Behind the brand power of the ‘Space Jam’ franchise
As the highest-grossing basketball movie of all time, Nike’s involvement was only to be expected
During the 1992 and 1993 Super Bowls, Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny first crossed paths with each other in a series of ads. The idea from Nike’s longtime advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy was to pair “the two biggest stars in the world” at the time: Air Jordan and “Hare” Jordan.
Building on the success of those ads, Jordan’s agent, David Falk, furthered conversations with Warner Bros. studios with a larger vision at hand: a movie – Space Jam.
“The movie is basically those two commercials, plus a Charles Barkley commercial … glued together,” Space Jam director Joe Pytka joked years later at a conference.
Pytka was familiar enough with the Super Bowl spots and Jordan. He directed both of the Nike ads for the Air Jordan VII and VIII, along with a Jordan-led Gatorade commercial, before taking on the six-week task of directing the $80 million-budgeted Space Jam.
Nike founder Phil Knight had originally paid to license the Looney Tunes characters for the earlier set of Jordan commercials. He then paid yet again for four months of additional animation work to further modernize the animated characters and compensated participants in test market feedback group viewings to prove that the concept would work.
Space Jam was practically birthed through product placement, and it’s no surprise that the franchise has long stood the test of time as one of the most lucrative sports movies.
The 1996 film generated $250 million in ticket revenue at theaters globally, and $209 million in home video sales. (Remember them?) Even more impressive was its commercial success away from the screen, as Warner Bros. raked in exponentially more through officially licensed merchandise with more than 200 companies.
Seventy-eight of those products bore Jordan’s likeness – shirts, jerseys, bedding sets and everything in between. The video game company Sega Pinball Inc. sold more than $5 million worth of Space Jam pinball machines in advance to arcades around the country, sight unseen.
Although Warner Bros. has long declined to confirm the exact amount, reports throughout the years since have estimated the overall business impact of Space Jam as between $1 billion and $1.2 billion in retail sales.
Space Jam’s release followed the Chicago Bulls’ then-record 72-10 season in 1995-1996, which further proved that Jordan was at the height of his career. Though video games, action figures and apparel were all impactful, Space Jam-related sneakers have remained a force for Nike in the decades since. The much-beloved black and white Air Jordan XIs that MJ laced up in the film, however, were never originally released. Nike made only a few in size 13 for him to wear throughout the filming.
The awaited retro edition first ultimately dropped in 2000, with two additional retro versions released in 2009 and 2016. An original, unworn size 13 pair made for Jordan recently sold for more than $176,000 at an auction.
Nike took a “hands-off” approach on the original film, as some were worried about how successful the project would be. There’s a close-up shot of Jordan’s white and black Air Jordan IXs at the 48-minute mark, a few beauty pans of the XIs throughout the movie’s closing game scenes, and little else in overt Nike product placements. Barkley wears his CB34 signature shoe in a home Phoenix Suns colorway that has still never been released.
Though Pytka now jokes about the movie largely being a marketing vehicle, it was in the sense of pushing Jordan’s “greatness” to a global audience. Specific products were more subtle throughout its quick 88-minute run time, though.
The most shameless product-related scene in the original isn’t even a Jordan line, as Stan Podolak, the bumbling Birmingham Barons assistant assigned to Jordan, rattles off every MJ sponsor in flowing fashion.
“C’mon, Michael! It’s game time,” he frantically directs. “Get your Hanes on, lace up your Nikes, grab your Wheaties and your Gatorade; we’ll pick up a Big Mac on the way to the ballpark.”
It was a scene that surely made Falk smile. Others weren’t so sure an animated kids movie was the move.
“Quite honestly, I remember back in the day when he did it, I personally was supernervous,” said Gentry Humphrey, now Jordan’s vice president of footwear, after joining Nike in the early ’90s. “We were talking about how sophisticated MJ was and how smooth he was – and then you do this Space Jam movie.”
Humphrey is often credited with helping to create the brand’s aggressive retro plans during the 2000s, which have long driven the Nike Inc. subsidiary’s annual revenues ever since, to the tune of $4.7 billion in earnings for the most recently disclosed calendar year.
The “Space Jam” XI was soon one of the first retro sneakers he looked to release at the turn of the millennium.
“To be honest with you, [the movie] allowed us to stay connected to younger consumers that to this day have crazy stories – ‘Hey, is it true that Michael dunked from the 3-point line?’ ” he said, laughing. “Him against the Monstars created a whole new level of mystique about him.”
The most recent retro launch in 2016 saw Jordan Brand sell more than a million pairs at a retail price of $220, nearly matching the film’s original box-office take.
“Understanding that you have assets and talents that you are working with – the greatest basketball player of all time being a center and a focal point for this movie,” said Georges Labossiere, a longtime Nike and now Converse senior product director. “These are all things that are movie magic.”
That quote was actually referring to LeBron James and the brand’s involvement in the newest iteration of the revered franchise, Space Jam: A New Legacy.
