5 Ways Michael Jordan and the Air Jordan Line Changed the Sneaker Industry

  • Air Jordan
    Collector's Items

    Before we dip into what made the Jordan line so special, so ripe for collectors, back up a minute and just think about this: The Jordan Brand recently unveiled the XX9, meaning the shoe has been steadily releasing for nearly an entire generation. I grew up collecting sports cards. Today’s younger generation probably doesn’t even remember sports cards, and yet they campout and resell Jordans at a faster rate than ever before.

    The Air Jordan appeal extends past the fads and genre trends that frequent pop culture. It’s something more. A cult. It’s co-signed by athletes and celebrities. It’s endorsed by other professional basketball players, many of them clamoring for a chance to wear Jordan’s sneakers. Its release days turn into holidays. And among the fans? Having a dope Jordan collection makes you more than a normal person. In some instances, it turns you into some sort of god.

    Over the years, Jordan has continued to re-release almost every original colorway, offering younger fans — some of them never having seen Jordan play — the opportunity to collect all they missed out on. With reselling prices skyrocketing, and a buzzing Internet that provides the perfect stage for this (hello, Instagram), it’s not stopping any time soon.

    It’s addicting, too. Buy one, you won’t stop. Like tattoos. I didn’t buy my first pair of Jordans with the intention of collecting them rather than playing in them until I hit college. Over the following three years, I spent nearly every dollar I made on Air Jordan retros.

    Despite being performance sneakers at their base, retros are now marketed as lifestyle releases. While each new signature shoe helps push the envelope of sneaker technology — Flight Plate, performance-woven uppers — Jordan understands its core audience wants to wear the classic shoes anywhere but on the court.

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  • Sneaker Sensei
    Sneakerhead Culture

    The Air Jordan signature line changed the sneaker culture because… in a sense it created it. Without Jordan and his shoes, there’s no way the industry ever becomes what it is. Kanye West and the Yeezy owes a lot to MJ, and so does every other line that followed the Air Jordans, from Penny to Iverson to Griffey.

    Now you have conventions and online communities like NikeTalk and websites that run features like “The Stash” and commercials and all the rest. It all started here.

    When Jordan initially signed with Nike out of North Carolina, he did it, in part, because the competitors weren’t showing him the same love. He wore Converse throughout college, and desperately wanted to sign with adidas. But adidas was in a state of flux and Converse simply told MJ “We’ll treat you like all our other superstars,” which included Bird, Magic, and Dr. J. That wasn’t enough.

    Jordan wanted to be the focus, wanted innovation. Within one short year, he had changed the game by being different, drawing legions of followers who would go on to buy his shoes that year, the next year, five years later, 10 years later, and 20 years later it would be their sons and daughters buying once again.

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  • Air Jordan XX9
    Signature Sneakers

    Jordan doesn’t just have the greatest signature sneaker line in history. He also has one of the first. Yeah, Bob Cousy had his name on a shoe back in the day and Magic and Bird helped turn the Weapon into a powerhouse in the early 1980s, and Chuck Taylor had the All Star. But MJ showed there was money in innovation. (Think about how long the All Star has stayed stagnant.) Nike reinvented the line every year, experimenting with new technology and products (Visible Air in the Air Jordan 3 and carbon fiber in the 11), treating its top player more like a tennis star rather than a basketball player. (How weird does that sound in 2014?)

    Before Mike’s time, one sneaker was probably enough. Now if you aren’t dropping a new release every year — and subsequently have an entire storyline all ready and mapped out through dozens of different planned colorways — you might as well take the L before even getting started.

    Allen Iverson‘s signature line with Reebok is nearing its 20th anniversary and at its core, it tried to replicate the individuality, creativity, and personal expression that made the Air Jordan so special. Derrick Rose signed a mammoth sneaker deal with adidas and over the last five years, they’ve mimicked what Chicago’s finest started. But even as signature sneakers are now very much a part of NBA culture — if you’re a legit player nowadays, you NEED your own sneaker — is there anyone that thinks someone’s (LeBron?) sneaker line can pass Jordan?

    “No. I really don’t,” sneakerhead and avid LeBron collector Randy Caoili told me this summer. “You know how people are. Jordan’s dope. Nowadays, it’s a little bit different for how you follow an athlete. I think back in the day you didn’t have social media to allow people to take sides. Everyone knew Jordan was the best of what was out there but now with social media, Instagram, Twitter, it’s almost like people definitely take their sides. You have one fan takes that takes off against another fanbase. You can never have that full following as Jordan did.”

