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How Spot-Bilt nearly landed Michael Jordan sneaker endorsement over Nike

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If you’re like me, the two-word combination of “Spot-Bilt” evokes… Let’s call it mild confusion. It has the sound of a knockoff LEGO company, and little-to-no brand recognition in this day in age.

But in actuality, Spot-Bilt owns a pretty niche corner in both Michael Jordan and Bulls history. In fact, there’s a not-too-preposterous timeline where we’re all rocking Spot-Bilt kicks right now, with some perversion of the “Air Jordan” logo emblazoned on the front.

First, some background: Spot-Bilt was an American company founded in 1898 and, by the time Jordan was surveying his sneaker endorsement options in the mid-1980s, served as a subsidiary of Hyde Athletic, then a gradually up-and-coming men’s sportswear brand, primarily with runners. 

Hyde saw steady growth through the 1970s and early 1980s, but put a cap on their ceiling by initially opting to only manufacture in the United States and foregoing opportunities to buy athlete endorsements, according to a report by Funding Universe. Meanwhile, the impact of industry leaders such as Converse — who boasted the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Julius Erving and others as banner athletes — Adidas and Puma ballooned in the mainstream consciousness.

Simply put, though sales were solid, the times were passing Hyde by. The company responded with a few strategic moves to increase notoriety, including bringing in O.J. Simpson as vice president of promotions and introducing new products such as tennis and basketball shoes, according to Funding Universe. 

 

Then came a quest for athletes to champion the brand. One notable success story was the Spot Bilt X-Press One, a cartoonishly stylish sneaker, which Xavier Tillman donned with the Seattle SuperSonics. One less successful pursuit was of Michael Jordan.

Which brings us back to “The Last Dance.”

In Episode 5 of the documentary, Jordan’s meteoric impact on Nike’s shoe business at a time when the company was merely a disruptor is chronicled. But Jordan’s allegiance to the Swoosh was hardly a foregone conclusion. According to the documentary, he pondered Converse before deciding it would be impossible to outshine their previously-existing stars. He was also enamored with Adidas, who turned Jordan down.

RELATED: Michael Jordan wanted to sign with Adidas before he landed Nike shoe deal 

But Spot-Bilt, whose place in this story was left out of the documentary, was a competitive suitor, as well. “The Last Dance” director Jason Hehir delved into that story-behind-the-story on "The Jalen & Jacoby Aftershow" after the airing of Episodes 5 and 6 on Sunday night. 

Most notably, Hehir said that Spot-Bilt matched Nike’s offer to Jordan — monetarily, at least.

 

“Michael Jordan came this close to being with Spot-Bilt because the spokesman for Spot-Bilt at the time was another athlete who had transcended some racial bounds, a guy named O.J. Simpson,” Hehir told Jalen Rose and David Jacoby on the show. “He said to the guys at Spot-Bilt ‘The kid out of Carolina is the next me. Go get him.’”

But the money up front wasn’t the only factor in Jordan’s decision-making. And Spot-Bilt simply didn’t have the type of marketing resources to tip the scales.

“They (Spot-Bilt) matched Nike’s offer, but they couldn’t match the marketing,” Hehir continued. “They couldn’t promise (Jordan's agent) David Falk that they would market Michael the way that Nike would, and that ultimately is what put that deal over the top financially for them.”

Still, Jordan’s Adidas dream persisted.

“The other thing that I think is funny is that Michael, after all the roundabout negotiations and his parents saying this (the Nike deal) is the best deal you’re going to get, still called Adidas and said, ‘Are you sure?’” Hehir told Rose and Jacoby. “And they said no.”

Ultimately, nobody in Jordan’s camp should harbor any regrets about how this decision played out. As “The Last Dance” depicted, the original Air Jordans smashed expectations out of the gate, and Jordan Brand continues to shape the sportswear market to this day. Spot-Bilt sneakers are a relic available for third-party resale across the internet, and the company is now more broadly recognized as Saucony, according to a 2016 report by Sneaker News.

But as consumers, it’s a fun alternate timeline to ponder.

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