Behind the Swoosh: The Journey of Phil Knight and Nike

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Written By David Jay
A future med student, I write to learn.
Phil Nike and Bill Bowerman are Nike’s co-founders and former CEO. (Source: KATU 2 ABC)

Just do it.


Nike has a long-standing history in the sportswear industry. Being renowned for revolutionizing sneakers and sporting equipment, the company stood the test of time for more than half a decade; its innovative ideology, strong marketing techniques, and supply chain management are Nike’s keys to success. According to D. Tighe, a marketing researcher, Nike generated approximately $22.3 billion in worldwide gross profit in 2023, making it the largest sportswear corporation, according to Runners Athletics. As of August 2023, Nike’s total assets and net income were approximately $40.3 billion and $6.05 billion, respectively, with roughly 80,000 employees worldwide.

Before Nike was known for revolutionizing the sports industry, it was a product distributor of Onitsuka Tiger under Blue Ribbon Sports. Its co-founders, Phil Knight, and Bill Bowerman, transformed a small business into a multinational corporation overnight through ingenious methods that are still used today.

Everyone Has to Start Somewhere

Knight was in the esteemed Oregon Ducks track and field program at the University of Oregon.
(Source: Phil Knight Weebly Page)

Knight was born on the 24th of February, 1938, to William Knight, a lawyer turned The Oregon Journal publisher, and Lota Cloy. As the eldest brother of William’s three sons, he was raised in the Eastmoor neighborhood in Portland. In his childhood, he attended Portland High School. According to an archived article from People, when his father refused to offer a summer job at his office to push him to find one on his own, Knight applied for The Oregonian, The Oregon Journal’s rival; he worked night shifts cataloging sports scores, then ran back home seven miles every morning. This event may have inspired him to pursue sports, namely track and field.

The Encyclopedia Britannica stated that Knight had little interest in education in his early life, but he attended the University of Oregon in 1955. Due to his interests, Knight became a runner for the Oregon Ducks track and field program and a sports reporter. During his tenure as a runner, he met Bowerman, a well-acclaimed coach known for training 32 Olympic medalists and modifying athletes’ shoes. Eventually, he earned his degree in Arts and Science in 1959. Then, he spent eight years serving in the US Army as a reserve, attended Stanford University with a major in business, and found his passion: entrepreneurship and sales. Combined with his love for running, he dreamed of opening a shoe store.

Blue Ribbon Ideas

Connecting the West to the East

The first store of Blue Ribbon Sports was opened in 1966. (Source: Shortform)

After he graduated from Stanford University in 1962, Knight was already planning his business. According to the archived article in Stanford Magazine, he was inspired by his old business class paper which reflects that Japan produces high-quality athletic shoes at a low price to be put on the industry’s map, according to Knight’s biography Shoe Dog. To find other ideas for his business, Knight toured around the world and made a stop in Kobe, Japan in November 1962. During his visit, he discovered Onitsuka Tigers, a well-respected Japanese sports fashion brand. Due to the products’ superiority and low production cost, Knight pitched a deal with Kihachiro Onitsuka, the company’s founder, to earn distribution rights to sell his products in the United States; the deal went through.

The first sample delivery arrived a year after the deal was made, and Knight sent two samples to Bowerman to hopefully get a sale and some recognition. Not only was Bowerman elated with the samples and bought them, but he also wanted to become a partner to help design products. Thus, Blue Ribbon Sports was born on January 25th, 1964 with a handshake between Knight and Bowerman.

Get Set, Go!

Advertisement from Blue Ribbon Sports (Source: The Deffest)

Forbes stated that Knight and Bowerman invested $500 each in the business. According to numerous sources, Blue Ribbon Sports made its first sales on the back of Knight’s Plymouth Valiant. Reportedly, the company sold 1,300 pairs of Onitsuka Tiger shoes for $8,000 in the first year (1964), equating to nearly $80,000 in March 2024. This is all due to Knight’s clever marketing strategy. Air Designs stated that Knight traveled all over the Pacific Northwest to chat and show his wares to coaches, athletes, and fans between races. 

The company was booming more than ever before, which allowed it to open its first retail outlet in Santa Monica, California. Knight also hired the company’s first employee, Jeff Johnson, in 1965 to operate the store. Johnson was an exceptional worker, selling more than 3,250 pairs of shoes in 10 months. While he employed the same technique as Knight, he surpassed him in customer relationship management. With the initial success, Knight resigned from his accountant job and pursued Blue Ribbon Sports full-time.

