Blue Ribbon Sports ad marketing Onitsuka Tiger sneakers

It’s the end of 1969. Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS) is selling Tigers well enough that he, the CEO, Phil Knight, decides to finally become a full-time employee of his own company. BRS has had a fruitful relationship with Japanese sneaker manufacturer, Onitsuka Tiger. The shoe that BRS co-founder, Bill Bowerman, designed – The Cortez – became a dominant running shoe in the run-up to the 1972 Munich Olympics, taking advantage of a running and jogging boom in America.

In the last month of the last year of the tumultuous 1960s, Knight makes his annual trip to Kobe, Japan, to meet the founder and head of Onitsuka Tiger, and later the global brand Asics, Kihachiro Onitsuka. They renew their vows by signing a three-year contract, giving Blue Ribbon Sports rights to market Onitsuka Tigers in the United States, with the condition that BRS sells Tigers exclusively.

The problem for BRS – while they enjoyed the success of selling Tiger shoes, they realized that their contract limited their business range to distributorship, and thus created an increasingly uncomfortable level of dependency on a single manufacturer of sneakers.

The problem for Onitsuka – while they were able to breach the huge American market via BRS, they realized that every year they continued to market in the US through this relatively small and inexperienced player, they were likely leaving millions of dollars on the table unless they expanded the number of distributors in the American market.

Onitsuka was apparently hearing from other American shoe distributors that the potential for US growth was huge, so he realized he had to push harder into the international markets, particularly the US. With that understanding, he hired an aggressive international sales director, Shoji Kitami, to realize his “Onitsuka of the World” strategy, according to Kenny Moore, author of the book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. So despite the three-year agreement of exclusivity, midway through, Kitami met with as many as 18 other shoe distributors in America.Bill Bowerman and the Boys of Oregon cover

Knight was concerned that Kitami’s actions were going to lead to a contractual dispute, but Kitami viewed the exclusive nature of their agreement as shackles. Acoording to Moore, as discussions between Knight and Kitami became more contentious, Kitami suggested that Onitsuka Tiger and Blue Ribbon Sports form a joint venture, with Onitsuka holding a 51-percent share of the company.

This was a moment of truth. According to Moore, “the choice was between surrendering the company to Onitsuka or making their own shoes.” And when they thought about it, they were liking less and less their submissive role as middle man. Bowerman had designed a successful shoe – the Cortez – that they could not get manufactured by other companies. And ironically, while Kitani was saying that they need to expand the number of distributors in American to sell more shoes, Knight and Bowerman would scratch their heads since Onitsuka was regularly guilty of not manufacturing sneakers fast enough to meet demand. BRS would put in an order and Onitsuka would routinely export fewer shoes than ordered. How were they going to meet the other distributors’ demands if they couldn’t even meet the demands of their sole distributor?

Knight and Bowerman realized they needed to prepare for a break up with Onitsuka. Soliciting the help of a large Japanese trading company – Nissho Iwai – BRS were able to find another shoe manufacturer as well as secure financing for the initial manufacture of new BRS branded shoes, including 6,000 pairs of The Cortez, which Kihachiro Onitsuka believed to be their own design. This was the chance they needed.

As Moore quoted Knight as saying, “we have them right where we want them. Onitsuka is too slow to react to product development ideas we give them. They never ship what we order. And they’d probably yank the distributorship at the end of the contract in 1972 anyway. What we need is a brand we can control, because we have everything else, the shoes, the top runners. This is the best thing that could ever happen to us.”

Original 1971 Swoosh Design Nike

The logo design was set to grace the new sneaker. Barbara Smit claims in her book, Sneaker Wars, that a design student was paid $35 when he presented the “inverted comma” design, which later was dubbed, The Swoosh. Knight wanted to call the new brand, Dimension 6. As the deadline for producing the sneaker boxes approached, they still did not have a brand name, other than Dimension 6. That is until Jeff Johnson, Nike’s first full-time employee, woke up with an image of Greek goddess of victory in his head. So with a little forceful nudging under the gun of a production deadline, Knight reluctantly agreed to the name, Nike. After all, it was a short name, one that easily fit on a shoe box.

So in the winter of 1971, the Nike brand was born.

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My Onitsuka Tiger Mexico City sneakers

I love my Onitsuka Tiger sneakers. I bought white high tops last year, but this year, I bought Made-in-Japan Mexico 66, red leather with golden Onitsuka stripes – they fit like a glove and look great!

When a young accountant and middle-distance runner named Phil Knight put on a pair of Onitsuka Tigers, so many years ago, he must have loved them too. In those early years of the Sneaker Wars, that primarily pit German brands Puma and Adidas against each other, this recent Stanford grad still had his MBA thesis paper in his head – “Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Did to German Cameras?”

On a trip to Japan in 1962, Knight made it a point to meet Kihachiro Onitsuka, whose company made the Tigers. As Barbara Smit wrote in her landmark book, Sneaker Wars, Knight fast talked his way into a distributorship.

Although he didn’t have any business to his name, Knight cheekily introduced himself as an American distributor, instantly making up Blue Ribbon Sports as a company name. He bluffed so convincingly that Onitsuka gave him an exclusive deal to sell Tiger in the United States.

Onitsuka and Bikila
Kihachiro Onitsuka with Abebe Bikila at that fateful meeting.

So in January, 1964, Knight and his friend, the famed track coach of the University of Oregon, Bill Bowerman, officially formed the company, Blue Ribbon Sports (BRS), and became the exclusive distributor for Onitsuka Tiger athletic shoes. For close to a decade, BRS made Onitsuka Tiger sneakers available to American consumers, as well as Bowerman’s own track team members, including Kenny Moore who wrote the book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. One day Moore was in the middle of a casual 20-mile run when he felt pain in his right foot. When Bowerman told Moore to show him his shoe, it was a Tiger model TG-22. After ripping the shoe apart with his hands, he said “If you set out to engineer a shjoe to bend metatarsals until they snap you couldn’t do much better than this,” he said. “Not only that, the outer sole rubber wears away like cornbread. This is not a shit shoe, it’s a double-shit shoe.”

As it turns out, BRS unwittingly marketed the TG-22 as a running shoe, when actually it was a high-jump shoe. Regardless, this shoe autopsy led to a spark of ingenuity in Bowerman – a prototype of a new running shoe: “The outer sole was industrial belting. A cushiony innersole ran the entire length of the shoe, under a shock-absorbing arch support.” Moore explained that he ran thousands of miles in these prototypes, which continuously got tweaked, until finally BRS and Ontisuka decided to mass produce in 1966.

They wanted to call the new shoe, The Aztec, in honor of the coming 1968 Mexico City. Unfortunately, Adidas had already began selling the Azteca Gold. Then Knight had an epiphany – to use the name of the conqueror of the Aztecs. And thus was born the iconic running shoe, The Tiger Cortez.

Blue Ribbon Store Front_onitsuka

The Cortez made BRS a viable company. John Jaquar, who would join the board of directors, would recall the many times Nike tried to discontinue the Cortez. “But people kept wanting them, so they making them,” he would say. “It was the first stable, cushioned shoe for the roads, a comfortable shoe, and so many people liked it that it was the first shoe that made running shoes acceptable in fashion.”

The Cortez helped drive growth for BRS and Onitsuka Tiger in the mid-1960s, proving that the relatively quick decision for Kihachiro Onitsuka to sign Phil Knight up as US distributor was indeed a good one. And yet that decision, eventually led to conflict, and the birth of the world’s dominant sneaker brand – Nike.