Podcast Alert: Phil Knight – Nike
Phil Knight – Co-Founder & Chairman Emeritus at Nike – joins AJ Maestas for an exciting interview about branding, Oregon football, and their experience working together.
Phil is one of the biggest university benefactors in the country. His donations to Oregon athletics are well known, as he has helped transform the program into a perennial powerhouse across sports, but his efforts have also included helping to fund a new law school building, a new library, and a half-billion-dollar donation for the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact.
1:55 – “Air” movie
5:05 – Phil’s role in growing Oregon athletics
10:10 – The state of college athletics
16:10 – Oregon’s brand
18:05 – NIL and college apparel deals
25:15 – Phil’s legacy
27:10 – Keys to success in sports business
31:55 – Rapid Fire Questions
Phil Knight: [00:00:00] Some people think of me as a flamethrower, but sometimes you have to throw flames. But I’m basically a private person and a shy person. If I get up to talk for 30 people, all friendly people at Nike, I get nervous to this day.
AJ Maestas: Hello, and welcome to the Navigating Sports Business Podcast. I’m your host, AJ Maestas, founder of Navigate, a data driven consulting firm, guiding major strategies and decisions in sports and entertainment. We started this podcast hoping to share the interesting stories and experiences of the amazing people we get to work with at Navigate.
And even though they’re visionaries and famous in many instances, their true stories aren’t often heard since they’re not on the playing field. Our hope is you get to know them [00:01:00] better and learn from them as we have.
Today I’m happy to be joined by Phil Knight, co founder and chairman emeritus of Nike, and let me start by saying thank you for the opportunity to work with you. I’m guessing you hear this all the time, but You’re a legend in our industry and beyond our industry. And it was a real treat to get to know you better and support your vision.
So thank you for being here.
Phil Knight: Great to be here. I got a lot of respect for you, AJ.
AJ Maestas: That means a lot. So typically in an interview like this, I include a mix of past and present to the person’s life. And we hear about. You know, our guests career path, but given that you’ve written one of the most popular memoirs of all time, I figured we aren’t going to focus that much on the founding of Nike or all those amazing stories from the early days of your career, but for those of you listening that have not read shoe dog, you definitely should.
And we’ll link to it here in the show notes. With that said, I suspect anyone listening to this has seen the movie air. [00:02:00] Are you happy with Ben Affleck’s portrayal of you in the movie?
Phil Knight: Well, in a single word, yes. But, I mean, uh, I like to tell all my friends, it was perfectly cast. Ben Affleck and I are frequently confused for each other.
AJ Maestas: Exactly. I mean, it’s just, I look, I’m looking in a, yeah.
Phil Knight: And they never contacted Nike in any way. And I asked while they were making it, we knew they were making it, but they were doing it off of a draft that was done in Hollywood and was passed around in some conversations between Ben Affleck and Michael Jordan.
So I said, how can they make a movie and not know that? And the answer came back. We don’t know, we don’t see how that makes sense, but we can tell you these two guys are good filmmakers. And at the end of the day, I think they made a good film. It did what it was supposed to do, it showed Nike’s fight with the establishment.
It wasn’t, as Ben Affleck said many times, it’s not a documentary. So it’s not Entirely factual. In fact, it’s got a lot of facts off, but they got the general story. Good. And they made a good movie. [00:03:00]
AJ Maestas: That’s a really graceful way to say it. That’s so interesting. Cause I mean, if it was, no, one’s going to make a movie about navigate, but if there was a movie
Phil Knight: or you don’t, you never know, you’re not 85 yet.
AJ Maestas: Yeah. Or I think I’d probably have to do something tragically wrong to end up in a movie as opposed to the good stuff that you did. But, but let’s say for fun, you know, uh, They did. And they don’t call anyone at Navigate. You’d think, well, how on earth would you, well, let me put it this way. I watched the movie with my mom.
She was visiting from Alaska and it was just one of those things where I was excited to see it, but I cannot remember a time since I was a little kid and Alaskans behave a little different than folks down here in the lower 48. I cannot remember a time that people clapped and cheered and yelled things during and at the conclusion of the movie.
So it certainly impacted a lot of people. But, uh, the part that blew my mind, and we’ve had Sonny Vaccaro, by the way, on this podcast, if people want to listen to that old episode. Sonny Vaccaro is this major character. Michael Jordan doesn’t say a word. And, and, uh, they didn’t contact Nike [00:04:00] in the making of the movie.
Who would think a movie about Nike and Michael Jordan? Concentrate so much on, uh, so in my mind, it was like, Oh man, Sonny, you submitted a script to Hollywood. I don’t know if there’s any
Phil Knight: No, that is what happened. He, he, uh, he worked with the script writer and they wrote it through his eyes. And you know, he did a lot of good things for Nike, but his role was overstated in this movie, but it really didn’t detract from it being a good movie.
