“We need Reg.”
Those three words were uttered by the current Jordan Brand chairman Larry Miller to Michael Jordan around 2007 in reference to the brand’s current vice president of entertainment marketing, Reggie Saunders.
At the time, Saunders was working in entertainment marketing at an agency after an already lengthy career that included positions at the NFL, NBA, and MLB. Now he is Jordan’s right-hand man, responsible for signing entertainment collaborators to one of the most powerful and recognizable brands on the planet. Partnerships with the likes of Travis Scott, J Balvin, Mark Wahlberg, and many more are products of Saunders’ work.
“For me, it's about Michael's legacy,” Saunders says. “On and off the court, it’s just showing people something different, man, but it's an honor because they're all kind of built the same.”
Saunders knows how important it is to protect the legacy of the Jordan Brand, selecting partners that only embody the same things that Jordan did on the court to represent the Jumpman.
“They have that authentic button that we like to tap into, the greatness button. It’s the soul of the brand,” Saunders says.
For the launch of Balvin’s third sneaker collaboration with Jordan, the Air Jordan 3 “Medellin Sunset,” we got to spend a few days on the ground in Medellin with the Colombian star, Saunders, and the many people behind the scenes of the project. As Saunders emphasized a number of times, Jordan is all about family, and that was made even more apparent on set for the Jordan 3 launch campaign.
Before production began, I heard the unmistakable voice of DJ Khaled gleefully yelling from the speaker of Saunders’ phone. The two good friends were laughing (as I soon learned was impossible not to do while on the other side of a Khaled FaceTime) together and talking about Balvin’s upcoming release. When Balvin joined the conversation, of course Khaled told him that he needed another pair of the Jordan 3, as well as a pair of the black version that we recently got a first look at.
Then Balvin called me over and jested to Khaled, “Yo, Khaled, I got Complex here. Tell them, ‘These the Sneaker of the Year!’” And that’s exactly what he told Complex, in a way that only DJ Khaled could.
Simple moments like these make it clear that Saunders and the rest of the Jordan Brand are after something deeper than just business relationships. They’re looking to create a family environment filled with creators, artists, athletes, and more that truly embody the excellence set forth by the greatest of all time.
In this interview, Saunders expounds on the Jordan Brand’s relationship with Balvin and Scott, Saunders’ journey to his current role, and much more. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
You've worked with all these crazy names from Mark Wahlberg to Eminem, plenty in between. What's it like getting to work with creatives like that for the Jordan Brand?
It's an honor. You know, this, for me, it's about Michael's legacy. On and off the court, it’s just showing people something different, man, but it's an honor because they're all kind of built the same. You know, they have that authentic button that we like to tap into, the greatness button. It’s the soul of the brand. I feel like that's what they bring to the world, right? When you hear something different, you see something different. You see them dress differently. You see them, rap, talk, sing globally. And it's really cool. I think it's the authenticity piece that is it for me.
Can you just take us back to when you first met MJ and how that relationship started?
I actually worked for an agency that represented the Jordan Brand. Before that, I worked for the Baltimore Orioles, for the NFL with the Washington Commanders, the NBA league office, and helped start the D-League. And then I met a young lady who was our lawyer at Midway Games. I was the director of business licensing for sports titles. And she said, “Hey, there's this agency—they're into urban marketing.” And I said, “Wait, you mean Black people?” She's like, “Yeah.” And I was like, “OK, say that.” And she's like, “Well, they have the Jordan Brand as a client. They have T-Mobile.” She named a plethora of brands: “GM, they're gonna launch this thing called Escalade.”
Where I ended up, we were the experiential PR agency for Jordan. So throwing events and parties. We had an event in Vegas, and Michael literally said to me with Larry Miller and [Howard] “H” White. And he's like, “Hey, why do you live in LA? You got a 310 number.” And I was like, “Oh, I work for the agency.” He's like, “What's an agency?” And then Larry literally looked at H and MJ [and] said, “We don't need the agency. We need Reg.” And that's how it all started. It takes a long time to create head count still to this day at Nike, Inc., and Jordan took about a year and a half, almost two years, to create my head count. But then that's how Jordan entertainment marketing got started. I got a good break.
