At Nike, hopes soar on new Air Jordan


Nike Inc. has radically redesigned its Air Jordan basketball shoe for next winter -- and the word in the industry is that it's a slam-dunk.

According to financial industry professionals who were given a sneak preview of the ninth generation of the popular shoe last week, the 1994 model will soar above its recent predecessors the way its namesake flies toward a basket.

Jennifer Black Groves has seen a lot of basketball shoes in the years she's followed the athletic footwear industry. But she's never seen anything like the new version of Michael Jordan's favorite footwear.

The stock analyst with Black & Co. in Portland, Ore., said the new Air Jordan shoe won't lace up the way other basketball shoes you've seen do. There are no eyelets. Instead, there are "lace loops," triangular "D-rings" similar to those on some hiking boots. One pull at the top of the shoe, and it laces up tightly with no friction, Ms. Groves said.

"It's a very futuristic shoe," she said. "It might be a bigger hit thanthey think."

Tom Cashman, a portfolio manager with Massachusetts Financial Services in Boston, agreed.

"They're different, they're unique, they're stylish," he said. "I think it's a dramatic new shoe. It's not like anyone would have imagined."

Executives at Beaverton, Ore.-based Nike confirmed Ms. Groves' description and added details of their own. But they would not provide a photograph because the shoe has not been shown to its sales force yet.

The new Air Jordan will be released in small quantities Dec. 1 to create some excitement during Christmas season, Ms. Groves said. A full rollout will take place in February. The price will be about $125, a decline from the 1993 model's $140 price, Nike officials said.

Although the redesign could add luster to Nike's already sterling image in the industry, Ms. Groves and Mr. Cashman said the redesign was unlikely to have a significant impact on the company's bottom line. Mr. Kidd said Air Jordan accounted for about $200 million of Nike's $3.4 billion 1991 sales.

Nike makes a fixed number of the shoes each year -- it will not disclose the quantity -- and does not increase supply to meet demand. "It's done to keep it special," said Ron Parham, Nike's director of investor relations.

The Air Jordan shoe is named for and endorsed by Mr. Jordan, the Chicago Bulls guard who is enormously popular around the world. Not surprisingly, the Air Jordan is the pinnacle of the Nike line, and each year's new design is eagerly awaited by dealers and customers.

"The Jordan is their marquee shoe," said Rich Wilner, athletics editor of Footwear News, a trade journal in New York. "He's their marquee endorser."

Mr. Wilner, who has seen the shoe in a Nike videotape, described the 1994 model as "a wild design" with "a really radical midsole." He, too, is expecting a big hit.

Besides the new lacing design, the shoe will have a different "silhouette" and a "1950s feel," Mr. Kidd said. "It's got more of an outdoor look to it -- kind of 'retro' styling in general."

In its December release, the Air Jordan shoe will be available only in white, with red and black trim. In February, Nike will add a black shoe, with white and red trim.

Nike spokesman Dusty Kidd said he did not know about a third color, but Ms. Groves said Nike executives told her a "Carolina blue" shoe would be released in February. Mr. Jordan played for the University of North Carolina.

Mr. Jordan, regarded as the endorsement king of American sports, rakes in about $40 million a year in salary and advertising deals. His Nike contract has been estimated at anywhere from $4 million to $20 million a year, said Mr. Wilner, who dismissed those figures as guesswork. According to Mr. Kidd, Mr.Jordan participates in the design and testing of each year's model.

There could be a downside to the possibly intense demand for the new product. In cities and suburbs from Glasgow, Scotland, to Baton Rouge, La., teen-agers wearing expensive new basketball shoes have become targets for robbery. In one 1989 incident, an 18-year-old Anne Arundel County youth strangled a 14-year-old schoolmate at Fort Meade and stole his $115 Air Jordans.

"It's another symbol of wealth," said George Buntin, director of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP. "People who don't have wealth itself look for symbols of wealth rather than wealth itself."

But Mr. Kidd said Nike should not be blamed for the crimes committed by people who covet its shoes.

"It's not the product that causes the crime," he said. "In that case, we should blame Mercedes for car theft."

Mr. Wilner thinks the worst of that trend has passed.

"It used to be weekly you heard 'Kid Killed for his Jordans,' 'Kid Beat Up for His Jordans.' It was a phase," he said. "I haven't gotten a report of a person killed or beaten up for a Jordan since Christmas."

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