A lot of what is attributed to Sonny was really Rob Strasser, the late Rob Strasser, who was probably the single hero in, uh, A lot of people did things right to make the the Jordan signing come true. But Rob was probably the, the, uh, most important one.
AJ Maestas: Well, that’s really gracious of you to give credit to your late friend and, uh, coworker.
But to your point, it was a great movie and, uh, you know, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. So whatever , you got to tell your story in your memoir. Right. And I know I’ve already brought it up, but Shoe Dog is the best non-fiction book I’ve read in a long time. So [00:05:00] yeah, you can get the real story from Shoe Dog.
So you’re almost certainly the most famous university benefactor in history. Your support for your alma mater, Oregon, has included helping fund a new law school building, a new library, half a billion dollars for the Phil and Penny Knight campus for accelerating scientific impact. But our audience here are a bunch of sports folks.
And so if you don’t mind, I’d love to concentrate on what you’ve done for Oregon athletics. The ducks have gone from this program that was hardly in the National picture 25, 30 years ago, and now, uh, as you know, from work we’ve done with you, more than half the fans are, you know, not on the Western part of the U.
So I mean, it’s this nationally relevant program. Is this what you envisioned, you know, when you were an athlete and you’re running for Oregon or when you start making big contributions some 30 years ago, was this the plan or how did this happen?
Phil Knight: We’re exactly on plan.
AJ Maestas: Yeah, good answer. Now the real answer.
Phil Knight: Now the real answer. That’s right. That, uh, you know, when I went to the [00:06:00] University of Oregon, it was primarily a track school. In fact, that was one of the main attractions for me. Uh, Bill Barman was, he’s in the Hall of Fame, the Track and Field Hall of Fame, and he’s one of the greatest coaches of all time, if not the greatest.
So that’s why I went there, but they were not very good in football or basketball generally. And it’s interesting to me as an aside that you, you start by asking about the University of Oregon. Which is sort of an unfinished book for sure, uh, rather than Nike, which I, uh, really have spent my life trying to build.
But, uh, You know, after I got to a certain point and I wanted to give back to, uh, to different causes, the Nike came off the University of Oregon running track. And so for me to give to the athletic department, uh, made perfect sense. And, uh, and I also gave to Stanford business school that they’re the two fathers really of.
Of the Nike story. I didn’t expect to be in the top 10 every year in football, but, uh, they’re getting close to doing that and, uh, well, they are this year. Yeah. So it’s worked out better than I thought it was, but I’ve been proud to [00:07:00] contribute some over the years, but it was never the idea that we’re going to be, uh, ranked this highly.
It was just to make us competitive.
AJ Maestas: So, so now you’ve answered my next question. Cause my coworkers who, you know, know Oregon very well. We have a number of ducks on our senior executive team that have been doing work in and around and related to it. They think the ultimate goal was football national championship.
So you’ve already debunked that there’s no finish line to this. Yeah,
Phil Knight: there’s no finish line and, uh, uh, there’d be nobody happier if they won a football national championship, but I grew up thinking the Rose Bowl was the ultimate. So, uh, so for Oregon to get to the Rose Bowl, that’s a fantastic season. And they, they got to what, four of them in 10 years or something like that.
So that was a big success and they don’t have to win the national championship to make me happy. But if they did, nobody’d be happy.
AJ Maestas: Yeah, well, I was discussing that success with our mutual friend, Pat Kilkenny. And as you know, he has a shrine to Oregon in his home. One of the things that came up was the rivalry with [00:08:00] USC and, you know, viewing them as the top of the heap and all the natural advantages they have.
And he was, you know, make no mistake, even though he’s been an executive in sports business and very successful in the world of insurance and beyond, he was quick to note, uh, what the record was against USC and Washington and others. So there’s no denying the winning. This university was, you know, you could argue in the bottom quartile of a lot of measures of the PAC 12 and now it’s selling it short to say it’s in the top quartile.
Consistently in the top 10, consistently competing for championships. I don’t know if there’s more to the story than that. I mean, I know there is, but, but we work with a lot of universities in the collegiate space and Oregon comes up a lot. They wonder how they could Replicate that. I don’t know if you have feedback on that, but you know, if someone wanted to be just like you and replicate what happened at Oregon, what should they be doing?
Phil Knight: Well, first of all, if they want to be just like me, I would say don’t. Why is that? I think, well, I don’t know. It’s been a unique life, but, uh, it’s been, it’s, yeah, it’s been a pleasure, but it’s, uh, it’s been a situation where [00:09:00] I was kind of uniquely qualified to do what I do in my own opinion, but, uh, It isn’t any one guy in anything, a business or an athletic department or any of those things.
And what Oregon has had over the last 25 years is a good president, a good athletic director and good coaches. And you got to have those three things. And then you got to have alums step up. And, you know, I get a lot of the credit, but Pat Kilkenny has, uh, has done a ton that, uh, you just referenced him.
