Nike’s beginnings: When Phil Knight met Bill Bowerman

Nike Inc is the biggest and most valuable sports company in the world, with an estimated market value of £142.1 billion.

The US multinational corporation, founded in 1964, designs, develops and manufactures sports and leisure footwear, clothing, accessories and equipment.

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Launched by track and field coach Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight, his former student, the company was initially known as Blue Ribbon Sports and was renamed Nike Inc in 1978. Its iconic “swoosh” logo is recognised throughout the world as the company celebrates 58 years in existence.

How did Nike start?

When Phil Knight met Bill Bowerman, they were both actively involved in track and field sports at the University of Oregon in the United States. Portland-born Bowerman had been a student at the university himself in 1929, playing football and studying journalism.

After graduating, he became a sports coach, starting out at Franklin High School in Portland and then moving to Medford High School. He served in the US Army as a 2nd Lieutenant during World War II, following the Pearl Harbour attack.

After becoming head track coach at the University of Oregon on 1st July 1948, he had an extremely successful coaching career, training 31 Olympic athletes, 51 All-Americans (sports people recognised as outstanding in their field), 12 United States record-holders and 22 National Collegiate Athletic Association champions.

Knight was also born in Portland, where he attended Cleveland High School. He continued his education at the University of Oregon, where he earned a business degree in 1959. A talented middle-distance runner at university, his personal best was running a mile in four minutes and 13 seconds.

Knight founded an American running team called Athletics West, together with Bowerman and Geoff Hollister. Recognising a gap in the market for high-quality sportswear, Knight and Bowerman joined forces to launch Blue Ribbon Sports in Beaverton, Oregon, in 1964.

Growth of Nike

In their first year in business, they sold 1,300 pairs of running shoes, grossing around £7,000. The following year, sales reached £17,600 and the company continued to go from strength to strength. The company’s first retail store opened in 1966 at Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, California.

In 1967, Blue Ribbon Sports’ retail and distribution operations expanded on the East Coast in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The Nike brand sports shoe was launched in 1972, with its famous logo designed by graphic designer Carolyn Davidson. The “swoosh” was registered with the US Patent and Trademark Office on 22nd January 1974.

In 1978, the company became Nike Inc and went public two years later. Nike’s primary advertising agency, Wieden+Kennedy, has worked with the brand to create many iconic advertisements including the slogan “Just Do It”, which was coined by agency co-founder Dan Wieden in 1988. It was chosen as one of the top five ad slogans in the 20th century by Advertising Age and has been enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution, the famous group of museums and education and research centres.

Nike moved to its eight-building new world HQ in Beaverton, Oregon, in 1990. Bowerman died on 24th December 1999, at the age of 88, leaving his legacy as co-founder of the world’s biggest sports company. In the early 21st century, Nike’s retail outlets and distributors had expanded to more than 170 countries.

50th anniversary celebrations

Remaining synonymous with innovation, as it has been since it was first founded; this year, the company is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the launch of its Nike brand.

To mark the anniversary, Nike released the “Seen It All” campaign, looking back over the past 50 years and forward to the next 50. Directed by Spike Lee, who was involved in the Air Jordan line in the 1980s, the short film focuses on the world-class athletes who have made a mark on their sport wearing Nike apparel including Andre Agassi, Tiger Woods, Ja Morant, Naomi Osaka, LeBron James, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kobe Bryant, Sabrina Ionescu and more.

Nike also launched its new interactive site in May 2022 as part of the 50th anniversary celebration.

Knight, now aged 84, stepped down as company chairman in June 2015. CEO and president Mark Parker succeeded him. Knight came out of retirement in September 2017 to help with the design of the UNC jerseys for the Phil Knight Classic in Portland, Oregon.

A well-known philanthropist, he donated $105 million to the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2006. In May 2022, he and his wife donated a further $75 million to Stanford for the Phil and Penny Knight Initiative for Brain Resilience.

While Knight and Bowerman were friends and business partners, they reportedly didn’t always see eye to eye on everything, although Knight downplayed this in his memoir, Show Dog. However, he did admit to not being keen on the now legendary swoosh logo when it was first launched. At the time, he famously said, “I don’t love it. Maybe it will grow on me.”

Nike continues to launch innovative and groundbreaking new sportswear, with industry insiders speculating that the next big launch will be the Jarritos Nike SB Dunk Low in 2023. The famous Mexican beverage company has been linked to creating its own Nike SB Dunk Low sports shoe.

The move is in line with the Nike SB team’s collaboration in 2020 with Ben & Jerry. Independent skate shops have collaborated with the SB team for some time and will continue to do so. Partners such as Jarritos, who are seen as mainstream and random, offer new partnership opportunities for Nike – mixing things up keeps business exciting!

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