The film starts off in 1984, with a fantastic montage of pop culture from the time while “I Want My MTV” plays in the background. As the opening credits come to an end we’re met with a high school basketball game where Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) is working as a Nike talent scout, looking to sign young players onboard for a shoe deal. The scene then cuts to Vaccaro gambling on the NBA finals, Lakers vs Celtics—he wins and moves on to the craps table where he proceeds to lose it all. This glimpse into the personal life on Sonny Vaccaro is foreshadowing into the risky nature of his actual profession: Signing young talent in hopes to boost Nike market shares.
Cut to to a marketing meeting in the Nike building where the basketball division is arguing about typical corporate talking points: How to make more money with less spending. Vaccaro is trying to vie for a larger budget in order to do his job better. He asks the CEO to double the budget from $250K to $500K using words like “bankroll” which harken back to his gambling nature. In essence he’s trying to convince his boss to let him do what he does best, take a risk. Sonny wants Jordan and he knows the only way he can get him is with money.
Sonny Vaccaro spends that night watching basketball games on one TV screen and sports commercials on another, his brain churning before he has his “ah-ha” moment while watching Michael Jordan hit the buzzer beater in the NCAA finals as a tennis racket commercial plays on the smaller TV. The next morning he approaches his boss with his grand idea: instead of using the budget to sign 3 small players he wants to bet the entire budget on Jordan.
Anyone who knows about Michael Jordan knows that, for better or for worse, he loves gambling. This is more foreshadowing as the film sets up the common ground between Jordan and Vaccaro: they’re both gamblers and while Vaccaro lost his entire bankroll on a game of craps, he established that same bankroll by gambling on basketball, something he’s looking to do again but from a different angle.
Gambling seems to be the tone of the film as Vaccaro begins to convince everyone to trust him and follow his gut. He convinces CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck), although Knight is hesitant he ultimately agrees with Vaccaro on signing Jordan. This is just the first of many conversations Sonny has with different key players about “taking this risk”.
One of the big risks Sonny takes in his endeavor, putting his own job on the line, is when he decides to bypass Michael Jordan’s agent and speak directly with Jordan’s family instead. This is portrayed as a huge no-no in the film with several of his friends and co-workers trying to talk him out of it but Sonny “just has this feeling that wont go away.” when it comes to signing Jordan.
The next time we see Vaccaro he is in North Carolina on his way to the Jordan family house. Vaccaro is greeted by Michael’s parents and he makes a bet with Jordan’s mother (Viola Davis): he bets he that Jordan’s meetings with Adidas and Converse will play out in two expected scenarios, both of which will end up with more focus on the respective companies and their issues and less focus on Jordan.
Vaccaro promises that Nike will grow and promote Jordan’s individual greatness.
An Angry Industry
When Sonny arrives back in the Nike office we find him on the phone with Jordan’s agent who is furious that Vaccaro went behind his back and met with the Jordan family. It is brief but Jordan’s agent say’s a vital sentence that aligns with Sonny’s plan all along. “If you don’t stop making those (Nike) Air Soles and start making the entire company Air Jordan I will bury you alive.” The entire conversation follows this tone from Jordan’s agent but Vaccaro is unphased, he believes in his plan.
The risk pays off, Sonny gets his meeting with Jordan despite everyone telling him that this wont work. The Jordan family comes out to the Nike headquarters to formally discuss the potential of Michael signing with Nike. Unfortunately, this makes his boss extremely angry because not only did Sonny go behind Jordan’s agent’s back, he went behind Nike’s back to orchestrate this meeting with zero authorization. This is Sonny’s biggest personal gamble as he and Knight both agree that if he isn’t able to sign Jordan, he doesn’t have a place at Nike.
Sonny’s next step is to get a shoe for Jordan, an exclusive shoe for an exclusive player. For this he visits the basement of Nike headquarters where he meets with Peter Moore, Nike’s “shoe guy”.The meetings with Converse and Adidas go as planned and it’s finally Nike, and Sonny’s turn to see if the risks that he’s been making up to this point will pay off and this time it’s Sonny’s boss to join the gambling table. He suggests an all-red shoe for Jordan while agreeing to pay the NBA fines that will come with Jordan wearing a shoe not permitted in the NBA. An exclusive shoe for an exclusive player. “Subversive, individualistic…that’s it!” And just like that, the AIR Jordan is born.
Jordan comes on board
Jordan’s meeting with Nike is a hit. The shoe is unveiled and Jordan notices off the bat that it is the colors of the Chicago Bull’s uniform—Jordan’s NBA team. The rookie is getting his own shoe, tailored entirely around his likings. Nike also explains how not only will the shoe be designed according to Jordan’s specifications but the marketing will be completely focused on Jordan as an individual, to set both Nike and Jordan above the rest. “We believe that Michael can be marketed as more than a player.”
In the face of an uninspired marketing film, Sonny takes yet another risk and cuts the film short, electing to share his vision of Michael and Jordan in the future. He promises not only success but also hardship. He tells Jordan that the success is inevitable but so is the hardship. Borrowing words from his friend and co-worker in marketing he tells Jordan in an inspiration speech that “A shoe is just a shoe until someone steps into it.” The room is full of tension as the Jordans leave without saying yes or no to the offer. “Time After Time” by Cindy Lauper plays in the background as the team from Nike waits to hear from anyone from Jordan’s camp.
Disrupting the industry
Days go by and Sonny can be seen counting his final moments at Nike when he finally gets the call, not from Jordan’s agent but instead from Jordan’s mother. She informs him that Michael will be accepting Nike’s offer with one provision: Michael will get a percentage of revenue from each shoe sold. Initially Nike is hesitant but upon further negotiating with Mrs. Jordan, he agrees. “You eat we eat, that’s all we’re asking,” she says.
This segment of the film is important because it show’s how important to not only take risks but also to make practical decisions in life. Tension builds as Sonny is finally tasked to make a final ask of his boss. He initially presents the conversation with Mrs. Jordan as a failure, stating the family’s desire to disrupt the industry and it’s Phil Knight’s time to take a risk. Phil decides to trust Sonny’s gut and tells him to close the deal, at great risk to his own job as the CEO of a public company.
The rest of the film follows Sonny as he takes a relaxing victory lap, talking one last time Jordan’s agent as well as a final talk with CEO Phil Knight about how the move may have ruined the business model moving forward as more players will look for equity when signing deals with companies. It lists record breaking sales by Jordan shoes, selling over $162 million in its first year as well as the Air Jordan brand representing $4 billion in sales annually for Nike, with Jordan getting a cut of each shoe sold, just as planned.
Throughout the film you never see Jordan’s face, he actually doesn’t even have a line in it. The film is obviously Nike marketing at its finest but it’s an enjoyable watch. Hearing “fun facts” like when Howard White explains where the company slogan, “Just Do It” originated ( a convict’s last words to a firing squad before execution according to White’s character) is just that, self-referential fun from Nike. “Born In The USA” by Bruce Springsteen plays in the background as more Nike tidbits are shown as a montage explains what happened to each character after the deal with Jordan.