He’s been a huge guy that’s contributed to the University of Oregon and, uh, has been a big part of the whole success story. But it isn’t just one guy, by any means. It’s got to have all those things work together.
AJ Maestas: So no blueprint anyone can follow other than great AD, great coach, great support. Yeah. Well,
Phil Knight: those are easy things to say.
There are easy things to get.
AJ Maestas: We’re in the middle of something in that, you know, the big stuff that really changes the landscape of collegiate athletics. And I’m having to meditate more than normal to calm myself. Speed at which, you know, [00:10:00] decisions and the process that it, yeah, it doesn’t come easy.
There’s no question. That’s true. Well, it’s been a big year for Oregon, moving to the Big Ten next year, the end of the Pac 12. Where do you think we go from here? What do you think this all looks like for Oregon and for just college athletics in general? Well,
Phil Knight: Oregon came through the realignment on its feet.
And so I was happy about that, but, uh, it really makes me very sad to see the breakup of the, of the Pac 12. And I think it was so unnecessary, but the world of sports as we’ve known it, has really suffered from weak leadership at the NCAA level. And, uh, it’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle. So American collegiate sports is unique in the world.
There’s not any other nation that really has it to the level of fandom, if you will, and interest and passion that exists in university sports in the United States. And that’s kind of hanging by a thread right now with the weak leadership and the wild, wild west of the [00:11:00] portiles and NIL and where we go from there.
And the first proposal from the executive director of the N. C. A. A. Is very worse than it just misses the whole point. There’s nobody really that’s looking out for sports and the vacuum that the NCAA created that the television network stepped in and they provide leadership, but they’re not really interested in the sport.
They’re interested in the TV eyeballs and the revenue from the ads. So we’ve got leadership that it really isn’t interested in the sport as it is. And, uh, so it’s a worrisome situation and nobody’s for sure knows where it’s going to go and there’s no mandate that says American sports has to succeed.
AJ Maestas: Right. That’s true. Well, I mean, you’ve spent a lifetime building a business, defending that business. Again, those who have the benefit of having Red Shoe Dog know that the highs and lows of what looks like an obvious success now, right, that it doesn’t come easy. Is there anything you can think, [00:12:00] um, organizationally, you know, governance wise, you know, I always worry about the incentive structure, right?
That there’s not a great deal of incentive. There is no steward. There is no sort of person whose job it is and, and a significant incentive for them financially and otherwise to make sure that it’s taken care of in the longterm. Can you think of anything that you could or would do in your experience to make for An organization that does, you know, forge a positive future.
Phil Knight: Well, first of all, as I said, I don’t think anybody is asking what the sport need. So for football, for example, if you got Mack Brown and three or four other really respected coaches in a room, they’d come up with a solution in two hours. Uh, but nobody’s asking them. For me, they’re trying to squeeze too many elements into one bottle.
You’re not going to unpay athlete, particularly in football, that’s, that’s here to stay. And so it really makes sense to me to have three different divisions [00:13:00] and with each having a commissioner. You’d have the football division, you have the basketball division, which was men’s and women’s basketball, and then you’d have Olympic sports.
And they all have different economics, and to try to squeeze them all into one group, looking out for all the athletes in all three of those distinct areas. It’s something that’s basically impossible.
AJ Maestas: There is a decent amount of talk about, you know, football being administered and managed on its own. You know, people will say, you know, let the CFP run it or whatever.
But, uh, that is something that feels like it has, I hate to call it momentum. Because I think when you hear sort of journalists and people in public talk about where college athletics is going. They don’t have that lens to view the real decision making, right, and the authority that presidents have and the incentive structure that presidents have.
But there is some talk, so I’ll, I’ll say it anyway and say there’s some momentum for people openly discussing and considering that you could split those things up for management like that. But But I still worry. I don’t know how you felt about the CFP decision for participation in the [00:14:00] playoff and things along those lines.
But you know, the CFP is an independent entity sits separate of the NCAA doesn’t have to worry about that many NCAA issues. They do have this panel of experts making that decision. There are Respected coaches on that panel. And again, I feel like I’m making my opinion obvious when I asked this question, but the process of selection for the playoff this year, didn’t feel right to me, you know, that’s pretty brutal to see Florida state get left out as an undefeated power vibe conference champion.
And so sometimes I worry who, who in the world can we put into this system, you know, to make a best for all decision.
Phil Knight: Oh, yeah. I think the problem wasn’t the decision as much as it was the format and they got to pick four. And, you know, Georgia has got a great case, they lost one game by three points and they were number one all year and they’re sitting, uh, sitting home on, uh, the playoffs.
And, uh, if you’re going to have a four term playoff, the people in that committee did the best they could. And there’s always an argument. You take the four most deserving [00:15:00] teams or the four best teams. And those are not always the same thing. And Florida state, which had a fabulous year. Lost their quarterback and the decision was they’re not as good as they were when they had the possible Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback.
