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Nike at 50: Celebrating a Half-century of Innovation

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It was during a course on entrepreneurship at the Stanford University business school in 1962 that Phil Knight came up with what he called his “crazy idea” — the notion of importing Japanese running shoes to the U.S. After graduation, he set out on a whirlwind trip around the world, eventually finding himself in Kobe, Japan, where he managed to talk his way into Onitsuka Co., the company now known as Asics, and convince its top brass that he should distribute their Tiger shoes in the western U.S.

At the time, Knight didn’t actually have a formal company, so when he was asked for the name of his business, he immediately thought of the medals he had won as a middle-distance runner at the University of Oregon and came up with Blue Ribbon Sports.

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He finalized the deal, returned home and officially started the company. When the Tiger shoes arrived, Knight started selling them out of the trunk of his Plymouth Valiant at track meets. He also sent them to his former track coach, the legendary Bill Bowerman, for his opinion and Bowerman was impressed enough to buy a 49 percent stake in Blue Ribbon Sports.

The business experienced a number of growing pains but eventually became a multimillion enterprise selling Tiger shoes throughout the U.S.

But things went south in the early 1970s when new management at Onitsuka terminated the contract with Blue Ribbon Sports. Although devastating news to Knight and his small team, it turned out to have been fortuitous in hindsight. It forced them to pivot and create a new business that wasn’t dependent on another company’s whims.

They named it Nike — a name that Blue Ribbon Sport’s first employee, Jeff Johnson, came up with in a dream. And they paid a University of Portland art student, Carolyn Davidson, $45 to create a logo they called the Swoosh.

Today, that company has grown into the world’s largest sports brand with an estimated market capitalization of $169 billion and sales in fiscal 2021 of $44.5 billion.

As Knight wrote to Nike employees earlier this month, it was May 1, 1972, when Onituska Co. “officially informed me that they were terminating their contract with Blue Ribbon Sports. Basically from that day, we were on our own. What could have been a gut punch was a royal kick in the butt that pushed us forward. I remember thinking, this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. No more working for someone else. And just like that, Nike was born.

“We had a dream, our love of sports, a ton of ambition, a trunk full of running shoes and a big Swoosh on all of them. The rest is history. Our history.”

Although a lot has changed in the last half century, the company Knight and his 30-person team created changed the dynamics of sports and products made for athletes.

Here, Nike’s top executive team, including chief executive officer John Donahoe as well as the presidents of the Nike-owned Converse and Jordan Brand, offer an unprecedented peek inside the inner workings of the world’s largest sports company.