Blame it on the shoes. The battle between Nike and Reebok lasted over three decades and created celebrity athlete culture as we know it today.
Initially the two couldn't have been more different: Phil Knight, a former University of Oregon track star and a Stanford MBA, tossed his accounting career and formed a company to import running shoes to the U.S. He named it Nike after the Greek goddess of victory. Paul Fireman dropped out of Boston University to take over his family's sporting-goods business. He acquired the North American rights to British-made sneakers. Reebok, a line of white-leather women's aerobic shoes named after an antelope, took off as jogging became a national craze. Fireman bought out the parent company in 1984 and took Reebok public the following year.
Nike, which had risen to prominence by aggressively courting male customers and fostering a jock-laden management culture, missed the market for women's sneakers. Reebok overtook Nike in 1987 as the latter struggled to catch up.
Eventually Nike regained momentum by signing the man who would become the most iconic athlete of all time: Michael Jordan. Nike gained not just a hero athlete but also a telegenic spokesperson who connected with audiences. On the back of Jordan and the massive popularity of his Air Jordan brand, Nike surged ahead. (Air Jordan sales eventually surpassed $1 billion annually.)
Reebok responded by signing Shaquille O'Neal, who once showed up to a meeting with Nike wearing a jacket emblazoned with a huge Reebok logo -- much to the dismay of Nike executives.
At the 1992 Olympics, Jordan controversially draped a U.S. flag to hide the logo on the Reebok-sponsored tracksuits worn by the U.S.'s winning Dream Team. The move delighted Knight, who baited Reebok further by contributing $25,000 to figure skater Tonya Harding's defense fund after she was accused of orchestrating a vicious attack on Nancy Kerrigan, a Reebok athlete.
Nike continued to snap up the most popular athletes, including Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and later Tiger Woods, making Reebok seem lame by comparison. In 2005, Adidas bought Reebok, but the new, combined company is still a distant second to the Nike juggernaut.
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