So it wasn’t necessarily the decision I would have made, but I can’t really fault them for the decision. And it was really hard, but we’re going to go again next year. We’ll have 12. And those arguments between 12 and 13 and 14 and 11, those are going to be just as serious and just as impassioned. I
AJ Maestas: agree.
People keep saying it would have solved the problem if we had a 12 team playoff, but there’s, yeah, how do you feel about 12, 13, 14 or 11, 12, 13, but also the, the top four get a buy, essentially, which is a pretty big deal.
Phil Knight: That I don’t like that. That’s really an unfair advantage for sure.
AJ Maestas: Yeah. I mean, if you.
If you just assume everyone has an equal chance of beating each other, that effectively doubles, you know, the probability of winning a national championship to get that bias. So whoever gets four versus [00:16:00] five would have seen an unbelievable advantage.
Phil Knight: Well, that’s going to be a huge argument next year, too, in four versus five, because the one more game for the five is very, very much a
AJ Maestas: disadvantage.
Yeah. And I assume if they go on and win, they find themselves playing the tougher opponent. Well, it depends on how the seating goes, but yeah, not that I’m rooting for chaos or anything, but, uh, just for fun, thinking back to the way it used to work, Florida state’s undefeated. And I agree, Georgia, what they, they hadn’t lost a game in three years.
They’d been dominant. If Florida state goes and beats Georgia in the orange bowl where they play, you know, and you could argue Georgia is the best team in the nation and a one lost team goes on to win the CFP playoff. So you have Texas or Alabama win the CFP. I could see, I could see voters, you know, saying undefeated Florida State over, uh, you know, one loss, you know, whoever.
So I don’t know, it could be the final time we see a split national championship.
Phil Knight: Maybe but, but certainly if Florida State beats Georgia, you’ll get the chaos that you hope for. Yeah,
AJ Maestas: exactly. I did. [00:17:00] I don’t want to be on the record of hoping for it, but it’d be kind of fun to me. It would be fun. Well, with Oregon’s brand, when you look back at it over all those years, there’ve been so many exceptional things.
The thing that. Stands out to me as Joey Harrington, putting them on a billboard in New York city and times square things that just, there’s no one had the guts or, or vision to do these kinds of things. And I know you did that again this year with Bownix and we had the chance to talking about that well before it was executed, but does anything stand out to you the way that does to me of.
The steps and investments that you took collectively with the university for this meteoric rise of Oregon, you know, up this poles and performance. What stands out? Well, I
Phil Knight: think the two of those things were really helpful in the process and I was involved in both of those decisions and Oregon was coming on when the Joey Harrington years, it was under the radar.
So we said we got to wake up the country club and it’s just sort of a principle in advertising that Wyden and Kennedy has always follows is don’t let them shrug their shoulders. So, uh, we had [00:18:00] to wake up the country club, as Andre Agassi used to say, and those two things were helpful, but it would have been embarrassing if he had done those billboards and the team would have bombed.
Joey Harrington’s team only lost one game. There was a real argument that they should have played for the national championship, but they just weren’t quite as loud as Florida State. But uh, Yeah. They only lost one game and dominated the Colorado, which had beaten Nebraska, which was given the national championship.
AJ Maestas: Isn’t that transitivity game is so maddening when you look back and you think about if it’s tough to pick four, picking two to play in the championship game. So, um, widening Kennedy, you mentioned, and for those who don’t know, longtime creative agency for Nike, it sounds like they were directly involved or you were just using their principles to guide your actions.
They were very much
Phil Knight: involved this
AJ Maestas: year. Yeah, very cool. That’s the big guns coming to help an athletic department. No doubt. I’m guessing they don’t pay full freight being a friend of Phil Knight. And
Phil Knight: I’m going to the poor house either.
AJ Maestas: Yeah, I don’t think so. I figured not. So [00:19:00] when NIL first became this mainstream thing and there were so many questions about what to do apparel contracts, what’s going to happen with athletes.
I have to think you received a million phone calls. How has NIL impacted how you feel about apparel deals with universities?
Phil Knight: Well, they’re at risk to some extent, so actually, overall, it doesn’t matter to Nike. I mean, we have the NFL deal where each player has his own shoe deal, and the shoes in college, we have to deal with the university on what their players are going to wear.
I think the NIL deal challenges that a little bit, but it doesn’t bother us, whichever rule they want to take, whichever rule that people go by. But the NIL, the college sports is the only major league where there is no salary cap. So it’s, uh, it’s really the wild, wild west. And at some point, somebody should put rules around that whole thing because it’s got the chaos yet.
That ought to make you happy. That’s because that’s really chaotic. Yeah. There again, I think somebody that really [00:20:00] wants to look after the sport. And there, I think, you know, respected college coaches are probably should have some input into all of this. And that isn’t to say that you’re going to pay less for NIL, but it just ought to have some rules.
