Michael Jordan is one of the most recognized sports figures in the world. To understand the breadth of his fame, it is probably best to think of Jordan in two senses: as a person and an athlete with incredible athletic prowess and skill, and as a cultural and media icon. The second way of thinking about Jordan is probably equal to the first. After all, it was his endorsement of dozens of commercial products, spots in movies, and in general his commercially- and market-produced image that made Jordan so famous worldwide.
Jordan was born in 1963, one of three sons of a corporate executive. He attended North Carolina University from 1981-84, and was then drafted to the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Chicago Bulls. During the same year, he co-captained the U.S.A. basketball team to gold in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Jordan’s fame was quickly accelerated with the help of his agent and a marketing firm. After winning the NBA’s Rookie of the Year distinction, Jordan quickly began signing a series of marketing contracts that would eventually create the iconic image known throughout the world. The most notable marketing endorsement contract came with Nike Corporation. Nike built much of its marketing and commercial strategy around Jordan in the 1980s and early 1990s. With his own line of Nike-produced basketball shoes and clothing, Jordan established himself as a marketable commodity. The relationship between Nike and Jordan would be a mutually beneficial one. It elevated Jordan to international prominence, while helping push Nike to number one status as world sports merchandiser.
Jordan’s athletic status was also aided by the fact that his was a career with relatively little controversy, unlike many other superstar athletes. Social and political controversies surrounding Jordan were rare, and when they did occur these were minor. In 1992, he got himself into a bit of trouble when he did not allow his image to be used by the NBA for the licensing of leisure wear and memorabilia in the run-up to the Summer Olympic Games. In addition, once at the Games, Jordan, being contractually committed to Nike, refused to wear the official sponsor Reebok’s warm-up suits. The issue was resolved when Jordan and his teammates wore the U.S. flag and extra long lapels to cover the Reebok logo.
In 1993, Jordan made a surprise announcement of his retirement from the NBA at the age of thirty. He signed as a free agent to play Major League Baseball with the Chicago White Sox, and played-unsuccessfully as it turned out-with the White Sox minor league affiliate. Jordan then made a brief comeback in the NBA, only to retire soon after. History will recognize Jordan not only for his athletic prowess-arguably the best the sport of basketball has ever seen-and for his iconic status in the later-twentieth century world of sport’s marketing and image production.