This One Adidas Mistake May Have Cost Them the Chance to Be Bigger Than Nike

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You never, ever doubt Michael Jordan. OK, maybe as an NBA team owner, but as a basketball player or a brand pitchman? Never. (OK, fine! … You doubt him if he’s sporting a Hitler ‘stache.)

Adidas made the mistake of doubting Jordan once, and the German sportswear company’s value today sits somewhere in the region of $5.8 billion, according to the most recent Forbes estimate. That doesn’t seem too bad at all — until you consider that Nike is valued at a staggering $16.5 billion. It’s a far, far distance between first and second place in the sportswear brand wars, and the chasm could arguably be chalked up to, singly, Air Jordan.

A recent Wall Street Journal article explained the rationale behind the decision by Adidas, which was also in a “state of flux” at the time, to turn down the basketball GOAT:

“In 1984, Adidas made a misstep that presaged others. A University of North Carolina basketball star named Michael Jordan wanted a sponsorship deal with Adidas when he went professional, say people familiar with the matter.

Adidas distributors wanted to sign Mr. Jordan, says someone who was an Adidas distributor then. But executives in Germany decided shoppers would favor taller players and wanted to sponsor centers, the person says, adding: “We kept saying, ‘no—no one can relate to those guys. Who can associate with a seven-foot-tall guy?’ ”

Whoops.

Even granting that it was possible that Adidas executives’, um, vertical, thinking at the time was true, there’s one quality that nearly everyone universally favors over every single other quality — good, bad and everything in between and outside — and that’s winning. Jordan, of course, supplied that in droves (hell, Jordan is such a winner in life that Hanes didn’t question the previously mentioned very questionable mustache), leading the Bulls to six NBA championship titles in the 90s. It was thus indeed very, very bad for Adidas that they turned Jordan down since he won those championships exclusively wearing Nike. The image and sales boost provided to Nike by Jordan’s popularity and winning ways skyrocketed them past the competition, and they’ve kept the large lead ever since.

The worst part? Adidas really had Jordan in its figurative pocket. According to author George Lazenby’s book “Michael Jordan: The Life,” by way of News.com.au:

“Jordan viewed the red and black of the new shoe as ‘the devil’s colour’ and had to be convinced by his mother to accept the deal. Adidas couldn’t come close.”

Aside from learning that Jordan would’ve been a surprisingly effective prosecutor during the Salem witch trials, one can’t help but imagine where Adidas would be today had they just committed to the risk and reward of matching Nike’s five-year $2.5 million offer to Jordan.

While we’ll never truly know if the impact of Jordan signing with Adidas would’ve had them toppling relative upstart Nike (probably), consider this: Nike’s Jordan brand alone made Nike $2.6 billion last year, 16 years after his second retirement; Adidas made over $16 billion (14.8 billion euros) in the same time. Adidas still isn’t living the decision of doubting MJ down.

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