It’s the swoosh known around the world. Over the decades, Nike has emerged as a monolith in the footwear industry, dominating the sportswear niche even amid fierce competition from competing brands.
Yet, to truly appreciate the iconic name, it’s important to go back to the beginning. Today, we’re sharing the fascinating history of Nike so sneaker lovers worldwide can get an insider look at where it all began.
The Early 1960s: A Sneaker Fascination Ignites
Nike was the brainchild of two original founders, Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman. Their chance meeting might not have occurred if Knight hadn’t joined the track and field team at the University of Oregon, where he studied from 1955 to 1959.
Not only was Bowerman a competitive, well-regarded coach, but he was also uniquely interested in the shoes that his runners wore. Trained by a local cobbler, he knew enough about footwear to make adjustments as necessary and tweak different models to make them better-performing.
Ready to take his design skills to the next level, Bowerman asked Knight if he’d like to participate in an experiment. If Knight would let him borrow a pair of running shoes, he’d customize them at no cost.
Knight agreed to the deal, and what he got back far exceeded expectations. In fact, legend has it that Knight’s teammate, Otis Davis, was so thrilled with the tailored design that he borrowed the Bowerman originals to run (and win) the 400-meter dash in the 1960 Olympics.
A Businessman Emerges
Once he left the University of Oregon, Knight achieved his MBA at Stanford.
It was here that he began to develop his strong business acumen, all while his interest in footwear strengthened. In one paper, he even strategized the idea of relocating the global running shoe production center away from Germany and over to Japan, where labor costs were lower.
When he graduated in 1962, that vision became reality.
Knight traveled to Japan, where he met with a core group of businessmen who would forever alter the course of America’s sneaker obsession. At that time, Onitsuka Tiger sneakers were all the rage in the island country, and Knight wanted to bring them stateside.
Re-enter, coach Bowerman.
A fellow athletic shoe fanatic, Bowerman was interested in Knight’s newly-formed deal and he wanted in. The two formed Blue Ribbon Sports together in January 1964, each owning 50% of the company.
Testing the New Market
Knight and Bowerman knew that Onitsuka Tiger sneakers were a hit, but would the rest of the country agree? To test the waters, Knight started selling pairs out of his trunk.
Turns out, his intuition was right. The shoes were similar in make to other popular models, including Adidas, but were available at a lower price point to consumers. That first year was successful, but Bowerman wanted to expand on the line.
In 1965, he proposed his own spin on the Tiger sneakers. This iteration included several new features, such as:
- More cushion for the innersole
- Durable rubber outsole
- Hard-sponge rubber in the middle heel
- Soft-sponge rubbed in the top and front heel
The company marketed this new design as the Tiger Cortez, officially launching it to the masses in 1967. While it was a home run for Blue Ribbon Sports, it put a strain on the company’s relationship with the Japanese Tiger brand.
Tiger Out, Nike In
As soon as the Tiger Cortez launched, there were discrepancies and disagreements around whose idea it was, and how it should be managed. On their end, Tiger claimed that Blue Ribbon Sports was selling its own version of the sneaker under an entirely new label called Nike.
Meanwhile, Blue Ribbon Sports maintained innocence and explained away the accusations, saying that Tiger was simply looking for a way out of their business contract and wanted to tarnish their company name.
Different stories aside, the two entities parted ways in 1971. Soon thereafter, Tiger sued Blue Ribbon Sports. After a court battle, the judge allowed each brand to sell their own versions of the infamous Cortez sneaker.
This was the catalyst that Blue Ribbon Sports needed to officially change its name to Nike. As the Nike Cortez hit the shelves, the Tiger brand continued to grow in Japan. After much restructuring, it’s now rebranded as Asics, and their version of the sneaker, the Tiger Corsair, is still available today.
A New Brand Is Born
In the late 1970s, Nike was just in its infancy. While Blue Ribbon Sports had been a success, its brand image would no longer work. It was time for a new name, along with a new logo.
Originally, the first choice was Dimension 6, though this idea was quickly scrapped. Standing for the Greek goddess of victory, Nike was a much more fitting choice and one that came to employee Jeff Johnson in a dream. Recognized as Nike’s first official wage-earner, Johnson had been with the company since its Blue Ribbon Sports days in 1965.
With a short timeline and tighter budget, the team reached out to a local design student at nearby Portland State University. Her name is Carolyn Davidson, and though you might not recognize that moniker, you absolutely know her work.
Davidson is the mastermind behind that epic Nike swoosh, a design that she charged a total of $35 to create.
While the Tiger Cortez was the first sneaker to help the brand get on the map, it was far from the only one.
Not long after the logo was designed, Bowerman invented a new “Waffle” design for soles, which was a major hit and cemented Nike’s standing among top athleticwear companies around the world.
Since then, the brand has seen a steady uptick of growth, propelled by factors such as their “Just Do It” ad campaign in 1988, as well as high-profile celebrity endorsements. Chief among those was Michael Jordan, whose historic Air Jordans generated an unprecedented $100 million in sneaker sales just a year after their release.
History of Nike: Just Getting Started
If we’ve learned anything from this history of Nike, it’s that the brand is no stranger to reinventing and improving itself. Though co-founder Bowerman died in 1999 and Knight stepped down as CEO in 2004, their original vision lives on.
Today, Nike remains a top competitor in the field of footwear, with acquisitions that include other brands such as Harley and Converse. Want to get your hands on a fresh pair? Check out the extensive Nike collection in our online shop, including our Air Jordans!