AJ Maestas: don’t love that chaos, but I actually think it’s going to get us to a better place because Certainly we’ve proven there’s a marketplace for these kids. So, you know, we were restricting their ability to earn, but I hate how it’s putting administrators at odds. They’ve spent their whole careers believing in amateurism and that athletes shouldn’t and couldn’t be paid.
And those are the rules. Those are the NCAA rules. That’s the law of the NCAA. And now they’re having to sort of toe the line and flirt with that concept, right? It’s kind of, it’s against this decades, century old ethos that they’ve lived under that, you know, they got into the sport and believed, and now, you know, you will fall behind the times if you don’t jump on board with NIL and tier point, no anti tampering policy, you know, no free agency window.
It’s just a free for all the time, no salary cap. But how do you do those things, right? Without giving someone a seat at the table to collectively bargain, [00:21:00] you know, and make those trade off choices. Well, I think
Phil Knight: that will ultimately happen. But, but I don’t either there’ll be employees or they’ll just be empowered some way.
But there again, I think football is different than track, my old sport, trying to have the same rules for both muddies up the whole thing.
AJ Maestas: Yeah, no, I just instantly got an image of. You and Bowerman and a waffle iron and the first pair of track shoes and Nike and, and, uh, yeah, I mean, if we were back there in that time and day, Nike could have endorsed all those athletes, right?
You could have had a direct relationship with all the best runners in the world. Oregon would have won every National championship from then to today
Phil Knight: in one thing. And that is we didn’t have any money. So we wouldn’t have been able to pay very many athletes.
AJ Maestas: Yeah. Yeah. Well, for those who get to read the book, you know, even though it was maybe small checks, but there was something there.
Well, I would have thought that NIL would have led to the major apparel brands. So not just referring to, you know, Nike and what you created, I would have thought that that had them racing to sign the sure [00:22:00] thing prospect, you know, to beat everyone to the punch, you know, to lock them into long term deals, anticipating a future.
Pro career, but that hasn’t happened. I don’t know if you have a opinion on that too, but are you at all surprised Nike isn’t already signing deals with individual athletes, long term, large deals, not
Phil Knight: under the existing rules. Because, uh, essentially a athlete that competes for a Nike school, he can sign, he has the right to sign with a different brand, but he can’t wear that brand on the field when he’s most noticeable.
So individual deals that are different than the brand that the university endorses, they’re out there, but they’re, they’re very, very few of them.
AJ Maestas: Oh, I got to think the apparel deals filter down to the athletes and quality gear and support and a lot of swag, but not near as much as if they had the rights like the pro sports leagues do to go do their own individual deals.
So you can tell me if you disagree, but it feels like that’s something that will end up coming. I think
Phil Knight: that’s the direction it’s headed.
AJ Maestas: Yeah, I get the [00:23:00] sense that you didn’t love NIL in the beginning, but is it fair to say you’re all in now? I assume you’re supporting Oregon in a big
Phil Knight: way. No, I don’t. I still don’t like it, uh, in the sense that, uh, it needs to have some rules.
It just create chaos intentionally almost. And I don’t like all of that. But it is what the rules are now. So you’re either going to recognize that or drop out. And so we’ve recognized it.
AJ Maestas: Yeah. We’ve seen a number of people who are reticent to jump in, you know, slow to move. And they’re really feeling that pain right now.
You know, as you and I talk right now, it’s this key sort of window for transfers. And at a point in which everyone’s had a couple of years to get their arms around it, it’s, it’s pretty clear, right. That it’s a part of the decision making criteria as it would be for any of us. Right. We we’d all. Want to know our total benefit package right into trading off our time and talent.
It feels like those are holding back or boy, it’s, it’s going to be tough. It’s going to be tough.
Phil Knight: I’ll tell you another side of the NIL story that, uh, is that nobody’s looked at, but what does a donor do? And [00:24:00] obviously Oregon doesn’t have as many donors as a lot of, a lot of schools. So we’ve worked hard to try to get the ones we have to contribute.
Some of ’em have actually, they, it’s been pretty good for such a small school, but you get some people that say, no, I’m not contributing to the Oregon NIL, which is called Division Street. I’m not contributing to that because I don’t approve of NIL. And I said, you’re gonna renew your season tickets. Oh yeah.
I really like watching football. They don’t understand the conflict that there are two, two visions.
AJ Maestas: Yeah. Well, I’ve had that exact conversation. Uh, I, I can think of a, a quote that I won’t attribute where someone basically says, I don’t wanna be seen as. In a bidding war for a defensive end, and I didn’t say this at the time, but I later had a chat with that athletic director sort of saying, and this athletic director was essentially saying, uh, yeah, that’s the problem here, right?
That people have this expectation for winning and competing without this connection to how it’s going to be possible to produce that. Yeah. If you want to see wins, I I’ve got to think donors [00:25:00] as they come around to it will recognize that the quickest way to impact a positive outcome on the field is directly with those student athletes, right?
