“I’m an idea person. There’s no class [you can take] for that,” remarked sport marketing innovator Sonny Vaccaro in his keynote address as Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management Executive-in-Residence on October 17. Vaccaro, whose ideas helped found and propel the athletic footwear industry as we know it, drew a standing-room-only audience of 450 to his public campus lecture. During his two-day residency, he also spoke in sport management classes and met with the department’s faculty and student club leaders. He also participated in the McCormack Sport Innovation Oral History project managed by the University Archives at the UMass Amherst Libraries.
Vaccaro’s career in sports began as an aspiring college athlete whose injuries forced him into high school coaching and teaching in his native western Pennsylvania. Acting on one of his big ideas, he co-founded in 1965 the annual Dapper Dan Roundball Tournament in Pittsburgh, which attracted the top high school hoopsters in the nation over the next 43 years. By drawing high school and college coaches to the event, Sonny built a formidable network that would prove critical to his future business interests. (Two decades later [1984-2007], he got added mileage from his summer camp for top high school players.)
I’m an idea person. There’s no class [you can take] for that.
Fashion Meets Hoopster Footwear
During the mid-1970s, Vaccaro learned that some of “the kids” were underwhelmed with the industry’s unfashionable, standard basketball shoe, Converse’s Chuck Taylors. That’s when he hatched a second big idea. After recruiting a local shoemaker in Trafford, Pennsylvania to design and build more stylish alternatives, he visited Nike—then predominantly a manufacturer of shoes for track and field—with a potato sack of his prototypes. [Nike CEO] “Phil Knight laughed at my shoes,” Vaccaro told the gathering.
But Nike did buy Sonny’s message of building an alternative shoe, designed the footwear, and supplied Vaccaro with the sneakers for his annual game. From there, the shoes spread like wildfire as Vaccaro leveraged his relationships with college coaches to offer their programs generous financial support from Nike to adopt its brand. Valuing the power of his connections, Nike gave Vaccaro virtual autonomy: “I negotiated every contract; the number was mine; the check was theirs [i.e., the coaches and their programs],” he remarked.
In one year’s time, Nike and Vaccaro’s footprint expanded from seven to eighty college basketball programs. “By 1980, it was game over,” he said. During the 1980s, six or seven championship teams wore Nikes, he recalled. The advent of ESPN proved another game changer, investing college basketball with unprecedented exposure and advertising revenues. Finances, he said in an Isenberg interview, “didn’t enter into the picture until ESPN, which became the biggest contributor and catalyst.
The Air Jordan exemplified college basketball’s new-found corporatism.“We [Nike] were going to make a signature shoe,” Vaccaro continued. “This was not demeaning the game. Sometimes you get feelings in your life,” he emphasized. Vaccaro’s positive intuitions were about Michael Jordan, whom he had known since high school. The Air Jordan 1 went on Michael’s feet in 1984 and on the market in 1985, during the second half of his first pro season. Vaccaro described his cultivation, deep friendship, and subsequent promotional activities with Jordan as “my seven or eight greatest years.” More than any other object/icon, he said, it was the Air Jordan that exemplified college basketball’s new-found corporatism, its media ascendancy, and its big money.
In 1991, Vaccaro joined Adidas, which he helped position against his former employer. To that end, he successfully courted Kobe Bryant in an arrangement that reprised elements of the Air Jordan deal. Vaccaro ultimately wound up at Reebok, retiring in 2007.
Singing A New Song
“I sang the old song; I’m singing a new song now,” Sonny told his predominantly student audience. Since leaving the shoe business, Vaccaro has fought to secure rights and resources for student athletes. To that end, he was a principal mover and shaker in the high-profile O’Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA and EA Sport. The law suit has opened the door for the redistribution of wealth from the NCAA and universities to the student (basketball and football) athletes who have helped generate it.
In O’Bannon v. NCAA, the plaintiffs (i.e., former student athletes) successfully challenged the NCAA’s use of images of former student athletes for commercial purposes.* Calling the verdict his proudest moment, Vaccaro helped conceive the lawsuit and deployed his talent as a networker and connector to line up plaintiffs. He has also toured close to 40 college campuses in its support. The plaintiff group comprised twenty athletes, including Hall of Famers Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson as well as its namesake—former NCAA tournament MVP Ed O’Bannon, who first met Vaccaro as a teenager.
During his keynote remarks, Vaccaro touched on related issues, including the NCAA’s 5-visit limit to campuses by prospective Division I recruits, and the skewed distribution of athletic scholarships and other resources toward money-making programs (i.e., football and men’s basketball). He bemoaned sexual assaults and their cover-ups in college athletics and advocated the rights for college athletes to publically protest. How does that agenda move forward? One forceful tactic, advised Vaccaro in his Isenberg interview, is “that the team goes on strike; the player doesn’t play.”
Admitting his complicity in the system that he helped create, Vaccaro at the same time emphasized his life-long dedication to the “kids” served by his tournaments and camps. His relationships with many of them, he said, were personal and positive. “I never thought about those kids as subordinate,” he insisted. When his perception of what he had considered a “win-win-win” arrangement ultimately soured, he got out—his advocacy of young athletes never wavering. Said the 76 year-old Vaccaro to his Isenberg interviewer: “I’m going to find somebody to take this baton; It’s a civil rights thing, you know.”
*A U.S. district court ruled in 2014 for the plaintiffs; last month, the U.S. Supreme Court let the verdict stand by refusing to hear the case.