It’s just funny a company that set out to make the best basketball sneakers for the greatest athlete of all-time is relying on a musician in their starting lineup to maintain relevance in 2016.
Let’s be clear: Jordan Brand doesn’t need anyone to help the company sell sneakers right now, not even Michael Jordan himself. But the company, which is an offshoot of Nike, Inc., figures to be a big part of the overall Nike brand growing to $50B in sales by 2020. To make sure that happens, Jordan has found an unlikely guy to help propel them forward. And he’s not an athlete at all: It’s Canada’s favorite son, Drake.
On Dec. 4, 2013, Jordan Brand officially welcomed Heartbreak Drake to its roster of athletes and endorsers, tweeting, “He’s home. Welcome the newest member of #TeamJordan: @Drake.”
The move came as a surprise. Not because Drake wasn’t one of the most popular rappers at the moment, but because he was joining the likes of Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, and Chris Paul—all athletes.
Drake had worn Jordans for quite some time, even grabbing up exclusive pairs, like the Air Jordan III made for friends and family of the University of Oregon, the state where Nike and Jordan headquarters are located. It was a bit shocking that Nike chose to partner with another rapper and give him his own sneakers so soon after famously, and very publicly, parting ways with Kanye West. They’d dipped into rap before: Macklemore also had a few limited sneakers with Jordan. But the Drake connection felt more significant. Drake resonated with the average Jordan customer, who already dressed a lot like Drake did, in ways Macklemore couldn’t. It didn’t help Macklemore’s case that he had previously recorded a song, “Wings,” on which he spoke out against sneaker violence and questioned the culture’s obsession with sneakers. Macklemore’s Jordan alliance was more of a one-off thing; he had previously performed at the Jordan Brand Classic, a basketball game for high school players, and only received friends-and-family-only sneakers. Drake, though, had a few other things lined up that would make him a better match to work with Jordan Brand.
The Toronto native had recently been named the ambassador of his hometown’s NBA team, the Raptors, and started to preview a collection of four sneakers between his crew, OVO, and Jordan Brand, which included two pairs of Air Jordan Xs and two pairs of Air Jordan XIIs. He soon began to gift players on the Raptors with the sneakers to wear on the court, including Amir Johnson.
Given Drake’s noted sports fanaticism—which, to be fair, has come under fair-weather criticism—it makes sense that he could leverage his celebrity with professional athletes to help grow Jordan Brand, a sportswear company that has become increasingly interested in lifestyle product and the re-issuing of retro footwear with outdated technology. Drake shakes things up for the company and offers more diverse visibility.
Drizzy has gone on the record that he’s been a longtime fan of Michael Jordan, too. On his 2010 track “Thank Me Now,” he rapped: And that's around the time that your idols become your rivals/ You make friends with Mike but got to AI him for your survival/ Damn, I swear sports and music are so synonymous/ Cause we want to be them, and they want to be us.
He’s just like the rest of the kids who wanted to be like Mike, but, unlike athletes who also tried their hands at a music career—Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson come to mind—he is able to bridge the gap between those two worlds in an honest way. He showed this in a recent promo video.
Look: I’m not saying that rappers are more important to sportswear brands than athletes; that will probably never be the case. But, Drake is able to complement the sporting pursuits of the company while also helping the average person share their passion about something they grew up with. Hearing Drake talk about his first Air Jordans, the much maligned XV, makes the company more relatable to the legion of fans it’s grown over the years. Michael Jordan is still consistently touring the globe and serving as the face of the brand, but Drake is there for the common consumer, in ways MJ just isn’t.
He’s in a unique position in the sneaker world, too. Not as many people care if Russell Westbrook is going to debut the latest Air Jordan on court for his Oklahoma City Thunder squad; Jordan Brand announces a date for the debut of their newest sneaker, and we’ve all seen multiple images of it before it makes its first on-court appearance. The same can’t be said for Drake. There’s still some excitement and hype there. Some hold the belief, myself included, that Drake upstaged Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 2 fashion show (which had very mixed reviews) by showing up wearing his signature Air Jordans. When he wears a new Jordan—like the 1-of-1 Air Jordan IIIs in Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” video—people pay attention, flocking to online galleries to get an up-close look at the shoes.
He’s become a walking billboard for Jordan, for better or worse. When he took the stage at OVO Fest in Toronto this past summer wearing a Jordan jumpsuit and an unreleased Air Jordan VIII, people noticed. Just over a month later, he got the entire world to shout “Jumpman, Jumpman, Jumpman,” with his Future collab mixtape. He’s undoubtedly doing something right—just look at how he’s even been able to overcome a pair of suspect “custom” Air Jordan Vs, which he wore in purple or lace up the Air Jordan XIII to shoot air balls at the University of Kentucky. It’s proof of Drake’s staying power and how ideal of a fit he is for Jordan Brand.
There’s a behind the scenes aspect that also make Drake and Jordan Brand a natural connection—maybe even more so than Kanye West and adidas: Drake plays within the brand’s guidelines. He’s not trying to change the company he’s working with, but, instead, Drake is able to make the legacy of Jordan appeal to fans who weren’t around when Michael Jordan was winning NBA Championships back to back to back.
When people heard that Drake was getting his own Jordan collection, it wasn’t met with jeers. People were excited to see players in the NBA wear OVO sneakers, and the sneakers reached astronomical prices, mainly due to resellers trolling on eBay. That didn’t stop the genuine fanfare around the “White/Gold” OVO x Air Jordan Xs when they finally hit retail in September of last year. Noticeably, Jordan Brand has continued to produce more and more sneakers over the past year or so, some sitting around and not generating much buzz—such as countless reissues of the Air Jordan VII, Air Jordan II, Air Jordan VIII...the list goes on. Although the “OVO” edition shoes attached to Drake have been made in limited quantities, they would still likely have the same sell-through if hundreds of thousands were produced.
According to sneaker data database Campless, the shoes reached their resale high-water mark in August before their release, with an average eBay price of $788. With an abundance of pairs on the market in December, resale dipped down to $497 when 221 unworn shoes sold that month alone. Those numbers can’t be debated, but detractors will say that limited product will always resell for larger numbers. Still, there’s an undeniable energy that hasn’t been around Jordan Brand in quite some time. And that’s something that the company can’t squander right now.
Now, the “Black/Gold” version of the OVO x Air Jordan X is set to release on February 13, while the world shifts its attention to Drake’s hometown, Toronto, for All-Star Weekend. It’s sure to be the most popular shoe to come out that day, and it’s a major opportunity for Jordan Brand to build buzz around its athletes and overarching brand message.
Athletes will always have a place at sportswear and footwear labels, but if Drake were to leave Jordan Brand today, his star would shine just as bright. He’d still be one of the most popular mainstream rappers in America, and kids across the country would still know every word to his songs. But, Jordan Brand would indeed lose a bit of its cool.