Bill Bowerman is born in Portland, Oregon on February 19. He becomes track and field coach at his alma mater, the University of Oregon, in 1948.
Phil Knight is born in Portland, Oregon on February 24. In 1955, he enrolls at the University of Oregon to study journalism, following in his newspaper publisher father’s footsteps. He runs track under Bowerman and graduates in 1959. After a year in the army, he goes to grad school at Stanford, getting a master’s in business administration in 1962. After Stanford, he sets off on a round-the-world trip and in Kobe, Japan strikes an agreement to distribute the Tiger-branded running shoes of Onitsuka Company (later ASICS) in the US, introducing them to former coach Bowerman upon his return.
Knight and Bowerman found Blue Ribbon Sports on January 25 to sell Onitsuka’s Tiger shoes in the US. The company is founded with $1,200 in the bank. Bowerman writes to Onitsuka proposing that he submit his own ideas for new running shoes.
Onitsuka and Bowerman develop the TG-24 running shoe, which is renamed the TG-24 Mexico to mark the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. It then becomes the TG-24 Aztec, but an adidas lawsuit prompts another change. Finally, it is named the Cortez.
The Blue Ribbon Sports-Onitsuka relationship comes under strain, with Onitsuka reportedly attempting a company takeover and soliciting new US distributors. Blue Ribbon registers the Nike brand on May 30, taking the name from the Greek goddess of victory. Student Carolyn Davidson designs the brand’s logo, the Swoosh, getting paid $35 for her work.
Nike releases a Swoosh-emblazoned version of the Cortez. Onitsuka cuts its supply of Tiger-branded shoes. Some stores stock both the Tiger Cortez and the Nike Cortez. Romanian tennis player Ilie Nastase becomes the first athlete to sign a Nike endorsement.
Blue Ribbon Sports and Onitsuka sue each other over the rights to the Cortez, among other things. Nike releases the Blazer basketball shoe, named after the Portland Trail Blazers. The brand also signs US running star Steve Prefontaine, who tragically dies in a car wreck two years later. The company comes to dominate track and field in the US, later sponsoring Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Michael Johnson.
In April, Judge James Burns awards damages to Blue Ribbon Sports (settled on appeal in 1975) and rules that only the American company has the right to sell under the trademarked “Cortez” name, although both companies can use the same design. Onitsuka later launches the renamed Corsair. Nike releases the Waffle Trainer, featuring the patented waffle sole conceived a few years earlier when Bowerman reportedly poured rubber into his wife’s waffle maker.
Blue Ribbon Sports officially becomes Nike, Inc. The brand signs US tennis enfant terrible John McEnroe, Nike’s first in a line of US tennis icons, including Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Serena Williams. Nike also sponsors Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as they dominate men’s tennis in the first two decades of the 21st century.
Nike fully releases the Air Tailwind, its first model to feature the Air cushioning tech brought to the company by aerospace engineer Marion Frank Rudy in 1977. The model had a limited Hawaiian release in 1978 after debuting in the Honalulu Marathon. The first Nike apparel comes out, including the Windrunner jacket.
Nike releases the Shark, the first football cleat designed for both turf and grass. The brand’s first football shoe was 1971’s “The Nike,” which could be used for both football and soccer. In December, the company goes public.
Nike releases the Air Force 1, its first basketball shoe with Air cushioning tech. It is nearly discontinued in 1984 before becoming one of the bestselling sneakers ever.
Nike releases the Air Pegasus. The Pegasus range remains one of Nike’s key running lines today.
Nike signs Michael Jordan. The basketball prodigy had worn Converse at the University of North Carolina and wanted a deal with adidas, but Nike pulls out all the stops, offering a record $2.5 million over five years plus stock options. Jordan starts his debut season at the Chicago Bulls wearing the Air Ship basketball shoe, falling foul of the NBA’s footwear color rules for wearing a red and black model in a preseason game.
Nike releases the Air Jordan 1. The Peter Moore-designed shoe’s “banned” ad campaign is inspired by the NBA’s warning not to break its “uniformity of uniform” rules. There have been dozens of Air Jordan models since, the most important of which include the Air Jordan 2 (1986) and Tinker Hatfield’s Air Jordan 3 (1988), Air Jordan 4 (1989), and Air Jordan 11 (1995). Similar basketball model the Dunk is also released in 1985. Its college team colorways are promoted through the “Be True to Your School” ad campaign. Another basketball sneaker, the Terminator, comes out in Georgetown Hoyas colors.
