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The Jordans Rule: The Heart of Today’s Billion-Dollar Sneaker-Collecting Boom Is 35 Years Old

Nowadays, sneakers aren’t just for wearing. They’re an asset class, on display at museums, and fueling an increasingly profitable resale market. Much of that traces back to Nike putting a superstar rookie’s name on a new pair of kicks in 1985. 

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The Air Jordan 1 is many things at once: It’s the first signature shoe for the greatest basketball player ever, the sneaker that changed collecting forever, and a classic that evokes nostalgia and connects generations. It’s also the most popular sneaker of today, with hundreds of different versions produced in the past decade. This week, with all things Michael Jordan returning to the public consciousness thanks to The Last Dance, The Ringer will explore the AJ1’s history, the resale market it still dominates, and how Nike and Jordan Brand are positioning the model for the future.

Rolo Tanedo Jr. had waited 12 years for this moment, but when the box containing a pair of original gray-and-white Air Jordan 1 lows arrived on his doorstep in early April, he initially couldn’t bring himself to open it.

This was the culmination of what began as a sneakerhead’s pipe dream in July 2008, when the longtime Nike Dunk collector bought a pair of OG 1985 Metallic Blue 1s and set out to do something he thought would be impossible: obtain every publicly released original Air Jordan from the 1s to the 14s. “I got that pair and I was like, ‘Man, this is really cool, just owning these. I wonder if I can do this,’” he says. So Tanedo began scouring—first the Sole Collector and NikeTalk forums, and later Instagram, which debuted in 2010—and tracking every lead possible. He also set some ground rules: Every pair from the AJ 5s up had to be in his size (men’s 9 or 9.5) and come with the original box. He’d accept the 1s through 4s in mostly any size and condition, given their age.

Slowly, the Jordans piled up. A few pairs, he had to pay more than $1,000 for. Some, like the Aqua 8s, he scored for free thanks to a friend’s generous dad. By the beginning of 2020, he had accumulated 85 of the 86. One, however, eluded him: the gray-and-white low 1s, which he saw once years earlier on eBay but passed on because of a $10,000 buy-it-now price. “There’s a lot more I can do with 10 grand than [buy] a pair of shoes that I know I’m not going to wear,” Tanedo says. But then, in March came a breakthrough: A friend hyped him to a Canadian reseller who reportedly had a few pairs. Tanedo reached out, and after a few weeks of back-and-forth, the seller finally agreed to part with a pair—and almost unbelievably, in Size 9 and for less than $1,000. Finally, Tanedo had purchased his 86th original Air Jordan, completing his decade-plus odyssey.

Now he just had to open the box.

“I’m kind of nervous,” Tanedo says. “I was like, ‘Damn, the moment you open this, it’s done. What you were trying to achieve back then, little did you know you were going to complete it.’”

While Tanedo is in rarefied air among collectors, his story highlights how sneakerheads’ passion for Jordans has helped turn the resale market into a $2 billion industry whose value is expected to triple by 2025, in part thanks to growth in China. The people camping out for days or weeks for drops aren’t just rabid collectors any longer. They’re also speculators who have learned the art of the hustle, copping just to flip to people who missed out on the lottery or couldn’t wait in line or score on the Nike SNKRS app. The kicks themselves are now considered an asset class—wearable pieces of art on display in museums, sold at Sotheby’s auctions, and big enough to make Kanye West a billionaire. And much of that traces back to Nike’s decision to put a superstar NBA rookie’s name on a new pair of basketball shoes back in 1985 with the Air Jordan 1.

“The Jordan 1 was truly a transcendent shoe. … It remains one of the most profitable sneakers with someone’s name on it,” says Matt Cohen, vice president of business development at sneaker-reselling marketplace GOAT. “That paved the way for the likes of Kanye. That paved the way for the likes of LeBron.”

