This article originally appeared in Future Sport magazine. Click here to read the 2021 edition.

Very few athletes in history have risen above their sport to become bigger than it, but Michael Jordan certainly comes into that category. Since making his NBA debut in 1984, Jordan’s success on and off the court has been unprecedented and has seen him blur the line between most valuable player and most valuable asset. Here, Future Sport takes a look at the numbers behind Brand Jordan…

Which athlete was the highest paid in the world in 2020? Roger Federer? Lionel Messi? Cristiano Ronaldo?

Wrong, wrong and wrong. According to Forbes these were the top three earning current athletes, however, the man truly at the top of the list stopped playing his sport nearly 18 years ago.

Widely considered the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan continues to transcend his sport almost two decades after hanging up his famous sneakers. A six-time NBA championship winner, five-time MVP and double Olympic gold medallist, he’s seen it all and won it all.

However, it’s perhaps off the court and in the bank account of his sponsors where he’s had the most impact and continues to have it.

In 2019 he pulled in $130m from long-time sponsor Nike. To put that in context, Forbes say that 2020’s top earner, tennis player Federer, earnt $106m over the year from endorsements and tournament winnings.

As we learnt watching The Last Dance on Netflix, that Nike deal almost didn’t happen. Jordan was determined to sign with Adidas in 1984 but his agent David Falk had other ideas. With Jordan refusing to get on the plane to sign the deal, Falk rang his mum.

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Nike, at the time an athletics brand with no foothold in basketball, offered rookie Jordan $250,000 and his own shoe line – Air Jordan. Hoping to sell $3m of Air Jordans that year, Nike sold over $120m. The rest, as they say, is history.

First Chicago, then America and finally the world went Jordan crazy. There had been sporting icons in the years before Jordan – Muhammed Ali; Pele and Billie Jean King to name a few – but none had done what Jordan was about to do: become a global brand. Make no mistake – the ‘brand’ of Serena Williams, David Beckham and Tiger Woods wouldn’t exist without Jordan.

Growing up in New York at the time was Fabulous Flournoy, now a coach at 2019 NBA champions Toronto Raptors. Speaking to Future Sport, he said: “Jordan drove culture at that point in time. You wanted to be like him even before the ‘Be Like Mike’ commercial came out.

“If you couldn’t be like him on the court you wanted to look like him and walk like him. That’s what changed the whole culture of basketball and created an international market for the game.”

It’s estimated Jordan earned approximately $30m a year in endorsements from the likes of Nike, Gatorade and Hanes – around $50m in 2020 – which was more than ten times his Bulls’ salary.

In the early 1990s, just as the Chicago Bulls were about to win the first of six championships, Jordan was earning $2.5m a season. However, it was his commercial value at the time that helped make him worth a net $1.6bn today. It’s estimated Jordan earned approximately $30m a year in endorsements from the likes of Nike, Gatorade and Hanes – around $50m in 2020 – which was more than ten times his Bulls’ salary.

The Toronto Raptors’ debut in the NBA came in the 1995/96 season – the same year Jordan’s Bulls won their fourth championship. Watching at the time was Torontonian Sharona Friedman, GIS’ President. Like most Canadians at the time, basketball was barely on the radar – until Jordan came along.

“Marketing is probably the most powerful tool in creating cultures and societies,” Sharona says. “As a Canadian growing up basketball wasn’t in Toronto – we had hockey. I can honestly say that my love of sport started because of Jordan and his marketing presence coupled with his talent.

“Everything about him – the shoes, drinking Gatorade – it became a culture that was so different to hockey and gave us an alternative sport to get into. I think it’s testament not just of Jordan’s abilities, but his marketing that made basketball a cultural phenomenon. That’s the power of sport.”

To new basketball fans or those who weren’t around at the height of Jordan’s career, the iconic ‘jump man’ logo has become synonymous with the Nike and Air Jordan brand. So much so, the brand has started to operate away from basketball and can be seen worn by the likes of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe on the match day shirts of Paris Saint Germain.

Recognising Jordan and his team’s business acumen, Fabulous pointed out that Jordan knew how to monetise the culture he was responsible for creating. He said: “Whether it was Michael Jordan or the Jordan brand, you knew what it represented. Sport has a way of transcending all boundaries and I think Jordan figured that out and figured it out as a businessman.

“There were iconic athletes before him but none of them branched out into other forms of business. Jordan and his team helped to create that to a point where not only did they want to be dominant on the court, but also off of it.”