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar received the first “official” signature sneaker from adidas in 1971, and in today’s game, players compete with each other for the media’s unofficial sneaker darling tag, wearing everything from wild colorways to, yes, MJ retros. Considering Michael Jordan’s first shoe was initially banned because it used different colors, we can blame all of this on him too.

    Look how far we’ve come.

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  • Air Jordan 6
    Retro Shoes

    I’ve heard a few sneakerheads say they wished the retro releases came less often. I’ve heard others say they never miss a release. However you feel about the Air Jordan’s current status in sneaker culture, it’s obvious to anyone with a brain that its retro craze has transformed everything.

    In 2014, we’re finally starting to hear rumors of a potential LeBron retro line. He’s nearing the release of his 12th signature sneaker, and with his move to Miami and subsequent titles, it did feel like the King entered the second stage of his career. What better way to celebrate a return to Cleveland than to bring back the classics? That entirely line of thinking owes every penny it’ll ever potentially make — and trust, that would be a lot — to Michael Jordan.

    The first Jordan retros popped up during his initial retirement from basketball in 1994 and amazingly, no one bought them. Dropping to clearance racks for virtually nothing — $20! — the shoes quickly became more popular once Jordan returned to basketball and shut it down with the iconic Air Jordan 11. Over the years, we’ve seen the retro releases go from one every few months, turning those Saturdays into major events, to what it is today where it feels like new retros are dropping every week.

    The fact that the first Air Jordan is still considered “cool” in 2014 is amazing, and Jordan’s stranglehold on the sneaker market is mostly due to the retros.

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  • Jumpman
    Creating a Monster

    Jordan didn’t initially want to sign with Nike, and didn’t truly believe in them until after the Jordan 3 dropped and the entire sneaker game was thrown on its head. In the beginning when he was coming out of North Carolina, Jordan wanted to go with adidas. They were more well known, and Jordan had worn them throughout high school before being forced to wear Converse at UNC. Converse had star NBA players on their roster like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. They made sense. And adidas was Mike’s longtime love. They made sense, too. But Nike was smaller, and thus offered Mike a chance to be their main guy, where they would craft everything around him, from the shoe to how he was represented to the colors to the storylines.

    “They really made a great effort of trying to have my input on the shoe,” Jordan later told Darren Rovell.

    That made Jordan do a 180. Suddenly, he was signing with a company that had so little appeal to MJ that the player had never worn a Nike before in his life.

    If you were into sneakers, growing up as a kid in the ’80s or ’90s was different than it is today. There were more places to turn for hot gear, and there wasn’t a giant hanging over the proceedings. But in 2014, MJ and the Jordan Brand are running the game, having dominated for over two decades. And if you aren’t up on Jordans in 2014, it’ll be hard to convince anyone of your status. Back in the day? It was a little different.

    “There was so much parity,” New York-bred sneakerhead Jay Corbin (@SneakerSensei) told me recently. “We had so much to pick from. We didn’t have the problems that they have today. There were no lines. There was no nothing because you could have so much. You could have New Balance. You could have Etonic. You have Presusius. There were seven or eight different silhouettes within the Nike category. You had Air Force IIs. Air Force IIIs. Air Force Ones. If you wanted to get trainers, there were Bo Jacksons or Andre Agassi.”

    Over the years, between getting banned for introducing new colors into on-court sneakers (something else MJ and Jordan changed about the game), using new materials, introducing retros, from the 3 to the 11, from Wieden & Kennedy and Spike Lee, from the Jordan Brand’s split from Nike to the recent XX9 unveiling, the signature sneaker line turned into a monster. For the sneaker industry and the culture as a whole, there’s no turning back.

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  • Air Jordan "Raging Bull"
  • Sneaker Sensei
  • Air Jordan XX9
  • Air Jordan 6
  • Jumpman

Michael Jordan is 51 years old. Michael Jordan retired from professional basketball in 2003. Michael Jordan hasn’t won an NBA championship since 1998. And Michael Jordan made $90 million last year from Nike.

To say all basketball players still live in MJ’s shadow is an understatement. LeBron James sneaker sales tallied $300 million last year. No other current player secured more than $175 million. Jordan, on the other hand, raked in $2.25 billion, according to Forbes.

The first Air Jordan dropped in 1985, having been worn by Jordan throughout his rookie season. We’re coming up on its 30-year anniversary and it’s never been bigger.

With the “Ferrari” retro colorway of the Air Jordan 14 dropping this Saturday at Champs Sports, we’re taking a look back at how MJ and his sneakers shaped and changed the sneaker industry.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney

Air Jordan 14 "Ferrari"