The first Air Jordan also paved the way for a lot of people who never designed a shoe or played basketball to get very rich, and continues to do so. Even 35 years later, as the industry it reinvented has grown to include thousands of other shoes and a resale exchange covering millions of sales each year, the AJ1 maintains a special place in the sneaker resale market. And in many ways, it’s still defining it.

Josh Luber realized something was different in 2000, when he walked into his local mall to buy the first Jordan 11 Concord retros. He asked the two sales associates for a pair of 10.5s, and they stared at each other, and then at him, and then confessed their plans.

“They were like, ‘We were going to sell those on eBay,’” Luber recalls. “I was like, ‘No, bullshit. I’m buying that.’ And then I wore them to play basketball in for the next year and a half.”

Fifteen years later, Luber would cofound StockX, a sneaker and clothing marketplace that was valued at $1 billion in 2019. But at the turn of the century, shoe collecting was just becoming a formidable internet business. While sneaker collecting had been around in some form since the birth of hip-hop and b-boy culture in the late 1970s, it remained the realm of the obsessive and well-sourced for much of the ’80s and early ’90s. Then eBay, the auction site that launched in 1995, opened people’s collections to the world, and forums like NikeTalk (founded in 1999) and Sole Collector (founded in 2003) gave a newly online community a place to congregate. Suddenly, Luber says, the sneaker underground had been exposed to the light, allowing people to see many original classics—and what they sold for—for the first time.

“Now I could find all of these shoes that I could never find before,” Luber says. “Before you’d have to travel to places and hope to find them, and it was just absolutely impossible. We were all looking at eBay, and we were all just blown away by the prices.”

As revelatory as they seemed at the time, many of those prices were modest by 2020 standards, even accounting for inflation. Luber, who was fresh out of college when he bought those Concords, remembers seeing a shoe that previously retailed for $100 selling for $180 on eBay. He scoffed. Today, his company features thousands of shoes selling for more than $1,000. And while eBay remains a big piece of the market—5.7 million sneakers were sold in North America on the website in 2019 alone—sneaker buying and reselling now demand their own platforms, most prominently StockX and GOAT.

The maturation came about slowly, but a major shift in sneaker-consumption habits around the turn of the century played a role, says Russ Bengtson, a former Complex editor and author of the upcoming book The History of Basketball in 15 Sneakers. As Jordan Brand and others began retroing shoes like the Air Jordan 1 en masse and dropping ultralimited releases in the early 2000s, it drove interest in classic silhouettes and boosted the value of new releases. The masses became more interested, long lines for big drops became the new norm, and suddenly, owning a lot of shoes was no longer seen as a strange obsession.

“You had a whole group of people who ordinarily would’ve only had a couple pairs of shoes thinking nothing of having 10 or 20,” Bengtson says. “So it’s not only an expansion of the market but also the people who made up the most dedicated part of that market were buying so many more among themselves.”

EBay allowed resellers and collectors from around the world to connect in a mass scale for the first time: No longer did would-be buyers have to rely on finding a pair of shoes at a local store—they could search for them on the web, and track them down from practically anywhere. “It just all became accessible,” Bengtson says.

But eBay wasn’t always the most efficient process; there’s little price consistency and no authentication process, and some sellers pack listings with unrelated keywords to catch buyers looking for other shoes. As the market matured, that opened a path for sneaker-focused sellers.

Among the first was Flight Club, a store started in New York in 2005 that authenticated sneakers and allowed them to be bought and sold on the internet. Because Flight Club was the first of its kind catering to the sneaker market when it was first exploding, the shop became something of a mecca for collectors, both in person and online. “Flight Club really transcended the so-called globalization of the sneaker industry,” says Cohen, whose company, GOAT, purchased Flight Club in 2018 for an undisclosed amount.