Space Jam’s reign as the highest-grossing basketball movie of all time and the cultural force it became ever since made Nike’s decision to be even more involved this time around an easy one.
“When you’re able to combine those two worlds, building a product within that was just an incredible opportunity and one that we took full advantage of,” said Jason Petrie, Nike’s senior designer of the new LeBron 19.
With the lead-up to the film’s launch in July showing Nike’s cards early, there was some skepticism about just how over the top the product placement would be this time around.
When James is first dropped into the animated Looney Tunes world from the “serververse” on the Warner Bros. lot around 25 minutes into the movie, his thudding landing creates a crater in the exact shape of Nike’s swoosh logo. Petrie laughs now about that scene, saying it caught him by surprise when he first watched the movie, and clarifies that it was a detail added by the studio.
Early on, a 13-year-old LeBron is shown during a middle school flashback scene to 1998. He’s wearing an Air Max Uptempo ’95, although the Carolina blue patent leather colorway worn by “young LeBron” isn’t an original color, but rather a retro version from 2019.
Shortly after, his friend Malik meets him at the gym ahead of their game, rocking a white, black and pink Air Tech Challenge II – tennis player Andre Agassi’s old signature shoe – albeit a retro edition also from 2019. Both appear to have been snagged closer to the filming window, rather than more closely dated to the sneakers a middle schooler would’ve worn in 1998.
In a rare non-Nike sighting in the movie, their middle school coach is spotted in the Reebok Kamikaze, Shawn Kemp’s signature shoe from 1995, which was a retro again in 2014.
As the storyline continues and returns to the current time, James is most often seen wearing Air Force 1s, while his son Darius can be spotted lacing up his dad’s very first signature shoe, retro Air Zoom Generations from 2017 in the opening scene at their home’s court.
James may have filmed the movie in a bright orange colorway of the LeBron 15 during the summer of 2019, but all along, the plan was for his footwear to be his newest signature shoe model, digitally layered into the film through a meticulous computer-generated imagery process in post-production.
“We were really excited to get outside of the normal world of product creation and now exist in this alternate reality where LeBron is existing with the Tune Squad,” added Petrie.
James and Petrie typically work on an 18- to 24-month timeline for each signature shoe, as the designer has helmed the line since the launch of the LeBron 7 in 2009. This time around, they went into the LeBron 19 process, knowing it would be created in tandem with the movie, and rather than an All-Star Game or NBA Finals unveiling, the shoe would debut on the big screen.
“When you’re able to combine those two worlds, building a product within that was just an incredible opportunity and one that we took full advantage of.”
– Nike senior designer Jason Petrie
It isn’t until the 59-minute mark that you see the LeBron 19 in its final form on screen for the first time, a deliberate delay that comes when James and the rest of his Tune Squad teammates get “upgraded.” In that scene, he’s wearing a simple gray sweatsuit, along with a gray and blue colorway of the LeBron 19s.
“When I saw the movie and you see the shoe, you know, 20 feet [wide], huge in front of you, it just is a surreal kind of thing,” said Petrie.
Packed with a full-length hybrid chamber cushioning combo of Max Air and Zoom Air bags, the curving and flowing design features a nod to a mantra of the Nike teams as they look to extend James’ career on the court: “Long Live The King.” Several crown details are also incorporated throughout.
In working with Warner Bros. along the way, as the scenes shifted from filming on a green screen set to the special effects-laden look of the spectator-frenzied basketball game, Nike lent yet another hand to help land on the exact colorway that James would be digitally wearing in the film.
Petrie and color designer Brian Moughty found themselves at the Warner Bros. Studio offices in the Los Angeles area, sitting with director Malcolm Lee.
“[We’re in] the inner sanctum of where they build this movie in this dark room, huge screen, with God knows how many computers around,” said Petrie. “Malcolm was talking to us. LeBron’s walking down the screen and in the uniform and [he says], ‘What would pop here?’ ”
On the spot, Moughty worked up nearly a hundred different color options of digital computer-aided design renderings of the LeBron 19, with the team landing on the orange upper and light blue midsole execution to best complement James’ Tune Squad uniforms. That colorway is now also the launch edition of the sneaker, slated to be released in late September.
“I’ve never done that in my career,” added Petrie. “It was incredibly–just energizing creatively.”
When the shoe is shown in its key close-up, the names of each “James Gang” family member from the movie – Darius, Dom, Zosha and Kamiyah – are handwritten along the midsole, just like how James writes his family’s names on his sneakers in real life.
It was certainly a more detailed and in-depth process than how the original “Space Jam” sample of the Air Jordan XI came to life. Made just for Jordan at the time, the simple black and white colorway was a mashup of the two colorways planned for Jordan to wear throughout the 1995-96 Bulls season.
Blending the black upper and white midsole from the black/red XIs with the clear translucent outsole from the white/black/concord edition, the shoe took on a monochrome look reminiscent of how Jordan would often wear black sneakers with white uniforms during his NBA playoff runs.
