It’s an early morning in summer 1960, in a quiet, upmarket suburb of Portland, Oregon.
A young man lets himself out of a white-painted ranch house and eases the door shut behind him. Taking a seat on the porch, he pulls on a battered pair of running shoes before setting out on his morning jog…
Phil Knight is 22 years old. He’s a graduate student at Stanford who’s home for the summer, and enjoying the break from his studies. Phil loves running, especially in the morning when the houses he passes are still sleepy and the streets are deserted. It’s just him, his thoughts, and the steady rhythm of his feet on the ground…
But Phil is so engrossed in his running that as he rounds a corner, he doesn’t notice, coming the other way… is a paperboy on his bike.
They barely manage to avoid a collision, but Phil still ends up sprawled on the sidewalk. The paperboy rides on down the street, cursing the runner’s absent-mindedness. Phil clambers to his feet… then winces.
He’s not been hurt, but somehow in the sudden stop and fall, one of his ancient running shoes has torn open along its side. Phil pulls it off and inspects it. The shoe is clearly ruined. He shakes his head. He’ll have to get a new pair.
As the city starts to wake up and come to life, Phil hobbles home on one shoe, cursing his bad luck and trying to think of how to solve his problem. Phil knows the best running shoes are from Europe, but they’re too expensive for a student like him. He’s heard good things about Japanese shoes, which are far cheaper, but there's nowhere he can buy them. Phil thinks to himself in frustration - if only someone in America was selling running shoes like that…
In the fall, Phil goes back to his studies at Stanford Graduate School of Business. But he's still annoyed by the limited shoes available in America for keen runners like himself. He begins to think that if nobody else is going to fill that gap in the market, then perhaps he should take it on himself. And less than four years later, Phil Knight will found a company designed to do just that. And in so doing, he will create a multi-billion-dollar global sports empire that all starts with a simple handshake in a restaurant on this day, January 25th, 1964.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is January 25th, 1964: The Founding of Nike.
Act One: Japan
It’s an early evening in the summer of 1962 in Portland, Oregon.
Phil Knight lingers in the hallway of his parents’ home. The 24-year-old can hear the tinny sound of the television from the back room, and his dad’s gentle guffaws as he watches his favorite show.
Taking a deep breath, Phil gathers up his courage and then strides through the house to the den. Phil takes a seat by his father who lies deep in a recliner. Phil waits for the show to go to a commercial break, then he turns and tells his father there’s something important he wants to ask.
Phil has recently graduated from Stanford Graduate School of Business with a master's degree in business administration. For one of his final classes, he put together a research paper and presentation on what Phil calls his ‘crazy idea’.
The camera market in America was once dominated by German manufacturers. But in recent years, Japanese companies have undercut their European rivals with high-quality, affordable products - they've now grabbed a large slice of the market that grows every year.
In his presentation, Phil wondered whether the same thing could be done with Japanese running shoes. The paper got high marks from Phil’s professor. But what began as an assignment has become an obsession. And now that he’s graduated, Phil is determined to make a real business out of his idea. But to make it happen, he needs to go to Japan. And to do that, he needs money from his dad.
So during the commercial break, Phil lays out his ‘crazy idea’ for his father. He is convinced there’s a market for these shoes in America – all he needs to do is find the right company in Japan and strike a deal to export the shoes back to the States.
When Phil finishes his pitch, his dad is silent leaving Phil to fear the worst. He knows this was a long shot. His father is conservative, not the type of man to take a risk on such an unusual new business. But then Phil’s dad rocks forward in his chair. Quietly, he says that he always wished he’d seen more of the world as a young man.
So his father agrees to fund the trip to Japan. Phil can’t really believe it. He stammers out a ‘thank you’, then rushes away before his dad can change his mind. Closing his bedroom door behind him, Phil allows himself a moment of exhilarated celebration. But not too long, because now he has some planning to do.
A few months later, in November 1962, Phil is in Kobe, a large city in southern Japan. He bows self-consciously as four executives from the Onitsuka Corporation welcome him to their factory headquarters. Phil has a fifteen-minute meeting scheduled with them, but first, the executives want to show him around.
They guide Phil through the factory, where bustling employees make 14,000 pairs of shoes every month. Then they take Phil to the accounting department where he’s introduced to the staff as an ‘American tycoon’. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, Phil is then ushered into a conference room and shown to a seat at the head of the table. The Japanese executives then take their places and wait for Phil to tell them why he’s here.
After borrowing a thousand dollars from his father, Phil set off from Portland in September. He was accompanied by a classmate from Stanford. But his friend didn’t make it very far. On their way to Japan, they made a planned stop in Hawaii. But the tropical paradise was so enchanted, Phil’s friend wanted to stay. Phil agreed for a while. But after a few weeks, Phil became restless. His ‘crazy idea’ still gnawed away at him. So, on Thanksgiving 1962, he boarded a plane for Japan - alone.
Phil traveled light, with just a few changes of clothes – and his one good suit. This morning in Kobe, he put it on for the most important meeting of his life. Posing as the representative of an established American import company, Phil has secured a meeting at the headquarters of Onitsuka, the company behind Tiger running shoes.
Now, in the factory’s conference room, Phil makes his pitch. After a hesitant start, slowly, he gains confidence. He tells the executives that the American market is enormous. It’s worth up to a billion dollars and is almost completely untapped. The numbers astonish the Japanese. Immediately, they ask if they can partner with Phil’s company to sell Tiger shoes in America.
But Phil doesn’t yet have a company. Still, he’s not about to tell the Japanese that. He agrees to their proposal and the meeting goes on for almost two hours as they discuss finer details.
When Phil returns to his hotel that evening, he’s feeling triumphant. He can’t believe how easy it was. But he quickly realizes that his work has only just begun. When he gets back to the States, Phil will have to make good on the promises he’s just made, which means he will have to figure out how to start and run a real company.