Nike releases the Air Max 1, its first shoe with a visible Air unit, and the Air Trainer 1, whose ad campaign is fronted by John McEnroe. Both shoes are designed by Tinker Hatfield, who is becoming the company’s design poster child. Air Max becomes one of Nike’s biggest lines, spawning the Air Max 90, Air Max 95, and Air Max 97, among countless others.
Nike debuts its “Just Do It” slogan in an ad starring 80-year-old runner Walt Stack. The slogan is inspired by executed murderer Gary Gilmore’s last words, “Let’s do it.” Elsewhere in advertising, to promote the Air Jordan 3, the first sneaker to carry the Jumpman logo, Spike Lee directs and stars in the shoe’s promo campaign alongside Michael Jordan. Lee plays Mars Blackmon, his Air Jordan-obsessed character from 1986 movie She’s Gotta Have It, and reprises the role in future ads. Air Jordans also feature prominently in Lee’s 1989 hit Do the Right Thing, with the auteur later getting his own Air Jordan colorways.
Tinker Hatfield’s Nike Mag appears in Back to the Future Part II. Nike launches the ACG (All Conditions Gear) line.
The first NikeTown store opens in Portland, Oregon.
In 1991, Nike ACG releases Tinker Hatfield’s Air Mowabb, arguably the outdoor line’s most celebrated shoe. Another ACG classic, the Air Revaderchi, follows in 1992. Also in 1991, Nike releases Hatfield’s Air Huarache running shoe, following it up a year later with the Air Flight Huarache basketball shoe.
Nike signs women’s soccer prodigy Mia Hamm, its first endorsement of a female player.
Nike signs a five-year licensing deal with the NFL worth $200 million, although it doesn’t produce uniforms for all teams due to individual licensing agreements. After Reebok strikes an exclusive apparel deal worth $250 million from 2001 to 2011, Nike wins the contract back for five years from 2012 in a deal worth a reported $1.1 billion. That deal gets extended twice and will run until 2028. Also in 1995, Nike introduces its Zoom Air cushioning tech and launches the Uptempo line of basketball shoes.
Nike signs golf prodigy Tiger Woods, who goes on to dominate a sport previously seen as for older white men. The company also signs a record 10-year deal to outfit the Brazilian national soccer team, adding young star striker Ronaldo to its roster. This completes a two-year pursuit by Phil Knight and marks a redoubling of Nike’s efforts in the sport. The US women’s and Nigerian men’s national teams, both signed by Nike in 1994, take Olympic soccer gold at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Nike releases the Air Foamposite One basketball shoe.
Nike goes all-in on soccer ahead of the 1998 World Cup in France, debuting the Mercurial cleat and releasing a John Woo-directed ad featuring the Brazil team playing at Rio de Janeiro Airport. Brazil reach the final in Paris but lose 3-0 to France. The game is marred by controversy when Ronaldo suffers a fit before the game yet plays anyway. The Nike-Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) deal comes under scrutiny, with Ronaldo hauled before Brazil’s Congress in 2001 amid accusations Nike had pressured the CBF to field its star in the final.
Nike collaborates with Junya Watanabe for the first time, marking the start of a long-lasting relationship with the COMMES des GARÇONS stable. In sport, Brandi Chastain scores the winning penalty in a shootout to win the Women’s World Cup for the USA. When she tears her shirt off after scoring, the image of her celebrating in her Nike sports bra becomes one of the sport’s indelible moments.
Nike releases the Air Presto running shoe and debuts its Shox line. The brand also collaborates with Stüssy for the first time, releasing a joint Air Huarache.
Japanese designer Hiroshi Fujiwara works with Nike for the first time, releasing the “Monotone” pack as part of the Swoosh’s Concept Japan (Co.Jp) project. In 2002, Fujiwara, Tinker Hatfield, and Mark Parker (later named CEO in 2006) form the HTM design project, which pioneers the Flyknit tech that debuts on 2012’s Flyknit Trainer.
Nike launches its SB skateboarding division, leading to the resurgence of the Dunk as a collectable and collaborative model in countless themed colorways. The biggest collaborative Nike SB Dunks include 2002’s “Supreme” (Nike’s first collaboration with Supreme), Jeff Staples’ “Pigeon,” whose 2005 NYC launch leads to rioting, and Diamond Supply Co.’s 2005 “Tiffany.” Nike SB goes on to sign pro skateboarders Paul Rodriguez, Eric Kosten, and Stefan Janoski, giving each a signature model. Also in 2002, Nike buys surfwear label Hurley.
Nike buys Converse for $305 million. In sports, the brand signs LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who had left adidas a year earlier, on a four-year $40 million deal. It also picks up teenage sensations LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo. Both sign lifetime Nike deals in 2016 worth a reported $1 billion, joining Michael Jordan, who signs for life in 2015.
