Near the end of the negotiation, basketball legend Michael Jordan’s mom drops a dealbreaker on Nike executive Sonny Vaccaro when she says we are good “except for one minor provision – Michael gets a percentage of the revenue of each shoe sold.”
This move, from the recently released movie Air: Courting a Legend, with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, is just one of many strategies and tactics highlighted in a movie about perhaps the most impactful sports negotiation in history (and which is reportedly still paying Jordan hundreds of millions of dollars annually based on that one provision).
Here, in Part 1, are three major negotiation lessons from the movie, understanding that its writers may have exercised some “creative license” and these may not all be true-to-life. Part 2 next month will have the remaining five. (Full disclosure: Nike is a longtime training client of mine, although this negotiation pre-dates our relationship.)
1. Do your strategic homework so you negotiate with the right person
Michael Jordan was an Adidas guy (he told USA Today that “In all honesty, I never wore Nike shoes until the day I signed with Nike.”) But his Mom Deloris did most of the negotiations and appeared to be the most powerful voice on his team, seemingly even more so than his agent David Falk.
So how did Nike’s Vaccaro hone in on this? He met with George Raveling (played by Marlon Wayans), a former NBA player and college coach who coached Jordan on the 1984 Olympic team. He also met with Howard White (played by Chris Tucker), a top Nike executive who understood the Jordans’ cultural background in a way Vaccaro didn’t.
This groundbreaking deal would not have happened except for Vaccaro’s strategic intelligence gathering.
2. Perseverance and creativity
“I don’t like to take no for an answer,” Vaccaro told Jordan’s mom when asked why he went around Jordan’s agent and showed up unannounced at their North Carolina home.
Vaccaro wouldn’t give up even though a ton of folks told him he had no chance to get Jordan for Nike, then largely a running shoe company with a very small share in the basketball market (Converse and Adidas dominated). Nike Founder and CEO Phil Knight initially even threw cold water on his idea. But Vaccaro wouldn’t give up. Nike has made billions as a result.
Vaccaro’s creativity also proved to be essential. Nike’s original plan was to split its endorsement budget over 3 to 4 players to spread its risk. That’s what big companies often do. But Vaccaro looked at it differently and wanted to bet it all on Jordan. It was a good bet.
3. Don’t underestimate the value of brainstorming
There’s a scene in the movie where the Nike executives sit around a table Sunday night and brainstorm and plan for the presentation/negotiation with the Jordans the next day.
They script everything out, and some of it works. But not everything. Some of their ideas fall flat. This highlights two important elements of brainstorming. One, you need to take the time to brainstorm and plan. People think differently, and two (or more) heads are often much better than one, especially when strategically planning for negotiations.
And two, sometimes you need to call an audible and pivot away from seemingly great ideas and plans if they’re just not working. Vaccaro realized in the actual meeting that Nike’s video presentation was not resonating. He read it in the Jordans’ facial expressions and body language.
So he scrapped the video midstream and made a passionate plea in which he laid out his vision of how their partnership would fit in Michael’s personal and professional life. This was a game-changer for Jordan and Nike.
Latz’s Lesson: Movies aren’t real-life, but we can learn real-life negotiation lessons from them. “Air” can teach us about strategic intelligence-gathering, negotiating with the right person, perseverance, creativity, and the value of brainstorming. More to come next month in Part 2. sports and negotiations. Success in both depend on many of the same qualities.
* Marty Latz is the founder of Latz Negotiation, a national negotiation training and consulting company that helps individuals and organizations achieve better results with best practices based on the experts’ research. He can be reached at 480.951.3222 or Marty@LatzNegotiation.com.