Into the Big Leagues

How a Waffle Iron and a Swoosh Made History

Nike’s first product, the Moon Shoe, is worth $437,500 today. (Source: CNN)

The 1970s saw a major change in company history. As BRS’ growth accelerated, Onitsuka Tiger proposed an ultimatum that would grant the company 51% of BRS’ shares, essentially taking it over. Knight and Bowerman rejected the acquisition attempt, and tensions between the two companies ensued. Finally, the relationship between both parties ended in 1972. However, seeing that the contract would likely be canceled, Knight planned to produce shoes without importing products into the US.

One morning when his wife was making waffles on a waffle iron, Bowerman had an idea as mentioned by Deepika Lal. As grass fields were replaced with artificial ones, runners needed shoes that did not have spikes while still gripping the track and had little weight; waffle-patterned soles from “waffle irons” were the way. In addition, the sturdiness of the waffle soles provides the shoe with integrity and balance; it became a favorite amongst the running community. Hence, the idea transformed into the debut of Moon Shoes, the company’s first product, in 1972. However, it is not a product without a brand.

Knight believed that BRS needed to rebrand itself to establish its independence and image with local and international audiences. Moreover, rebranding could be used as a marketing and advertising strategy. Many names were passed amongst the 50-employee group, but no dice. At the last minute, Johnson proposed the name Nike, a Greek goddess of war, victory, art, and athletics; it was perfect. Carolyn Davidson, a graphics designer hired by BRS, formulated the iconic “Swoosh” which Knight “didn’t love, but it grew on him” according to CNBC; she was paid $35.

Innovation is Key

The Air Jordans is a line of Nike basketball shoes partnering with Micheal Jordan, a well-known Chicago Bulls basketball player in his first season. (Source: The Guardian)

With Nike establishing its first successful product, they had to think outside of the box when it comes to product design. As the 80s loom in, there was a rise in sports fashion as more people became interested in sports for the sake of health and ‘trendiness’ according to Fashinza; a majority of consumers were interested in running or jogging as it is an easily accessible sport that requires little to no expertise to participate. Nike was quick to cash in on the mania. In 1983, Nike released the Pegasus, a line of sneakers designed to be lightweight, comfortable, yet clean-cut. To this day, the Pegasus is one of the most long-standing lines of sportswear in Nike history. As manufacturing technology progresses, the shoe line continues to improve with each iteration.

To thrive in the market, brands need both recognition from the public and their approval. There are many ways to achieve acknowledgment from consumers, but celebrity endorsement has proven to be one of the most effective methods. Knight and Bowerman had already employed these techniques during the BRS era, but they were going to take it up a notch by approaching Michael Jordan with a pair of personalized basketball shoes in 1984. At the time, Jordan had just begun his basketball journey, so he happily accepted the deal. As Jordan’s reputation within the basketball community grew, so did Nike’s. Due to popular demand, Nike then released their state-of-the-art shoe line, the Air Jordans in 1985. Nike did the endorsement stunt again in 1996 with Tiger Woods, a professional golfer.

Inspiration and Motivation

“Just Do It” is Nike’s most iconic motto because of its conciseness and simplicity.

Nike is not only known for its products, its partnerships, or even its shoes; it is also known for its simple message: everyone can exercise. This all stems from Bowerman’s philosophy regarding athleticism:

If you have a body, you are an athlete.

Bill Bowerman

In 1987, Nike was planning a televised advertisement to promote its products with Wieden+Kennedy, a creative agency. According to an interview about advertisements in 2009, Dan Wieden, the director of the creative agency, admitted that the inspirational advertisement ironically originated from a convicted murderer’s last words during his execution. Despite the dark subtext of the tagline, it heavily resonated with audiences of different ages, genders, or physical capabilities. The campaign did not promote Nike shoes as sportswear, it empowered athletes worldwide to take their first step. In other words, just do it.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Nike’s sales increased exponentially, according to Statista with more than $5.5 billion in revenue in 1997. As Nike’s popularity boomed all over the globe, the company expanded its catalog to cover other sportswear and franchises locally and internationally. As of March 2024, Nike has stores in more than 190 countries under its investor page

Where We Are Today

In December 2004, Knight resigned from Nike as CEO for his retirement, with a net worth of nearly $43 billion as of March 2024. Outside of Nike, Knight is the owner of Laika, a stop-motion animation studio known for its cult classics, namely Coraline. However, Bowerman unfortunately passed away on December 24th, 1999 at the age of 88. 

Today, Nike serves as a symbol of passion and determination to numerous athletes, inspiring many others to take up sports and other ventures. It is the largest sportswear company in terms of revenue when compared to its competitors like Adidas, Puma, and Under Armour. With its innovative designs and technology, Nike revolutionized how we view sports.

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