Opinion: Nike’s supporting role in 'The Last Dance'

Netflix’s The Last Dance is an engaging documentary that has hit our screens at just the right time. As the sporting world takes a break due to the coronavirus, this fresh look at Michael Jordan’s basketball career lifts us out of our isolated lives and reminds us that there was sport prior to the lockdown. Whilst it doesn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know about the legendary basketballer, it tells the tale of one of the most agile athletes ever to grace a court. This is just the type of story the world needs to hear.

With sport taking a back seat of late, we’re missing the type of high adrenaline energy on our screens that lifts us out of ordinary lives and helps us feel we can go onto achieve mighty feats. Watching Jordan settle back into his chair, with a generously filled tumbler of bourbon in his grasp, and recount all the goings on during his time with the Chicago Bulls is a great substitute for being able to watch – or play –sport itself.

Whilst binge watching the series last weekend I noted my 12 year old son had ditched his iPad for the TV – a rare occurrence in our household. Furthermore he hadn’t said a word for the last 25 minutes. To be clear, the name Michael Jordan means about as much to him as Andre Agassi. Yet, here he was, silent, tuned in and fascinated by the tale unfolding on the TV in front of him. I was in a similar state of wonder.

It would be unfair to suggest The Last Dance has smashed the ratings due to no real sport currently being played. Sure, it’s slim pickings unless you enjoy watching repeats of Hawthorn’s Buddy Franklin and Jarryd Roughead punt through winning goals in the AFL’s 2013 premiership against Freemantle at the MCG. As we head towards our third month of no live sport, this thoughtfully created documentary hooks us into all the behind scenes of one of the most determined teams in the NBA’s history.

Underpinning Jordan’s record run was a sporting brand that was starting to enjoy the spoils of its success. Launched in 1964, as a track and field shoe for athletes, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that Nike really hit its stride. In saying this, the brand didn’t become stuck in the late 80’s unlike Reebok which spiked during this period of decadence and never managed to regain its mojo thereafter. Anyone remember going to the local gym for some ‘Step Reebok?’

Jordan’s tell-all account of his life with the Chicago Bulls on Netflix is a masterclass on how to walk the tightrope of sports star and brand ambassador. The all-star basketballer was the first athlete to go beyond sport and become a brand in his own right. Today, Air Jordan remains within the Nike brand portfolio with most of its revenue being derived from its range of sneakers.

Unlike a number of programs where product endorsement is easy to spot (BMW’s fleeting dalliance with the world’s most famous spy in a couple of the Bond movies in the 1990’s springs to mind), Nike’s role in The Last Dance feels natural and unforced. How much of this is intentional is anyone’s guess. Although, what contributes to Nike’s presence in the documentary is the long partnership that Jordan has sustained with Nike.

As a young basketballer starting out his career with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, Jordan had the opportunity to sign with Nike. NBA folklore has it that Jordan’s sneaker of choice at the time was Adidas. By all accounts neither Nike nor Jordan thought they would generate many sales as a result of the sponsorship. To all party’s delight, the deal with Jordan resulted in over US$120 million of sneaker sales in the first year. The collaboration between the two then went onto see the meteoric rise of the Air Jordan range by Nike. A specific product brand for Nike that still enjoys significant sales 30 years on.

Just as Michael Jordan is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance thanks to his popular collaboration with Netflix, so too is Nike due to its subtle, underlying presence in the documentary. This is a rare feat in the sometimes risky world of product placement. If a brand is too overt it will suffer the type of bad press that Pepsi received for its blindingly obvious role in the Back to the Future trilogy.  Conversely, if a brand fits in too comfortably it runs the risk of not being noticed, therefore failing in its capacity to gradually enter the sub-consciousness of its target audience.

It’s rare that a documentary pulls you in from the get-go and then keeps you clicking to the next instalment. Indeed, when a show has this type of appeal it can be argued that product placement becomes easier owing to anything other than the main character being less noticeable. Replicating Nike’s success in The Last Dance won’t be easy. Jordan and Nike go back a long way and it’s fair to say neither would have envisaged they would be sharing the screen in this way 36 years on.

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The writer is Nick Foley, president Southeast Asia Pacific & Japan, Landor & FITCH.