So, yeah, we’ll see. What do you wish was happening with NIL? You believe collective representation and, uh, representation and negotiation, and then there’s a cap, kind of like the pro leagues, or? It’s just
Phil Knight: like the NFL. They’ve, uh, you know, the idea that, uh, That the college football is not a pro league, uh, is wrong.
It’s already, it’s not whether they’re going to be pro or not. They’re pro. Yeah. And the most successful league in all sports is the NFL. So look what they do and try to follow that.
AJ Maestas: Yeah, I agree. But it’s hard to see it happening without intervention from the government and Congress and the Senate and stuff like that.
Phil Knight: makes you nervous, doesn’t it?
AJ Maestas: Yeah. What I would say is that, you know What are you doing with your business if the, if, if politicians and the speed at which they operate are having to step in and move you. But I was reminded by a friend recently that the NCAA is almost always reactive, you know, that some external force and externality [00:26:00] forces them to react and then they do.
So, yeah, it makes me nervous, but I’m hard pressed to find out how exactly it’ll move along without that.
Phil Knight: It’ll get there someday. It’s just like you say, uh, NCAA moves pretty slowly.
AJ Maestas: Yeah. Okay. Well, to move off of Oregon, uh, if you don’t mind me asking, this is a big question, but what do you see as your legacy in collegiate athletics and with Oregon in particular?
Phil Knight: Well, I, I don’t give that any thought at all, that, uh, I just do the best I can at what I do and whatever they say about me after I’m gone is you never can control that. And, but that is the reason that I wrote the book Shoe Dog, is that after I’m gone, a lot of people will, will say a lot of things that aren’t true.
And I just wanted my side of the story to come out at least on the, on how we started. And, uh, so that’s why I finally did it. And, uh, it got the story told. Okay. Yeah.
AJ Maestas: Yeah. A mutual friend of ours said exactly that, that you were, you were not keen on doing that. But, uh, at that point, it was probably the right time [00:27:00] to have your story told in perpetuity.
Is there anything you would have done differently looking back? Oh, I’ve
Phil Knight: made a ton of mistakes, but, uh, I wouldn’t trade places with anybody. It’s, uh, it’s been everything I could have hoped for.
AJ Maestas: Yeah, I have a feeling a lot of people wouldn’t, uh, would say the same thing. If they’d live your life, they wouldn’t trade places.
But yeah, but if one comes into your mind, it’s so fun to hear about regrets or what people would change. So don’t be shy and sharing if something pops into your head here. Oh,
Phil Knight: you know, there were regrets in it that I listed at the end of a shoe dog. And one of them was that, uh, we didn’t get a renewal on our contract with Bo Jackson.
I didn’t do it all by myself. I didn’t screw that up all by myself, but I, uh, I regret that, that we didn’t do that. And we have. I made amends with Bo emotionally, and uh, so I feel good about that. And then there were things when we went public that I didn’t take care of certain people that I wished I would have.
And those are two of the things that I regretted in, in Shoe Dog, but I don’t have a lot of regrets. I, I, and regrets are different than [00:28:00] mistakes. And, uh, I’ve made a ton of mistakes, but I don’t have a lot of regrets.
AJ Maestas: That’s good to hear. I’m, I’m in a place where I’m going to face some, a similar situation here, not at the scale of Nike, obviously, but that’s a good one to remember.
I appreciate you, you’re sharing that. What tips could you give to entrepreneurs in sports business, uh, any keys to success you’d be willing to share?
Phil Knight: First thing is that, uh, you got to do something you love doing something you love by itself. Isn’t going to make you successful. You have to do something that you love because you’re going to take, have a lot of downtimes that are really dark.
Sometimes those can last for a long time. But the other thing is you have to have some reason to succeed. And if you don’t have the two combined, you’re not going to be successful. So a lot of people say, Oh, I love photography. I’m going to, well, they can’t just be a good photographer by itself. You got to have some skills or some learning that allows you to be better than the other guy.
For us. We always said about the competition, they’re flying over the wrong ocean and that we had our [00:29:00] shoes made in Asia. Which gave us a competitive advantage over the shoes at the time were being the number one and number two companies in the world of sports shoes were both German and they were manufacturers.
They manage their shoes. Now they get all their shoes from Asia, but it took them 20 years to react, which is a good thing for us.
AJ Maestas: I just had lunch with Peter Ruppe, if you remember him. Yeah. And, uh, He was sharing some old Nike stories about, and you’re absolutely right. I mean, right now it’d be obvious to everyone in the world that betting on Asia was the right direction, but he shared some stories about opening up Korea in particular.
Uh, you know, and I think he had spent time in Japan and others before that, but you know, the state of Korea and it had to be like 78 or something like that, that you had him move there. That was some visionary stuff because they weren’t ready, right. They weren’t ready to produce it at world class level.