So we're here in Colombia for J Balvin. How big of a partner has he been for the Jordan brand?
It’s a huge partnership. When I was looking at it, I'm looking at the globe. I listened to things sonically. And it was funny. Michael's wife, Yvette, called me. She goes, “Hey, you know J Balvin?” I was like, “I know that one song.” And she's like, “Yeah, he's a good friend of mine. You should meet him.” And I was like, “Oh, I'm going to Miami.” She's like, “Oh, he has a show this weekend.” I was like, “Oh, how ironic.” And you know, we're laughing about that. And I flew to Miami, because I said I’d go meet him.
So I flew to Miami. Jose and I and his management team had dinner. And then he invited me to the show the next night at American Airlines Arena at the time. And I went backstage, and what I saw and what I felt was like, I was like, “Oh, he's different, in a good way.” This is like 2017 and he's like, “Oh, you need to meet this guy, Bad Bunny, you need to meet Maluma, and this is Karol G.” They were all opening for him. When he stepped onstage, I was like, “Whoa, I get it. He's the one.” His style, his bravado, the flair, the color, everything just struck me, and I'm like, “You know what? This will be a good guy to tap into the globe, sharpening up Jordan Brand to the world.”
And that's how it happened—ever since then, like, Jose and I have developed our relationship; we have this crazy mutual respect for each other. We FaceTime each other and we laugh, he's a jokester, we talk trash all the time, and we fell in love with each other, so it made it easy when I met him to say, “Hey, come out to campus and design a shoe.” And then the Air Jordan 1 “J Balvin” came out of that. And a little secret, we had that shoe designed for him and we had it for about a year and a half, almost two years before anybody saw it.
Then he calls me and says, “My G, listen, I'm doing the big game.” But he couldn't say it; he had an NDA. I was like, “Oh, snap, the Super Bowl?” He's like, “It’s Shakira and J.Lo and I'm gonna perform. What do you think about breaking the shoe out there and showing the world?” And I said, “Bro, that's a perfect opportunity.” So I talked to our leadership team, and they thought it was perfect. We were on a good streak with the Super Bowl thing, so we kept it going. As soon as he stepped onstage, it was so cool to see live in person. And then I woke up Monday morning, 2 billion texts from our sales team from Asia Pacific, Latin America, Europe. Like, “Hey, let's deal with the kid.” And I'm like, “Okay, I've only been asking for two years, but now you guys see it, and you get it right now.”
This current collection, I actually have these pants on right now. And I'm like, “Oh my gosh, we actually are, like, riding the wave of the trend. We're not behind it, because of him.” But that’s why you sign guys like José, to take you to a different space and place and show you something different. He's a fashionista, which I love.
To talk a little bit more about our relationship, he calls me and he's like, “Hey, I'm getting this award from the ACE Accessories Council. It’s the Fashion Icon of the Year award. I'd love for you to present me.” I was like, “What? OK, are you sure?” He's like, “Absolutely.” Our thing has always been from day one, Black and brown people need to come together. He's like, “A Black man gave me an opportunity so I'm not gonna waste it; I'm gonna do the right thing.” He's talking about myself, Michael Jordan, and Yvette—it was amazing. I presented him and he was touched, and I was sitting there with him and I got up onstage and I saw him off to the side, and he's got a little tear in his eye, and I was like, “Man, we really are trying to change the world.”
You keep saying that he's helping you take the Jordan Brand global. How important has his presence at the brand been for the Latin American community?
His presence has been insanely important, because we're being able to open up to the world. And that's what the Jordan Brand is. You can stay in North America if you're a brand, but if you go global, we're just continuing to tell Michael's story on an authentic level. José loves Jordan. He can speak about it with no talking points, speaking from the heart. But I think it's very important for the brand to keep going globally. We have North America. We have Asia Pacific, Latin America, Africa, which is opening. When you do think sonically, you hear a certain sound when you hear José's music—little babies bop to it; grandmas bop to it; middle-aged people bop to it; teenagers, etc. Riding around here with him yesterday, he's got the music, he's got rap playing, and he's got the windows down, and we're running into this photo shoot and people are walking up to the car, and he doesn't flinch. He's taking pictures with people on scooters. It just made me feel so good that he can come home and be that guy. He’s like the mayor of Medellin, as I like to call him sometimes. It’s just really cool to see. Because when I'm on set, I'm looking around and a ton of people are wearing Jordan, and I start beaming. Twenty-plus years in the game, and everybody thought we were just a North America brand. But this has been really cool to see, really cool to feel. This is the see, feel, touch part of the job, which I love.
