Meet Sonny Vaccaro, the main character in Ben Affleck’s film Air

Former Nike CEO Sonny Vaccaro is the main character in a new movie about how Nike signed Michael Jordan.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

  • Vaccaro, 83, was a key figure in Nike’s efforts to sign Michael Jordan in 1984.
  • Sometimes controversial, he also pioneered giant sneaker deals with universities.
  • Since retiring, Vaccaro has been a driving force behind the expansion of rights for college athletes.

When Sonny Vaccaro first walked into Nike’s offices, Michael Jordan was not yet a household name.

It was 1977. Vaccaro was in Beaverton, Oregon, trying to sell the company sneakers.

Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon, is the main character in Air, a new film about how Nike signed Michael Jordan to the gold standard of athlete endorsement deals due to the enduring success of the Jordan brand. But his contribution to the global sportswear industry goes beyond the hotly debated events described in the film, which was released on Wednesday.

Vaccaro grew up near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and attended Youngstown State University on a football scholarship. No one in his family went to college, Vaccaro said in an interview at a pancake breakfast in 2021.

“Everybody either worked in the steel mills or worked on the railroad or worked in the coal mines,” he said.

In 1965, he started the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, a high school basketball showcase that would become a hotbed of amateur basketball and a popular gathering place for college coaches. An innovator at the time, it became the model for branded high school jerseys that are now standard among sportswear companies.

In 1977, Vaccaro made a connection from his basketball promotion work and met Nike and co-founder Phil Knight.

Vaccaro worked with a local shoemaker in Pittsburgh to make nine prototype sneakers. He wanted to sell the design to Nike, which was then a privately held company with less than $29 million in annual revenue.

Vaccaro flew to Nike’s offices in Beaverton, Oregon. Over lunch at a Chinese restaurant with Knight and a few others, he talked about his shoes.

The account is confirmed by “Swoosh,” an unauthorized Nike story published in 1991.

Nike didn’t care about Vaccaro’s bike shoe, his “disco” shoe, his velcro shoe, or the leather shoe with the holes cut out.

But they were interested in Vaccaro’s basketball tournament. Nike subsequently hired Vaccaro and pushed him to expand its basketball and college business, a chapter in his career that was covered in the 2015 ESPN documentary Sole Man.

Vaccaro expanded Nike’s college business, first by signing college coaches, many of whom he knew from his Dapper Dan days. While players could not accept payments from sneaker companies, coaches could.

Matt Damon plays Sonny Vaccaro in the new movie “Air,” about how Nike signed Michael Jordan.
Ana Carballosa/Amazon Content Services

In 1984, Nike signed Jordan, coming out of the University of North Carolina, to the most enviable endorsement deal in sports marketing history. At the time, Nike stumbled, missing out on the aerobics boom, leading to a rare round of layoffs. The deal helped launch a huge corporate comeback.

Nike’s business in Jordan generated $5.1 billion in sales in its last fiscal year. Retro models of the sneakers Jordan wore during his playing career still sell out in seconds.

While there’s no debate whether Vaccaro backed Nike’s big bet on Jordan, there’s still debate over how credit for the deal should be apportioned, despite “Air’s” version of events in which Vaccaro is the heroic central figure.

“The signing of Michael Jordan, yes, success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan,” Knight told USA Today in 2015. “A lot of people want to take credit for signing Michael Jordan, most obviously Sonny Vaccaro.”

“Everyone is trying to rewrite history,” Vaccaro said in the same report. “It goes beyond Jordan. I am the savior of Nike.”

Jordan deal aside, Vaccaro until 1987 pioneered the first “all-school” college apparel deal, whereby every varsity athlete on the University of Miami campus wore Nike gear. It also gave Nike prime shelf space in the campus bookstore.

“I was more interested in the bookstore,” Vaccaro said at the breakfast. “Every mom and dad who isn’t a football or baseball fan goes to the bookstore.”

Nike’s explosive growth on college campuses and its ability to outbid competitors also made Vaccaro an easy villain for people critical of corporate encroachment on higher education.

“They demonized me the whole time,” Vaccaro said.

All-school apparel deals have since become the norm. In 2016, Ohio State announced a $252 million deal with Nike, one in a series of mega deals struck by Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.

Vaccaro (red shirt) speaks at a 1998 Adidas basketball camp with Kansas coach Roy Williams (gray shorts) and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (black shirt).
Damian Strohmeier/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Vaccaro joined Adidas in 1991 after leaving Nike. There, he signed Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, among other future stars, adding rocket fuel to the escalating race to sign basketball’s next big talent. Vaccaro ended his career with Reebok.

But instead of enjoying his retirement in Palm Springs, Vaccaro became a driving force behind the expansion of college athletes’ rights, including the creation of name, image, likeness rights, first by throwing his weight behind a landmark lawsuit against the NCAA. Vaccaro also toured universities, speaking about the shortcomings of the amateur sports system.

Vaccaro has talked a lot about “Air” in interviews and seems to be happy with it.

“I can go to my deathbed not ashamed of anything I saw,” he told the Athletic.

As for the shoes that launched Vaccaro’s sneaker career, it’s unknown what happened to them.

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