But when you count costs and sometimes you have to help them get there. Yeah, no question. That was a good bet. Yeah. And it was, it’s funny
Phil Knight: cause you know, trying to find people to go over there and do quality control. [00:30:00] Was, was a challenge in those early years and the, the number one importer of, uh, Asian shoes was Mitsubishi under a guy named Jonas center, who was, uh, who just set it up and they were selling millions of pairs of shoes.
And so they got the, the industries over there kind of halfway up in terms of what you wanted in terms of quality, but they didn’t have the passion for getting great shoes. And, uh, but they had a lot of people that had been in the shoe industry, a lot of them, particularly from great Britain, and there’s no such thing as a shoe school.
So we said, we’ll take, we’ll, instead of those. Old guys at the end of their careers that really don’t give a damn will take the young guys that don’t know so much, but they’re enthusiastic and really care. And that formula worked too. Clearly.
AJ Maestas: So you mentioned earlier in our conversation that, uh, we all know Oregon’s role in the birthplace of Nike, but you mentioned Stanford, uh, sharing in that as well.
Do you mind expounding on that? Well,
Phil Knight: I took a course in entrepreneurship. [00:31:00] There was only one course in the two years that you could take in entrepreneurship. Now the heck, they have about five, but, uh, but, uh, that’s, that’s where I wrote the paper that, uh, eventually I said, I’m going to try and make that work.
That class really developed the first business plan. Yeah.
AJ Maestas: I did not know that. If that was in the book, I somehow forgot that, but, uh, that’s great.
Phil Knight: That part, we said, we only have, they’ll only give us 400 pages. So that, uh, what are we going to tell a story of? So we started after I’d gotten out of Stanford.
AJ Maestas: Interesting. Yeah. Well, you think of all the incredibly successful businesses born out of Stanford and to think it was, uh, out of a class entrepreneurship paper that is, uh, yeah, it might be the most sexy of them all. So good for you. So much has been written about you that this might be an impossible question, but What is one thing that most people don’t know about you?
Phil Knight: think there’s probably a lot of misconception. I’m a private person, so I haven’t had a lot of publicity considering, you know, where Nike had been. But I have, you know, because to some [00:32:00] extent I’m seen as a bit of a rebel. And, uh, that advertising when the first peak, Nike was the first company really to bring advertising to sports shoe business.
And, uh, that worked really well for us. Some people think of me as a flamethrower, but sometimes you have to throw flames, but I’m basically a private person and a shy person. And, uh, if I get up to talk for 30 people, all friendly people at Nike, I get nervous. And to this day,
AJ Maestas: is it fair to say you’re an introvert?
Yes, it is. How about that? Yeah, you’re right. This company that is so progressive, so flamboyant, so visible with such a powerful brand always rated among the top. One, two, three in the world founded and built by an introvert who’s shy. That’s interesting. Well, that would be another podcast. Cause I would kill to understand how that was born out of your vision, out of your mind.
But I would love to wrap up with just a couple of rapid fire questions, if you’re willing. All right. [00:33:00] Favorite Nike commercial of all time. Revolution. Can you
Phil Knight: describe it? Yes, you bet that, uh, we were getting beat. Reebok went by us. And by standards of these days, it wasn’t a huge volume business, but they got to a billion dollars before we got to a billion dollars.
And uh, the day that I realized they went by, I went off and had a two hour lunch all by myself. It was a hard, hard day. We decided that. We made better shoes than they did. We decided that we were more innovative than they were and that their business was kind of a fad and kind of something that was really going on.
So we decided that really for the first time that we would have a television advertising campaign. And that was the revolution campaign where we had, uh, you know, all of our athletes came in, Bo and John McEnroe and Michael Jordan. And they came in and we played it to the Beatles song revolution. And, uh, it was, it was a big gamble, but it was a huge [00:34:00] success and laid the foundation for a lot of advertising that we did in the coming years.
Can you point
AJ Maestas: to sales lift and actual outcomes that you remember the cash register run? It sure did. Yeah. How about that? And I like that you say that fad, you know, Reebok, that’s so true. So often they’ve been writing fitness fads or something, right? They’ve had these sort of this roller coaster experience, but yeah, I love that.
Favorite pair of shoes that you own.
Phil Knight: I’m still a Pegasus guy. I’m a, I like to say I still run, but it is so slow that I get passed by walkers. So, uh, what I really do is walk. And it’s been in the line for 40 years, but it’s still my favorite shoe to walk in. All
AJ Maestas: right. What’s a sporting event that you wish you had attended, but did
Phil Knight: not?
I can’t really think of one. My job was such that if I wanted to go to a sporting event, I could call it business. So I’ve basically seen the ones that I want to see. I
AJ Maestas: pictured you just declining, like, I don’t know, some unbelievable invites, you know, and then this. Historic thing takes place for [00:35:00] those listening.
I’m repeating something you obviously know Phil, but, but we saw this picture just in the press where LeBron James is breaking the scoring record and you know, it’s beautiful, beautiful, you know, just perfect form shot. And in the background, you see everyone under the baseline of the basket. 100 percent of them holding up a phone.