Globally, for the brand, I think it's incredible to keep telling Michael's story authentically, in spaces and places we never thought we could go. He has a 1, a 2, and now a 3. It started out as a joke; when we got to the two, he's like, “OK, my G, now we do a 3.” I hope it keeps going. I got to sit and talk to our footwear team and see where we're going. But I think it probably will continue that way. It's really, really cool.
Travis Scott is the biggest name in sneakers right now. It goes without saying, but how much of an impact has he had on the brand?
Travis’ impact is incredible. A lot like José, an authentic visionary. They both have that drive. I'll keep saying it just because it's authentic, uncompromised, earned, aspirational. They've earned their spot—nobody gave them this. And then they can keep the brand going. We have our athletes, but how do you pair the athletes up with these guys? We’re trying to figure out how you can move the marketplace in a different direction. Travis has been just like José: the right thing at the right time. Some people say we get lucky, but a lot of thinking goes into getting them, and a lot of family time goes into it. Like when we flew over here, we flew José’s mom on the plane. I talked to Travis’ mom the other day about foundation stuff.
Those guys have a great impact on what we do and how we do it, and how we move. It's not about being cool. It's about having a proper mission and knowing where you want to take your brand. With those two, it's like a double whammy because one guy's Colombian, by way of Medellin and New York, and the other guy’s out of Houston and turning the world upside down. It's incredible. Anybody that could put out merch with an album—José does it too—that's incredible. That's all you need for your fans to want to tap in and want to be a part of it.
We've seen Travis in his newest sneaker quite a bit lately. It’s his first actual original silhouette. What does it say about him to be given his own silhouette rather than just a collaboration?
Wow, it was a dream. I remember two years into our relationship and I said, “Are you ready for a signature?” He's like, “Nah, man.”
Wow, that’s pretty humble.
Yeah, it’s very humble, because most people come in right away—I'm not going to mention any names, but I get crazy phone calls. Like, you gotta start somewhere. Right? So he had a good start, right? We did some things that were supposed to be “Friends and Family,” and they ended up so good that our footwear director at the time was like, “Hey we're gonna get a deal done with this kid, right?” I was like, “Yep, I've already had the conversations. So we're prepped and ready to go, and you don't have to stall too much; you know, you can just go and do what you say you're going to do when you say you gotta do it.” That's a part of the secret sauce.
He's a visionary; you can listen to his music and see he's on another level. With this album, he turned up even more—it's a lot of beat changes and a lot of different thoughts and feelings. And what the Jordan Brand does is what Travis and J Balvin can do for all the people we have signed to us. They can make you feel. I remember talking to Monta Ellis before he was signed to Jordan Brand back in the day. “Monta, you can go to any brand you want to. Why are you wearing Jordans?” He was like, “Man, I put these things on—I might be [the best] tonight.” Which is a cool feeling, you know what I mean? People wear them for their graduation. You got a chef—he only wears Jordans because he feels some kind of way; he feels like he's the best chef in the world. A dentist, a doctor, a surgeon, it’s the same thing. We hear these stories all the time, and I want to bring them to life. I think this is the reason why it works so well; we do bring the dream to life.
Travis is smart. He's taking the temperature. He's really smart with that. He doesn’t want to disappoint the consumer. He doesn't want to disappoint the brand; he wants to be a great partner. But yeah, blood, sweat, and tears went into that. I'm not gonna say the name. People keep throwing out a name, but that's not the name; we haven't even landed on one yet. It's a feeling. It's gonna be interesting what we come up with, because we've been throwing out all kinds of names. And then today, I got a text from a footwear guy saying, “Hey, we need to talk about these three things, and that's one.”
DJ Khaled is like the world's biggest Jordan hype man. What is it like having him just be that guy that when you need something to pop off, send it to Khaled and he’ll take care of it?
