Sneaker Wars: Nike and Reebok Go Toe-to-Toe

December 1, 2006

Just as the Super Bowl was the battlefield for what people put in their bodies (the cola wars), it was also a combat zone for what they put on their bodies. Although Converse and LA Gear tried to elbow their way in, in the Super Bowl sneaker wars it was Nike and Reebok who were the Coke and Pepsi.

Since its founding in 1972, Nike has been a master of marketing, synonymous with stylish, big budget, celebrity-packed technical tours de force. But in 1987, Reebok eclipsed it. Nike fought back with "Revolution," a 90-second documentary with black and white close-ups of regular folks and Michael Jordan and John McEnroe at their best, slow motion shots of their shoes lifting and landing. And there was music. Nike paid more than $500,000 for rights to the original Beatles "Revolution" recording. Capital Records sued Nike for wrongfully traded on the Beatles' goodwill. And boomers resented Nike's misappropriation of a sacred piece of 1960s culture. Stung, Nike dropped the ad and let it be.

After all, it was "being" just fine. Sport shoe sales were booming. "It wasn't like there were more feet out there, just that Nike and Reebok were covering them more hours of the day," remarked John Horan, publisher of Sporting Goods Management News.

Their marketing increasingly involved tapping the marquee value of star jocks. L.A. Gear lined up Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Reebok recruited basketball's Dominique Wilkins and football's Boomer Esiason. In 1985, Nike had signed Michael Jordan, then a 21-year-old college junior just joining the Chicago Bulls, to his own line of Air Jordan shoes-and a five-year, $2.5 million contract. Nike's diadem grew to include, among others, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Deion Sanders, Jerry Rice, Ken Griffey Jr., Rick Mirer, Russell White, Frank Thomas, Andre Agassi and John McEnroe. In "The Barkley of Seville" Charles Barkley appeared to sing an Italian opera, prance through a basketball cathedral, kill a ref who called him on a foul, and have his shoes seized as punishment.

In 1988, Nike's "Just Do It" mantra against lethargy became the cornerstone of several blockbuster commercials, including the "Bo Knows" series which ended on the 1990 pre-game show. As Bo Diddley and his band riff, athletes sound off about Bo Jackson, then Kansas City Royals' outfielder and LA Raiders' running back. It seems Bo knows baseball, football, basketball, running and weights but maybe not tennis or hockey and he clearly demonstrates from how he plays guitar that he doesn't "know diddley!" Within months, Nike was selling 80 percent of all new cross training shoes and was on its way to displacing Reebok in the lead.

Reebok's agenda meanwhile was to shed its image as a women's aerobic shoe. In Super Bowl XXV (1991) while a Nike-clad runner crosses dark streets with images of athletes in action projected on the buildings, Reebok pumped up its new inflatable Pump shoe and deflated Air Jordans. Subsequently, Dennis Rodman, Boomer Esiason, golfer Greg Norman, tennis player Michael Chang and decathlete Dave Johnson also jabbed at Air Jordans.

Third string L.A. Gear, also targeted Nike in the 1991 game with Utah Jazz NBA star Karl Malone sneering that anything but L.A.'s new catapult shoes "is just hot air." David Ropes, then Reebok VP for advertising, and a former Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam, likes to take risks. In 1992 he bet big that one of two relatively unknown athletes Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson would win the Olympics Decathlon, and that Americans would grow to care about them-
and their shoes.

He knew the gamble: how would these guys who'd trained in seclusion fare with millions looking over their shoulders? What if folks weren't interested? What of sprains and hamstrings? But with 24 percent of the $5.8 billion sneaker market compared to Nike's 30 percent, Reebok was willing to roll the dice. It kicked off an extensive campaign asking "Who is the world's greatest athlete?" in Super Bowl XXVI and promised it would "be settled in Barcelona." Ads presented their dossiers and cheering sections. Reebok had readied two post-victory spots: neither ever ran.

In June, O'Brien flubbed the pole vault and failed to qualify for an Olympic berth. In a Reebok spot, Johnson consoled him. No one consoled Johnson when he missed out. Still, the public sympathized -and bought Reeboks which narrowed its gap with Nike. Dan and Dave never brought home the gold for themselves but they buffed Reebok, raising its share of mind, voice and market. "Every paper in America had the story, and most had ‘Reebok' in the headline," mused Ropes.

At the 1993 Super Bowl, Nike wowed the crowd with super-hip Hare Jordan ads. In them, the live world's best-known athlete comes to the rescue of the world's best-known rabbit. Bugs and Jordan strap on their Nikes to take on four thugs in a game of hoops played to Roger Rabbit effects. The movie "Space Jam" was based on it. Reebok fired back, laying claim to a new era with a music video of Shaquille O'Neal, the 7-foot- NBA rookie sensation, rapping "Shoot Pass Slam" from his debut album.

Viewers cottoned to Shaq but not to "Planet Reebok, its answer to "Just Do It," where life has "no limits, no pain, no fear, no cupcakes, no wimps, no lawyers, no mercy, no beauty pageants, no slogans, no fat, no excuses, no winners and no losers."

To return the "black cons" to its 1960s perch as the pre-eminent basketball shoe, Converse raced to Super Bowl XXVIII (1994), with a mini-drama takeoff of "The Wizard of Oz." "Three Point Land" starred Charlotte Hornet Larry Johnson in a matronly dress, gray wig, and lace-trimmed anklets, heading into a magical land where munchkins are referees and the Lollipop guild shoots hoops.

Reebok made an insta-splash in that game. In the first half, a crew videotaped players wearing its Instapumps, edited it and ran the tape to the NBC truck where it aired as the last spot in the game. Reebok sat out Super Bowl 1995; Nike might have been better off if it had too. It spent $3 million on a 90-second spot featuring Dennis Hopper as a deranged, obsessed football fanatic. The anti-hero, who helped boost sales of Nike's cross trainers, sniffed dirty sneakers and delivered a loopy ballad to football complete with confessions about his milk intolerance. Instead of big stars, sentiment or humor, Nike offered up discomfort and edginess. It made its audience uneasy.

In the following years Nike showed Pee Wee league football players, poked fun at its own hype at a Super Bowl party with Chris Rock and a puppet version of Orlando Magic, Spike Lee, Tiger Woods, Ken Griffey Jr. and, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and hinted that it was leaving the Super Bowl. "There may come a time when either the costs have gotten out of line or we feel the focus and the ad hype around the event is overshadowing the value that we are getting," ad director Chris Zimmerman said.

Reebok passed on the game from 1996 on, although in 2002, it issued 2,000 pairs of special edition Super Bowl sneakers with the logos of the Rams and Patriots on them. Nike put in one more appearance, in Super Bowl 1998, to unveil its F.I.T. apparel line. Black-and-white scenes of athletes, naked and then clad in its clothes suggest that F.I.T. is like a second skin. NBC made Nike tone down the nipples and genitalia. Then it was gone - to fertilize its grass roots, rekindle credibility and focus on one-on-one marketing rather than looking big and slick.


"The Super Bowl of Advertising: Are The Advertisers Still Winning The Game?" Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.