Support Marketplace

The old-school basketball shoes that stepped up endorsement deals

A Converse 'Chuck Taylor' sneaker sits on display July 10, 2003 in New York City.

Just 10 games into his comeback from a left knee injury, former NBA MVP Derrick Rose hurt his right knee last month. That’s bad news for the Chicago Bulls. And for Adidas, the maker of the D-Rose signature line of basketball sneakers. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant is also out with a knee injury, but his new Nike sneakers made their debut earlier this month.

Total retails sales of basketball sneakers hit $3.7 billion dollars last year. But before there were Air Jordans – long before – there were Chuck Taylors. The bestselling sneakers of all-time started out as cutting-edge basketball technology nearly 100 years ago. They bear the name of a Hall of Fame player, but the shoe’s days on the hardwood are over.

“I like to say the Chuck Taylor All Star was born on the basketball courts, raised by rock n’ roll and really adopted by street culture and fashion over the years,” Converse All Star Vice President Magnus Wedhammar says.

Converse, which is owned by Nike, sells about 70 million pairs of the canvas sneakers worldwide every year. But who was the man behind the signature on the iconic ankle patch?

Charles Taylor was born in Indiana in 1901. He played high school basketball and later, some semi-pro ball. Wedhammar says the All Star sneaker was already on the market when Converse hired Taylor as a salesman in 1922.

“Chuck Taylor himself was really the first endorsed performance athlete back in the day,” Wedhammar says. “And he really helped evolve the All Star to the Chuck Taylor All Star over time.”

Taylor put on basketball clinics all over the country, selling sneakers to high school and college teams. His name was added to the ankle patch in 1932. He retired in the mid-1960s and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor to the sport.

“People who were buying his shoes by the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and beyond, they just thought of Chuck Taylor as a brand. But there really was such a person as Chuck Taylor,” says Abraham Aamidor, author of the biography Chuck Taylor, All Star.

But when Taylor died in 1969, his sneaker was in crisis. So, Converse turned to Dr. J.

Julius Erving wore All Stars from his childhood right through his college career, but when he turned pro in the 1970s, Dr. J endorsed new, leather Converse sneakers. Adidas and Puma already sold leather basketball shoes and Converse needed to catch up.

“Converse actually called me in to talk to their engineers. And we spent a lot of hours in terms of the design and obviously, feel and comfort and durability,” Erving says.

All of that helped pave the way for Michael Jordan’s groundbreaking partnership with Nike in 1984. According to SportsOneSource, today the Jordan Brand controls more than half of the basketball market. Overall Nike holds a 92 percent share.

Marshal Cohen is the chief retail analyst at the NPD Group. He says Jordan’s post-career dominance as a spokesman is unprecedented.

“By being able to take the person and then ultimately become the brand, that’s a very rare exception,” Cohen says.

According to Cohen, 75 percent of all basketball sneakers are purchased for style, not performance, in part because of retro reissues.

“It’s all about brand, and it’s all about celebrity product,” he notes.

Fans aren’t the only ones picking up Air Jordans. Other elite athletes like the NBA’s Blake Griffin and baseball’s Derek Jeter are happy to sign with Jordan’s team and to wear his name and silouhette, too.

“Jordan as a brand, will certainly outlive Jordan the player,” says Cohen.

On the court, LeBron James, another Nike spokesman, has a chance to equal Jordan’s accomplishments. But don’t expect King James –- or anyone else -- to knock Jordan off the throne of sneaker endorsements anytime soon.

About the author

Doug Tribou is a reporter for the Only A Game sports program produced at WBUR in Boston.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...