Here's how I explained it to people. I was like, “Alright, Jordan Brand's a team; we're a family. Every team has a mascot. Every team has a champion. Every team has a cheerleader. There's a logo—you know what they stand for.” That guy is the gold standard of if we sent him anything with the Jumpman logo on it, it’s the best thing he's ever seen in his life, and he's unapologetically that way.
Khaled and I, our relationship goes back. It's been documented now that Fat Joe introduced us, and he's just really special. We talk every day. Khaled is the same way every day. People need positivity in this world, and he's one of those people that is so positive that you're like, “Is that real?” But then when you get to know him, it's that way every single day; he just wants to better people. That's why it’s, “We the Best,” and not “I the Best.”
Collaborating with him has been phenomenal. I'm so happy for him; his Snipes store is really cool. It's become a destination already in Miami. So now we have to figure out how to turn up with him a little bit. But he's a champion of the brand. I'll give him that title. You know, if you said to me, “What's DJ Khaled?” I would say, “He's the champion of the brand.” And now Aalam and Asahd, Asahd has become a big sneakerhead. When I send a pair, like I sent the Balvin to Khaled, I had to send them to Asahd because he would call me.
You've alluded to it a few times in this conversation. But how does Jordan decide, “Alright, this person is ready for a sneaker collab,” or, “This person is ready to take it to the next level with our partnership”?
It's tough, man, because in my book, not everybody can sell a sneaker. These days it’s so crazy. People rap 16 bars and all of a sudden think they deserve a sneaker deal. They don't even realize that 50 percent of the NBA doesn't have a sneaker deal; it's tough to do. And not everybody can move and sell product. The funny thing is I say that, but it's not about that. It's about the authenticity. Like what do you mean to the Jordan Brand? Or what does the Jordan Brand mean to you? I asked these people all the questions I asked them all the time.
There's times when we'll just do friends and family, like what I did for Quavo, because it meant something. Because of his Rocket Power album. He went through some things; it was from the heart. It had nothing to do with money. This is like, “Hey, this is for you.” We know you've been through some things; we know the album is called Rocket Power. Let's celebrate with you. Quavo is not signed to the brand, but he’s a friend of the brand.
But it takes a lot. It’s all about timing and patience. It's predicting the future a little bit as well.
I remember we used to have a marketing director that used to call me a professor of dark arts and magic. And I said no, “It’s art and science.” I would say art and science because there is an art and there is a science to it. A lot of other brands think, “Oh, we'll just get XYZ celebrity or influencer to push the shoe.”
It's about Michael Jordan's legacy. We always need to know our objectives, where we want to grow and how we want to grow. I'm not gonna lie to you—I take some phone calls sometimes, and after I say no or, “Hey, not right now,” I feel kind of bad.
One of the biggest things in sneakers right now is all of these leaks. We get numerous looks at a shoe before we even see official images. What impact do you think leaks have had on the sneaker industry? Good, bad, or neutral?
Neutral. I'm 50/50. Because sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's like, damn, like, let the person that designed it leak it. Let the person that collaborates with a partner share it. But it's 50/50. It helps sometimes, and sometimes the partner gets really frustrated, [or] we get really frustrated. But at the end of the day, it's a part of the game. Every game has its ebbs and flows. Your New York Mets started out like gangbusters and now they're busted. So I'm 50/50 on it. It’s a weird one for me, too, because I'm torn. You’ve heard me say this word a billion times already. You want authenticity. You don't want the secondary.
Well, like Union, for example. They can't catch a break. It’s been like three shoes in a row now where we’ve seen leaks and people say the shoe sucks, and then we get official images and everyone's like, “Oh, OK, these aren’t bad at all.”
Exactly. And if that's where you're going, hell yes. Wait to see the authentic pics—people try to get so far ahead of the game that they're getting the picture of a second sample or first round sample. That does happen a lot. And I think José is aware of it. Travis definitely is. Billie Eilish. Teyana Taylor, when her shoe leaked, she was like, “Yo, they got the laces choked.” She thought it was us, and I had to explain to her. She was like, “Well, how does this happen?” And I was like, “There's knockoffs. There's a whole game that I can try to explain to you, but I don't even know it.” Like that's, that's the crazy part.