets.
The company began as a distributor for a range of imported shoes - namely Onitsuka Tiger. Knight was amazed with the quality of Onitsuka Co.'s trainers and found them to be a breath of fresh air compared to the German dominated sneaker market. While the world was caught up deciding between Puma and adidas, Phil Knight looked to Onitsuka Tiger and Japan for a new, premium running trainer.
After a few years of being Onitsuka's sole distributor in the US, a rise in competition led Knight and Bowerman to think about how they would do things differently. The companies drifted away from one another as Blue Ribbon Sports became Nike in 1971 and prepared to launch their own trainer.
Bowerman had always created prototype trainers for the athletes he coach. After pulling apart pairs of Onitsuka Tiger running shoes and thinking of ways he would do things differently, he started working on what would become the first ever Nike sneaker.
How did Nike get its name?
Changing the name of Blue Ribbon Sports to Nike was the idea of the company's first ever employee, Jess Johnson. The brand's iconic Swoosh logo had already been designed by Carolyn Davidson, a student at Portland University, however the company still had no name. Drawing inspiration from the design of the Swoosh, Johnson suggested the name Nike, named after the winged Greek goddess of victory. The rest is history.
What was the first Nike shoe?
The first Nike shoe was nicknamed the 'Moon Shoe' and was made in Bowerman's waffle iron. This waffle sole design came into fruition after Bill Bowerman was eating breakfast and wondering if the grooves in his waffle would work for additional traction when playing sports. After a few test runs of the waffle iron, the Waffle Trainer was eventually born and found almost immediate success due to its grippy and performance-driven design. This first prototype model was technically the first Nike shoe and sold at Sotheby's for almost $450,000.
The first commercial Nike shoe was a variation of the 'Moon Shoe' with a more refined design. The shoe would go on to be called the Nike Waffle Racer and was first handed out to athletes at US track events.
Although the Waffle Racer was well-designed and a minor success, it did not launch Nike to the same heights as adidas or Puma just yet. However, a new design did help put them on the right trajectory.
The duo found success with a design originally called the 'Aztec'. The name had to be changed due to adidas having a similarly named sneaker, so to reference history and the fall of the Aztecs, the shoe became the Nike Cortez. The Cortez was a great success after being debuted in the Mexico Games due to its advanced design and technology and helped Nike on their way to become the sneaker giant we know today.
The Cortez has a confusing past, as it was originally designed and produced by Onitsuka Co. before Knight and Bowerman decided to release their own version under the name Nike. When Onitsuka Co. found out about Nike selling the Cortez model, the issue escalated and ended in a court battle. The argument was settled in court, with the judge ruling that both brands could sell their own iteration of the Cortez under their name.
By 1976, Nike was ready to continue on with expansion and so they hired John Brown and Partners, a Seattle based advertising company to help with gaining further exposure. A year later, the agency created the first brand ad for Nike entitled "There is No Finish Line". Though the ad didn't contain any actual Nike shoes up close, it was seemingly a success and further helped propel the brand into the stratosphere. By 1980, Nike had attained a whopping 50% market share in the U.S. athletic shoe market and then went public as a company later that year.
Following the popularity of its sneakers, Nike decided to expand out into the clothing world in 1979 and made a range of athletic clothing and sportswear. One of its first pieces was the Windrunner, a lightweight jacket that quickly became a favourite both on the street and on the track due to its modern chevron style design.
In 1982, Nike took on Weiden+Kennedy as its global advertising agency to further its push into other territories. While creating many print and television advertisements during the 80s, co-found of the group Dan Weiden eventually came up with the famous slogan "Just Do It" for a 1988 campaign. Oddly enough, Weiden credits murderer Gary Gilmore for the saying due to his famous line of "Lets do it" prior to his execution. This saying would eventually be chosen by Advertising Age as one of the top 5 slogans of the 20th century.
The Jordan Era
A few years later in 1984, Nike signed a 21-year-old upcoming basketball player by the name of Michael Jordan. Despite being a rookie in the NBA, Jordan dismissed the possibility of signing with direct competitors Reebok or Converse and decided instead to sign for Nike for the fee of $500,000 a year.
The signing was spurred on by the promise that Nike would give MJ his own signature line and so, Air Jordan was born. Proceeding the signing, Jordan would play a few games in the Nike Air Ship sneaker, but that would eventually be banned due to the colourway not adhering to NBA standards of the time. Instead, Nike designers Peter Moore, Tinker Hatfield, and Bruce Kilgore all decided to focus their energy elsewhere and Air Jordan 1 was born.
The original Air Jordan 1 sneakers were designed exclusively for Michael Jordan in late 1984 and would eventually go on general sale in April of 1985. The shoe itself featured a high-top construction, the famous Nike Swoosh and a black/red "Bred" colourway.
In 1987, Nike launched a new range of sneakers starting with the Air Max 1. These sneakers were designed primarily by Tinker Hatfield and featured the first physical encapsulation of air within their cushioned midsoles. The original colourway arrived in a University Red/White colourway, and to this day is a silhouette desired by sneakerheads around the world even today.
In 1990, Nike moved into its eight-building world headquarters campus in Beaverton Oregon. The sprawling 400 acre land of the Beaverton HQ allowed access for 11,000 employees as well as Nike Sports Research lab for developing all the latest technology, a Nike Museum to showcase relics of the past, three fitness centres and facilities for sponsored athletes, and a range of sports fields, tracks and running paths.
Alongside this, the third Nike Air Max arrived in the form of the Nike Air Max 90. This particular model featured a chunkier construction as well as a more futuristic design and style.
Furthering on with the 1990s efforts, Nike opened its first range of Niketown chain stores, the first of which arrived in Portland Oregon. These distinct stores celebrated some of Nike's sponsored athletes such as Micheal Jordan while offering a full range of exclusive Nike products for all sorts of sports. In 1996, Nike signed famed golfing superstar Tiger Woods to their roster. This move helped Nike dive deeper into new territory within golf and spurred a fresh collection of fans across the globe.
1997 saw Nike's foray into Skateboarding with a new line of sneakers featuring increased padding, Zoom Air insoles and enhanced materials, ideal for withstanding heavy impacts and skateboarding wear and tear. Due to the success of this line, Nike decided to double-down on its foray into skateboarding and in 2001 released the Nike SB range. Quickly after the launch of Nike SB, the brand decided to release a collection of signature Dunks for each of its pro skaters. This latest Dunk SB iteration was originally a basketball sneaker but instead came equipped with a padded tongue, thicker laces and robust construction to ensure maximum comfort and durability.
With further expansion in mind and Michael Jordan becoming a household name, in 2003 Nike decided to sign basketball legend Lebron James and the late and great Kobe Bryant to their roster. This push into basketball would solidify the brand as the leading shoe sponsor within the NBA. The next year, Co-founder Phil Knight would step down as tee chairman of Nike but retain a chairman role. He would be succeeded by William Perez, an American businessman, but Perez would only last 2 years in the role due to on-going disagreements with Knight on how the business was ran. In 2005, Nike would sign tennis player Rafael Nadal for sponsorship and eventually his own range of clothing apparel.
In 2008, Nike would acquire English brand Umbro, a brand mostly known for its famous football kits for $580 million. This move would further help Nike's takeover of the football market and expand its existing range of football apparel and sports equipment. In 2012 and 2015, Nike would become the official supplier of both the NFL and NBA, ensuring all kits and uniforms worn by players, officials and personal.
As it stands in 2021, Nike, Inc. exists as the biggest and largest supplier of athletic shoes, apparel and other sporting equipment. The group also owns other well-known brands such as Jordan and Converse.