Ten years after Flight Club, both GOAT and StockX launched. The two industry-leading, competing sneaker platforms each had a similar goal: to standardize the reselling market and make it easier for people to buy and sell sneakers through their apps. There are subtle distinctions between the two (StockX allows people to sell only new or deadstock shoes, while GOAT permits used ones; StockX allows users to track their portfolio as if they were trading on Wall Street, and GOAT has struck endorsement deals with basketball players like Kyle Kuzma and Rui Hachimura), but business is booming for each, which both take cuts that typically hover around 10 percent for each transaction. Both companies declined to offer revenue figures, but StockX has previously said its monthly sales top $100 million, while GOAT received a $100 million investment from Foot Locker in 2019.

Those may seem like eye-popping figures—as eye popping as the price on a pair of Off-White 1s or OG Bred 1s—but as with any other commodity, the market dictates the price.

“The value of a sneaker at any given time is just supply and demand,” Luber says. “It’s very pure.”

Jaysse Lopez understands the sneaker supply-and-demand proposition better than most. After all, it’s helped transform him from living on the streets to becoming one of the most popular resellers around.

A New Jersey native, Lopez arrived in Las Vegas in 2001, and says he was homeless for his first six months there. One day early after his arrival in Sin City, he came across a line outside Foot Locker. He had never seen anything like it, so he asked a group to explain, and they gave him a quick lesson on shoe economics: They were waiting for a sneaker drop so they wouldn’t have to pay the marked-up resale price, a concept that was then unfamiliar to him. “That was on a Thursday night,” he says. “The shoes were releasing on a Saturday.”

Lopez, who grew up loving sneakers but was far from what could be classified as a sneakerhead, had an idea: What if he waited in line for the group members so they could go to work or be at home until Saturday morning rolled around? They bit on the plan and tossed him a few bucks, and his new hustle was born.

Between panhandling, buying and reselling bottles of water, and standing in sneaker lines for others, Lopez was able to get his life back on track. He signed a lease on an apartment, found a job with a cellphone company, and bought a car. By his account, things were going well for a while. But then, around 2012, he had to take medical leave from work, he says. And then, shortly after he returned, he lost the job. And then he found himself living with his new girlfriend, Joanie Barangan, and her parents. After finally feeling like he had things figured out, he was back to square one.

“I applied for over 100 jobs, and couldn’t find one,” Lopez says.

A few months later in early 2013, while sitting in a doctor’s office, he saw an ad on his phone for a pair of shoes—the Barkley Foamposites—and had another sneaker idea: What if he got in on the reselling game that he learned about all those years before? Barangan wasn’t sold on the idea at first, Lopez says, but by the time they dropped on All-Star Weekend, she was onboard, and the couple lined up outside NikeTown. This time, however, Lopez wasn’t waiting in line for another person. He and Barangan convinced a few of the other people waiting to let them buy their extras, they flipped them on eBay over next week, and their new business was born.

“We bought 18 and sold 17 in six hours, even though I had never posted about shoes ever,” Lopez says. “$200 profit on every shoe. First time out the gate.”

Later in 2013, Lopez and Barangan—who are now married—launched a reselling website called Two Js Kicks. The next year, they rebranded as Urban Necessities and opened a brick-and-mortar consignment shop, where resellers and collectors of all walks bring in their sneakers to put on sale. Urban Necessities, which takes a 10 percent cut of each transaction, sees about 500 sneakers come in on a daily basis, Lopez says. It generated $21 million in sales last year.

“There’s the guy or girl that hits that raffle and brings me one and you won’t see them again for a few months, to the guy or girl that’s constantly emailing, asking, ‘Hey, can you send me lists of what you don’t have, what’s selling well, so I can fill those sizes?’” Lopez says. “Then sometimes you get that influencer, or athlete, or the son of an athlete, who’s like, ‘Hey, I got this player exclusive that was allocated to so and so, and I want to sell it.’ We have everybody, man.”