Act Two: Tiger
It’s early January 1964, on the waterfront in Portland, Oregon.
A lurid green Plymouth Valiant pulls up outside a Postal Service warehouse. When the driver-side door swings open, 25-year-old Phil Knight leaps out and hurries inside the building.
There, he tells the man at the desk his name and then waits impatiently as the clerk disappears into the back. A few minutes later, the clerk returns with a large package covered in Japanese writing. Phil can't help but grin. The shoe samples have come at last.
After striking his deal in Japan, Phil didn’t return straight home. He took his father’s words to heart when he said he regretted not seeing the world before the responsibilities of work and family tied him down. That wasn’t a mistake Phil wanted to make himself, so he traveled on from Japan and toured the world from Hong Kong to India, from the Holy Land to Egypt, from Rome to London.
Finally, he returned to Portland in late February 1963. He lived at home with his parents and got a job at an accounting firm while he waited for his parcel to come from Japan. At his meeting in Kobe, the shoe company executives had promised to send him a set of samples. But months and months passed with no sign of the shoes. Phil began to worry. Maybe the Japanese had discovered that he didn’t actually have a company. Or maybe they had found somebody else to sell their shoes in America.
But just as Phil was about to give up hope, around Christmas 1963, a notice arrives telling him that a package from overseas is waiting for him. So as soon as the warehouse opened after the holidays, Phil heads downtown to collect it. Afterward, he returns home with the large box, then locks himself away in the basement of his parents’ house to inspect the contents.
Inside are twelve pairs of creamy-white running shoes. Phil takes them out one by one. To him, these blue-striped ‘Tigers’ are beautiful and far superior to anything else available in America. But to convince others of that, he knows he needs good advertising. He soon decides that endorsements from famous athletes and coaches could best tell the rest of the running world what these new shoes are about - that they're not only affordable but exceptional.
And luckily, Phil thinks he knows just the man to help.
A week later, at the University of Oregon, head track coach Bill Bowerman is just returning to his office after training, when a courier appears at his door with a package.
The 52-year-old coach lugs the box into his office. He wasn’t expecting a delivery and has no idea what could be inside. So curiously, he tears through the tape and opens the box. Inside, are two pairs of brand-new Tiger running shoes and a note from a former member of Bill’s track team: Phil Knight.
Phil was on the team throughout his time at the University of Oregon, and Bill was his coach earning a legendary reputation over his 16 years at the university. Bill's a great motivator and teacher, his squads win big and often. But his greatest passion is shoes.
For years, Bill has been trying to design the perfect running shoe, one which is light, strong, and comfortable. He’s tinkered with different materials and designs – and used his students as guinea pigs. Phil Knight was one of them.
Phil was never the star of the track team - he was a good runner, but not a great one. And that made him perfect for Bill’s shoe experiments. If the shoes slowed Phil down in a race, it didn’t really matter, because Bill didn’t expect Phil to win anyway. So throughout his time at the University of Oregon, Phil grew accustomed to showing up to practice to find a new experimental pair of shoes waiting for him. But now, it’s Phil’s turn to give his old coach a new pair.
Bill removes the Tiger shoes from the box and inspects them carefully. In his opinion, the shoes are wider than he’d normally like, but he’s still impressed. He sees potential – not only in this Japanese manufacturer but in the deal that Phil has made.
Phil wrote to his university coach hoping to get a first sale and perhaps an endorsement he could use to promote the shoes. But Phil will get far more than that. Bill Bowerman won’t just buy the shoes, he’ll go into business with Phil and help the new company take off.
Act Three: Blue Ribbon
It’s January 25th, 1964 at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Portland, Oregon.
Phil Knight nervously follows his old running coach Bill Bowerman across the hotel restaurant to a small table in the corner. After a few minutes of chitchat and catching up while they wait for their hamburgers, Bill gets down to business. He loved the Japanese shoes Phil sent. And he wants in on Phil’s business venture.
Phil stares for a moment, stunned. He only sent the shoes to his old coach hoping for a sale and maybe an endorsement. But Bill is proposing a partnership.
But immediately, Phil can see the advantage of partnering with his old coach. For one thing, he needs money and Bill has plenty. For another, Bill’s reputation as one of the top track coaches in America will give the new company instant credibility.
Phil thinks it over for a few moments, then holds out his hand across the table. With one handshake, a new company is born. Phil calls it Blue Ribbon Sports. But it won’t carry that name for long.
The company’s early years are difficult, with Phil selling shoes at track meets from the back of his car while trying to hold down a full-time job as an accountant. But by 1966, Blue Ribbon Sports is doing well enough to open its first store in Santa Monica. The following year, growing sales allow the company to expand operations to the East Coast as well. Then in 1968, Bill Bowerman provides a boost by designing an iconic new running shoe, the Cortez. Sales top a million dollars and Blue Ribbon Sports struggles to keep up with demand. But then in 1971, it all comes crashing down. A dispute with the Japanese manufacturers threatens the future of the company.
In a desperate bid to save what he’s built, Phil determines that it’s time to part ways with the Japanese and make the shoes in-house. And with his new start, Phil decides that company needs a new name. So, Blue Ribbon Sports becomes Nike. And it’s under that brand that Phil’s company conquers the sporting world. Nike grows into a multi-billion-dollar corporate giant, with its iconic Swoosh logo emblazoned on sports jerseys around the globe. But it all began with one young man’s ‘crazy idea’, a daring trip across the world, and a handshake with an old friend in a restaurant on January 25th, 1964.
Next onHistory Daily. January 26th, 1808. British Officer William Bligh is deposed as Governor of New South Wales, Australia in a coup called the “Rum Rebellion.”
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.