And then there’s this one guy sitting under the basket courtside seat, fully engaged, watching the shot and it’s Phil Knight, our president, Jeff Nelson spotted, and we’re like, Holy shit. We’re like, this is just how, how emblematic is this. So we, just so those listening, we sent Phil a gift that basically says, uh, and I’m going to misremember this, but it basically says, uh, to living in the present moment, one legend, uh, watching another or something along those lines.
I don’t know if you actually hung that, if, uh, if Penny allows that to be in the house, but it’s actually in
Phil Knight: my
AJ Maestas: office. Oh, nice. Okay. There you go. No,
Phil Knight: but I mean, it was a, it was a special night. And, uh, LeBron invited me personally [00:36:00] because he knew this was going to be the night and he had to have I think 32 so it wasn’t obvious he was going to do it, but he knew he was going to do it.
And even his mother was vacationing in the Bahamas and he says come home mom I’m going to do it on this night so she did. And so when I was sitting there, you know, this is the shot that’s going to break it and it says I wanted to absorb the whole thing, and there are a lot better photographers than me in that room.
And so it was obvious decision by on my part. Exactly.
AJ Maestas: It’s so true, right? Everyone’s trying to get their custom photo, but when you know, there’s going to be a million, you know, perfect professional photos, but now they cannot resist. That reminds me, by the way, I know not to reveal too much of your personal life, but what a special relationship you have with so many of these athletes that.
That they directly, you know, you view you as a mentor, as a bridge to their career, to their lives. What a thing to be personally invited, right, by the Michael Jordans of the world, by the LeBron Jameses of the world to come see them play. That’s, that’s kind of cute, almost like a father figure. Been
Phil Knight: a special part of my job, for sure.
AJ Maestas: Yeah, I bet. [00:37:00] If you had never founded Nike, what would your career have been?
Phil Knight: Well, I am a CPA. So, yes. So as is pen, right? I could, as the old joke goes, I could have been a bookkeeper in a whorehouse, uh, that, uh, Well, it if, uh, if I don’t know what I would’ve been, I, I’ve often said, well, it’s Bill Barman really, and never, still Oregon Track Coach, hall of Fame track coach.
That really got me interested in shoes. It was the one thing that made a difference. And I’ve often said, if there is no Bill barman, there is no me, because I would be something entirely different and I’m not sure. What it would be, and I’m not sure I would like it. And I certainly wouldn’t like it as much as what I wound up doing.
AJ Maestas: Well, uh, Whorehouse CPA is pretty good, pretty high margin business. Who knows? Think of the empire you could have built.
But that, that’s a beautiful tribute to Bowerman and a recognition that none of us get there on our own, right? There are so many people, takes a village kind of thing, right? For sure. Yeah. What is at the top [00:38:00] of your bucket list? Oh,
Phil Knight: this is kind of the same answer. I, I’ve done it. I, I keep, uh, you know, uh, staying involved in sports a little bit.
And, uh, but, uh, one thing I haven’t been able to do that I wanted to do was go back to Japan. I haven’t been to Japan for, Almost 20 years and that was where all the finance came from and all the original shoes. And I have still have a lot of friends over there that were there at the beginning. And I was going to go in 2020 when they had the Olympics in Tokyo, and then it got shut down because of COVID.
And when it came back. They didn’t allow any people in the stands. So it was, uh, I didn’t go back and, uh, I may not make it now, but, uh, I have a lot of fond memories of starting in Japan.
AJ Maestas: I’ll stick that in the back. Someone’s going to now offer you a full, fair flight experience to Japan, given all the people you’ve hosted.
In Asia with the factories and the tours and all the things that you’ve done, but I was so lucky. Um, November of 2019, I went to Japan. I remember thinking this is so [00:39:00] dumb. I should come for the Olympics just one year later, but I’m so grateful I did. It was a pretty special place and I know special place in your heart and history, uh, whether that’s blue ribbon sports or Nike or whatever, but what a call back to the beginning and what an amazing country, right?
Amazing people. Yes. Yes.
Phil Knight: I always, I always liked going
AJ Maestas: there. What should I have asked you here today that I haven’t?
Phil Knight: You’ve been pretty good. If this sports agency thing doesn’t work out, I think you could have a future in announcing.
AJ Maestas: Good, good answer. I’m going to take a pretty good job from Phil Knight and I’ll just tuck that away in my little awards closet that I hide here.
But, uh, yeah, well, with, with that said, thank you, Phil, for joining us. And, um, if people listening have any questions or any follow up, you know, you can reach me at AJ@NVGT.com. You can connect with us on my LinkedIn page or the Navigate LinkedIn page. But again, this is A. J. Maestas with Navigate, joined by Phil Knight.
Thank you for joining us on Navigating Squared’s Business. I enjoyed it.[00:40:00]