One consigner in particular highlights how the sneaker game has changed in the past decade: a teenager who Lopez says convinced his parents to let him get a credit card to start a reselling business. Lopez says the kid will go on a spending spree online, grab a lot of sneakers, and bring them in to Urban Necessities to resell, and by the time the credit card bill comes in, he’s made enough to pay it off.

“This kid’s done like six figures this year,” Lopez says. “Sixteen years old, wearing a $15,000 Rolex.”

Sneaker flipping has even gotten to the point where Lopez’s mom, who didn’t fully understand his love of shoes when he was young, can take part in it. Two years ago, Lopez filmed a YouTube video in which he took shoes that Urban Necessities consigners had set for below-market prices and showed his mom how simple it would be for her to make a few bucks. She sat on the shoes—which included the Shadow 1s and the Game Royals—for a few months and made at least $50 off each.

“When you were younger, your parents were like, ‘Yo, stop spending your money on this shit,’” Lopez says. “Now I see her go from that attitude to, ‘Hey, do you think I should put in raffle tickets for this? Should I go buy that?’ She went from having one pair of shoes to 10 pairs easy.”

At the core of the resale business sits Jordan Brand—and more specifically, the Air Jordan 1. Luber says that while Nike and Adidas have traded places as the most resold brands in the past five years, the swoosh currently commands between 50 and 60 percent of the overall market. Of that, he says, Jordans account for as much as 80 percent of Nike’s share. And a large reason for that is the AJ1, which Jordan Brand has steadily ramped up production of in the past decade. There were at least 40 new Jordan 1s in 2016, 44 in 2017, 62 in 2018, and 80 in 2019—outpacing production of the second-most-produced Jordan those years by as much as 400 percent.

While it appears on the surface that Jordan Brand could be risking market saturation with the AJ1, Luber says that the silhouette sits at the crux of all the trends in fashion, sneakers, and streetwear. We exist in a world where Virgil Abloh can be Louis Vuitton’s artistic director and also design a pair of the most hyped Jordan 1s in years—his deconstructed Chicago 1s—and where those shoes can be a bigger financial boon to the resale market than they were to original retailers. It’s also a world where Travis Scott can wear the unreleased Dior AJ1s to Art Basel, the Commes des Garcons collabs pop up at Paris Fashion Week, and Jordan Brand itself can throw its own upscale showcases. The shoe that once found a second life among skaters has found yet another life as the unofficial sneaker of the runway.

“When Paris Fashion Week and NBA All-Star Weekend are indistinguishable from each other except for the central event, convergence has truly taken form,” Luber says. “The Jordan 1, that’s kind of the center of it. It was converging basketball and skateboarding 20, 30 years ago before any of this, and now everything is converged.”

But not every Jordan 1 can fetch over $3,000, like the Off-White Chicagos or Whites routinely do, or even $1,500, like Abloh’s reimagining of the UNC 1s. While StockX did not provide specific figures on average sales amounts, Luber says that roughly 25 percent of StockX’s sneaker inventory sells for less than retail. Many of those are the general-release Jordans, maybe a mid-cut AJ1 that sold at Foot Locker a year or two ago—hardly anyone’s idea of a premium shoe.

This, Cohen says, has the effect of pulling people into the world of AJ1s while giving them something to aspire to. Many brands operate this way: There are entry-level products, which in this case are the mall releases. Then, a level up, there’s the less-exclusive Jordan 1 retros, like the Obsidian UNCs. And, at the highest level, the hero products, like the Off-White 1s, the Travis Scotts, or the Diors.

“I’ll relate it to the car industry, where you can’t sell a $35,000 Toyota if Lexuses don’t start at $45,000,” Cohen says. “Owned by the same brand, but different entry levels. It creates this value proposition inside of a brand. That’s what Jordan does.”