Nike releases the Air Yeezy, its debut collaboration with Kanye West. The Air Yeezy 2 follows in 2012 before West jumps ship to adidas in 2013. The Swoosh also collaborates with Jun Takahashi of UNDERCOVER for the first time, leading to the launch of the Japanese designer’s Gyakusou running line in 2010.
Nike releases the Air Foamposite One “Galaxy.” After riots at its launch, the shoe generates astronomical resale prices.
Nike launches NikeLab, a sub-line for its most forward-thinking and innovative collaborations. As well as Jun Takahashi’s Gyakusou, NikeLab is also home to the relaunched ACG line under ACRONYM designer Errolson Hugh, whose partnership with the brand lasts from 2014 to 2018. The brand also debuts its annual Air Max Day celebration.
Nike signs an eight-year deal worth a reported $1 billion to outfit the NBA from the 2017-18 season. The brand also collaborates with Chitose Abe’s label sacai for the first time.
Nike partners with OFF-WHITE’s Virgil Abloh on “The Ten,” a collection of classic sneaker models reimagined by the designer. The partnership continues with additional sneakers in 2018 and 2019. The brand signs Kendrick Lamar away from Reebok, with the rapper dropping a series of Cortez collaborations. Nike also debuts collaborations with Skepta and A-COLD-WALL*, and celebrates the Air Force 1 with the AF-100 collection designed by Virgil Abloh, Don C, Travis Scott, and others. Scott later continues collaborating with the brand.
Nike launches a new “Just Do It” ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback-turned-activist whose football career had essentially been ended after his kneeling protests against racial injustice during the pre-game national anthem. The brand had reportedly come close to dropping Kaepernick in 2017 and the advert became controversial in a politically polarized US. Elsewhere, Nike releases the React Element 87 sneaker, utilizing the React cushioning tech debuted in 2017 on a Hyperdunk basketball model, and launches its MMW collaboration with 1017 ALYX 9SM’s Matthew Williams.
Nike releases a lot of its premium and limited shoes through its SNKRS app (iOS, Android) in the US and the SNEAKRS app (iOS, Android) in Europe, as well as at Nike.com. The company also has around 7,000 Nike stores around the world. Nike shoes are available at practically every reputable footwear retailer, from major chains such as Foot Locker to specialist sneaker and streetwear boutiques. Retailers both online and physical that get limited and special edition Nike sneakers include Highsnobiety favorites KITH, Solebox, Sneakersnstuff, Livestock, END. Clothing, Caliroots, Slam Jam, Browns, SSENSE, and MR PORTER. On the aftermarket, you can cop resale Nike sneakers at StockX, GOAT, Stadium Goods, Flight Club, and Grailed.
The 1985 Nike Air Jordan 1 is credited with changing the sportswear and footwear industries, and with good reason — for many, it was ground zero for sneaker culture. Of the sneakers under Nike’s Jordan Brand umbrella, the first four Air Jordan models and the Air Jordan 11 are often cited as the most important. The 1982 Air Force 1, a basketball sneaker that was almost discontinued in 1984, has become a classic, and 1987’s Tinker Hatfield-designed Air Max 1 gave the world visible Air cushioning. Other key Air Max models include the Air Max 90, 95, and 97. The Cortez, Nike’s first ever sneaker, and the Dunk, a basketball shoe that was reborn as a collectible skate shoe under Nike SB, are two of the brand’s biggest cult models.
Contrary to myth-making, even the fabled Nike Air Jordan 1 ended up on sales racks after Nike reportedly overshot production. Nike’s most popular limited models and collaborations might sell out quickly, but older, less popular models and shoes produced in too-large batches will find their way to clearance to make way for new releases. And as the story of the OG Air Jordan 1 and its unloved 1994 retro shows, just because a shoe ends up on sale, it doesn’t mean that shoe won’t later be considered a grail. Nike.com always has a strong collection of sneakers on sale.
Nike maintains a release launch calendar on its website and its SNKRS and SNEAKRS apps. Likewise, the websites of retailers such as Sneakersnstuff, Caliroots, and END. Clothing all have release calendars featuring the biggest upcoming drops. If you’re looking for an app to track upcoming releases beyond Nike’s official channels, our guide to the best sneaker apps recommended Eastbay (iOS, Android), with honorable mentions to Unlaced (iOS) and Footaction (iOS, Android). And if you’re looking for news about new Nikes, look no further than Highsnobiety (and Nike.com).