The ”Jumpman Jordan” verbiage along the tongue was updated to “Jumpman Jam,” with purple found on the heel Jumpman logo and traction pattern. On the 2000 and 2009 retro editions, the purple was switched to royal blue, to better tie back to the Tune Squad’s tame uniform accents.
Champion, the NBA’s official outfitter at the time, made and sold the Tune Squad’s simple white and royal No. 23 jerseys, which have long been a bootleg favorite for 20-somethings dressing up on Halloween ever since.
Nike, now the NBA’s official outfitter in the middle of an eight-year, $1 billion partnership, was just as involved in designing the uniforms for both the Tune Squad and Goon Squad teams in the sequel, as they were the footwear.
“It was incredible, just energizing creatively.”
– Nike senior designer Jason Petrie
The blue and orange concentric circle design of the jersey worn by James and his squad drafts off of Warner Bros.’ “That’s All Folks!” closing screen.
Among the many Easter eggs layered into the new adaptation, the far more vibrant blue and orange uniforms also directly tie back to a banner hanging in the rafters of the original Space Jam game on Moron Mountain, visible for just a quick glance an hour and seven minutes into the original.
“The No. 1 reason to bring Nike into the film is to help the story,” said Maverick Carter, James’ longtime business partner and a producer on Space Jam: A New Legacy. “The biggest moment in this movie is the game that culminates at the end and is a real game that matters. … Having the Tune Squad and Goon Squad in Nike helps the story, and helps validate the game of basketball, because that’s what NBA players wear.”
Though no logos appeared on the unis Jordan wore, much like current NBA jerseys, a swoosh now appears along the shoulder and shorts of the new Tune Squad’s uniforms. For only James, his “LJ” crown logo sits opposite the swoosh.
The jerseys are just one component of a larger merchandise effort from Nike, as 64 Space Jam-related Nike items are currently offered on its web store. The Converse web store returns 19 results. Nine different pairs of Nike and Converse sneakers are among the assortment of footwear and apparel, bringing together two of the three most recognizable Nike Inc. umbrella brands for the overall collection.
The missing subsidiary this time around is, of course, Jordan.
“There wasn’t much talk,” Humphrey said. “I think, had Michael committed to it, there would’ve been a lot of talk. I think because Michael chose to back away from it, we weren’t really that much involved.”
Perhaps a miss to carry the joke even further, Michael B. Jordan isn’t wearing Air Jordans during his cameo scene in Space Jam: A New Legacy. He was spotted in a black and white Air Fear of God 1, a late 2018 collaboration between Nike and designer Jerry Lorenzo, who has since left to head Adidas Basketball’s design and business strategy.
Besides the Nike and Converse footwear and apparel, just like the original’s onslaught of officially licensed products, more than 200 companies partnered with Warner Bros. for launches themed with “New Legacy” nuances.
“Having the Tune Squad and Goon Squad in Nike helps the story, and helps validate the game of basketball, because that’s what NBA players wear.”
– LeBron James’ friend and business partner Maverick Carter
A seemingly never-ending flow of Space Jam items have launched over the past month, in silos including toys, stationery books, mugs, phone accessories, drink bottles, keychains, video games, bracelets, totes, backpacks, lunch bags, watches, small leather goods, basketballs and food, according to a comprehensive list from Warner Bros.
There are even region-specific licensed products in Latin America, Australia and New Zealand, Asia and Europe. The most extravagant item is certainly the $100,000 central Tourbillon watch by Kross Studio, complete with etchings of each Tune Squad character and a basketball leather, laser-etched strap.
Even in the midst of the nonstop flow of overall Space Jam launches, Nike is hoping that much like in the decades since the original movie, the uniforms, and ultimately, the sneakers spotted throughout A New Legacy, will be sought after for years to come.
Though filming was completed during the summer of 2019, additional post-production and special effects work was affected by the coronavirus pandemic throughout 2020. The NBA season was also on hiatus throughout last spring, with James and the Los Angeles Lakers eventually winning an NBA championship during the shifted bubble schedule that carried into the fall.
The many moving parts of 2020 made for more than a few changes of plans along the way.
“Let me tell you, the COVID pandemic has been horrible for a lot of very real reasons. One dumb reason is because it cost us an incredible effect and moment,” said Petrie. “Yes, we were going after something pretty crazy.”
Maybe it was a moment that crossed over from the big screen to the real-life hardwood on James’ feet during a Lakers game, or a stunt connecting the smart system of the artificial intelligence-powered “serververse” in the film to an operating system within the shoe.
Perhaps there was a power lacing effect similar to the iconic Back To The Future Part II scene when Marty McFly’s Nike Mag sneakers seemingly come to life. We just may never know, although the Space Jam franchise appears here to stay.
“The Mag is basically a big reason why I do what I do today. So, yeah, of course there was,” said Petrie. “You want to just go crazy. We had big plans, big dreams, and we were well on our way. … It was going to be such a limited and special, crazy thing. It just kind of had to fall by the wayside … [but] maybe some other time in the future for something else.”