But that may not work for just any shoe—Jordan Brand’s secret weapon is the history it’s built up, the connections people feel to it, and the many ways Jordans can be worn. No model better represents that than the AJ1, says Dylan Dittrich, author of the book Sneakonomic Growth. The shoe is something of a genesis for Michael Jordan’s legend—it’s his first piece of signature footwear, and one that carries the power of a legendary marketing campaign—and it also boasts a sleek, beautiful design that’s only grown more classic as the years have advanced. Peter Moore’s design for the leather high tops with a thin rubber sole may not have been the best version for action on the court, but in many ways they represent the pinnacle of what sneakers can be.

“There really aren’t any basketball sneakers that you can point to that are being released now that instantly become a lifestyle sensation that are worn by people on the street,” Dittrich says. “That’s what made it so special. Then it’s what makes it so special now—its timeless lifestyle appeal that can be iterated on in basically infinite ways.”

The connection people feel to the AJ1 is returning anew, both given the massive spike in new releases in past few years and, more recently, The Last Dance (on which Jordan’s company Jump 23 partnered). As the 10-part ESPN series is drawing record numbers for the network, it’s also pulling people into the resale market. StockX said in an email to The Ringer on Monday that traffic to the Jordans on the marketplace has been up an average of 68 percent on each of the past three Sundays that the documentary has aired. On May 3, the night The Last Dance touched on Michael Jordan’s sneaker origins, traffic to those pages was up 78 percent compared to the typical Sunday. The AJ1 has been the biggest benefactor: Traffic to Jordan 1 pages spiked to its highest point in StockX history on May 3, reaching a figure double what the pages drew in March, the company said. The situation is similar at GOAT, which Cohen says saw massive spikes in Jordan Brand sales the week The Last Dance debuted: a 68 percent week-over-week increase in Jordan sales, and 72 percent jump among Jordans eight years or older.

“It’s still one of the very most popular sellers on the market today,” Dittrich says. “It’s still highly sought after. And there’s so much evidence of its staying power.”

The rise of resellers on platforms like StockX and GOAT hasn’t been without controversy: Their effect on the overall market has been the subject of much debate, and when Nike puts up a limited drop on SNKRS, chances are most of the purchases are coming from resellers’ bots, which they use to trawl sites and buy up as many pairs at they can. (The bots themselves can cost over $300, more than the retail prices of most shoes themselves.) But resellers are also filling a need—they’re bringing shoes to collectors who would’ve otherwise missed out. And there are more collectors than ever: Just look at Sneaker Con, which grew from 600 people at one event in New York in 2009 to a reported 70,000 across 13 annual events by 2019. The sneaker companies are the ones driving hype and releasing only limited amounts—and the demand is clearly there.

“I’m happy to put that extra money in whoever’s pocket because they may need that money,” says Lena Waithe, the actress, screenwriter, and proud resale-market consumer. “That money may be going to their rent. It may be feeding their kids. That’s why I don’t shit on people who resell because they’re making a living.”

Resellers will be here as long as sneakers trade above their retail prices, and there’s 20 years worth of data that suggests the market will continue to grow. But it’s hard to discuss these wearable pieces of art without using the word “bubble.” Recent history is littered with collectibles that briefly skyrocketed in value only to come crashing back to earth: From 1990s baseball cards to the brief Beanie Babies boom to the Bitcoin bust of 2018, many have lost big on guessing that a given asset class is here to stay. Nothing currently suggests sneakers will join that list anytime soon, but if there is a downfall, Bengtson says, it could stem from a business strategy that draws on manufactured scarcity of new products.

“It’s like they’ve duplicated the worst parts of what baseball cards did,” he says. “You look at an old card and it’s valuable because most of them got beat up or thrown out or whatever else. So [sneaker companies are] like, ‘All right the rarity is what matters, so we’re going to make 10, or we’re going to make 100, and these are going to be valuable right out the box.’ But that only works for a while.”

But so far, Bengtson admits, he’s been wrong, and he’s often been on an island on the subject. Dittrich, on the other hand, says that the sophistication of the market surpasses other collectibles, with dedicated marketplaces like StockX and GOAT that can be referenced for value like the Kelley Blue Book, as the shoe companies learn how to build demand while not caving to it. “You have a lot of market players that deeply understand what a glut of supply would do to their business and their brand long term,” he says.

Sneakers also have other factors working in their favor, such as utility—everyone needs shoes, but not everyone needs cryptocurrency—and perhaps most importantly, coolness. Putting on a pair of Jordans allows the wearer to approximate coolness, whether it’s from MJ’s on-court prowess or Travis Scott’s red carpet walk. That’s a powerful thing that not many other collectibles can claim. “You walk into your class in fourth grade with a pair of Jordans that haven’t come out yet, you’re the talk of the town,” says Waithe. Beanie Babies, even during their brief moment in the sun, never had that kind of cachet.

But none of this means an individual sneaker is a good investment in the long term. And that comes down to durability: The older the shoe, the more likely it is to deteriorate, with midsoles turning yellow or rotting, glue losing adhesiveness, and paint fading. It’s why many collectors vacuum-seal their most cherished and put them on ice, never daring to let their soles touch the ground.

“Sneakers are still just rubber and leather and glue, and whereas you absolutely can make a lot of money buying and selling sneakers in the short term, eventually that shoe is going to deteriorate,” Luber says. “Even if you keep it in the best of conditions, it’ll become unwearable and it’s not a great long-term asset.”

Cohen has learned the lesson many times over the years: It can be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain these old shoes. In the early 2000s, when he would flip sneakers on eBay, he’d also buy a few pairs for himself. When Jordan Brand began retro-ing shoes like the AJ1 Black and Royals in the early 2000s, he’d cop as many as five pairs to stash away. His collection ballooned to more than 1,000 pairs, and while his intention was always to wear them, he soon found that impossible: “My doubles and triples were deteriorating,” Cohen says. But people still seek them out for other reasons beyond utility.

“You look at some of the massive collectors in the space: They don’t wear the older shoes, but they want them because of the significance that they had in basketball history or cultural history or their own life,” he says.

The decomposition seems almost counterintuitive: The image of Michael Jordan winning his first championship in a pair of Infrared AJ 6s is forever. The shoes themselves, however, are not. In that regard, sneakers’ fragility makes them not unlike another unexpected asset class, one from centuries prior: the tulip. In 17th-century Netherlands, the price of broken-bulb tulips—a visually stunning, striped version of the flower—famously became highly sought-after and typically sold for thousands in today’s money. But within a few years, speculators got involved and drove the price increasingly higher, until they hit a price no one was willing to pay. The market bottomed out, and broken-bulb tulips returned to being just a beautiful, fragile item. While the health of StockX, GOAT, and other platforms and rosy industry outlooks would suggest all is well in the footwear game and that the shoe market may not be in a bubble at all, like those flowers that kicked off a Dutch mania 400 years ago, sneakers are delicate and difficult to preserve.

No one knows that better than Rolo Tanedo Jr., he of the complete Jordan 1-through-14 collection. The 2s through 9s, with their polyurethane midsoles, have largely deteriorated—they’re unwearable, devoid of their original utility and now meant only for display. Some of the later models are in better shape, but others, like the 14, have become sticky as the upper materials have broken down. There is, however, one model that seems to have held up well: the Air Jordan 1. “They’re just built like tanks,” Tanedo says, admiring the quality leather and strong rubber foundations, which make them still wearable all these years later, even in their OG form.

“It’s lasted this long because of the endless possibilities and the materials,” he says.

It’s almost poetic: Other sneakers deteriorate, bubbles form and burst, new competitors come and go, and entirely new business models rise. But one has survived through all those trends, emerging again as the most popular shoe in the market it redefined 35 years ago. The original Air Jordan was built to last, both physically and culturally. That alone makes what’s in the box worth hunting down, no matter how many years the journey takes.

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