With the brilliant Netflix doco Last Dance the flavour of the month, we take a look at how basketball star turned entrepreneur Michael Jordan became a billionaire…
One evening last September, 250 guests packed Catch Steak, the slick New York City Meatpacking District hotspot. As the deejay spun, a bevy of A-listers including Spike Lee, Michael Strahan, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Les Twins ate, drank and grooved. But the supernova amidst the stars was the one-and-only Michael Jordan, five-time NBA MVP, six-time NBA champion, owner of 10 NBA scoring titles, and according to ESPN, among others, the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
The occasion on this night had nothing to do with sports, however. The bash was the official launch party for Cincoro Tequila, the all-new ultra-luxury tequila brand in which Jordan is a pivotal partner. Three years prior, he’d had dinner with some fellow NBA team owners: Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Wes Edens, Lakers lead owner Jeanie Buss and Celtics lead owner Wyc Grousbeck, with his then-girlfriend (now wife) Emilia Fazzalari. The talk turned to tequila, said to be MJ’s favourite libation. “It was a great night,” Fazzalari, co-founder and CEO of Cinco Spirits Group and Cincoro Tequila, tells us. “We discovered we all had this shared passion for tequila and we saw an opportunity in the market.” By the night’s end, the seeds were planted for Michael Jordan to get into the tequila business.
There’s no shortage of celebrities who have played the tequila game. The spirit has attracted marquee names such as Sammy Hagar, Adam Levine, The Backstreet Boys, The Rock and most notably George Clooney and Rande Gerber, whose Casamigos brand was bought by spirits behemoth Diageo for a staggering US$1 billion in 2017. Yet it isn’t likely that Jordan is daunted by the competition.
Throughout his career, both on and off the court, the 57-year-old’s business savvy has been almost as impressive as his stat sheets. Sixteen years after last stepping on the hardwood as a pro, his projected 2019 earnings were US$145 million, more than the US$127 million of Barcelona star Lionel Messi, the year’s highest paid athlete. In fact, Jordan’s US$1.9 billion net worth made him the highest paid athlete of all time, according to Forbes.
His present day empire began as soon as he left the University of North Carolina after his junior year. As the number three pick in the 1984 draft, the star shooting guard inked a US$6 million dollar contract with the Chicago Bulls. More importantly, Jordan chose Nike as his shoe sponsor. The Beaverton, Oregon company was not only offering a five-year, US$500,000-a-year deal, but something almost unprecedented for an NBA rookie (at the time): his own sneaker.
That fall, his Airness stepped onto the court against the New York Knicks in the first Air Jordans, a black and red high-top, and the athletic footwear industry would never be the same. Jordan’s human highlight-reel skills, determination and endless ability to come up with the buzzer-beating shot or the dominating performance turned him into a global cultural icon that transcended sport.
In 1997, Nike announced the Jordan Brand, a subsidiary that in addition to Jordan footwear would include apparel. For the fiscal year ending in May 2019, that brand generated US$3.14 billion in revenue. “Michael’s story is about success, hard work, winning, failing some and winning more,” says Patrick Crakes, of Crakes Media Consulting. “Those are all touchstones of what make us Americans.”
Most Americans might have been satisfied with the steady stream of cash from Nike. Not Jordan. Four years after acquiring a minority share in the Charlotte Hornets (then the Charlotte Bobcats), MJ bought the team in 2010 from BET’s Bob Johnson. At the time, the move didn’t make a tremendous splash. The Hornets were a smaller market outfit valued at a mere US$175 million. But like any visionary, Jordan saw immense potential. And in less than a decade, bolstered by the NBA’s US$24 billion TV deal, skyrocketing global popularity (especially in China) and increased revenue sharing, the Hornets were valued at US$1.3 billion.
Throw in Jordan’s other ventures — his longtime endorsement deals with Hanes, Gatorade and Upper Deck, plus other business interests that include several restaurants, a car dealership and investments in the tech sector — and his Airness continues to prove that it’s just as easy for him to win off the court.
Although the Cincoro Tequila venture might appear to outsiders as a vanity project or a whim, Jordan has every intention of winning the tequila wars. He has partnered with seasoned and wealthy executives on the brand. The industry itself is booming; in 2018 the United States knocked back more than 18 million cases, or more than half of the global consumption, and high-end tequilas sales have risen almost 20% every year since 2013. And Jordan is certain to apply the same intensity and dedication that made him the NBA’s most feared competitor.
It’s already evident in his devout, hands-on approach. “Michael’s been an integral part of the team since the beginning,” says Fazzalari. “He’s one of the key tasters when exploring and evaluating the tequilas. He approves every batch.” That meant the team tested over 1,000 different samples in order to help find the perfect blend and balance for their four Cincoro expressions: blanco, reposado, añejo, and an extra añejo (which is aged for up to 44 months and retails for US$1,600 a bottle). Jordan also spearheaded the ever-important bottle design, enlisting Mark Smith, Nike’s VP of Innovation Special Projects and MJ’s longtime collaborator.
“Mark said that MJ had called him and said, ‘I need a tequila bottle,’” recounts Fazzalari. Something “sleek, contemporary and unique.” The two men more than delivered, as the statuesque glass bottle is a semi-masterpiece onto itself. Turn it to its side and it resembles an agave leaf. It’s crafted
with 23° angles as a nod to MJ’s jersey number. And if one lines up 23 bottles from top to bottom, they’ll not only form a perfect circle, but its diameter will be about the same as the centre on a basketball court.
Signs already point to Cincoro Tequila taking off. According to Fazzalari, the brand sold out in some of the 12 states where it launched and expansion is imminent. “We hope to be in at least another 15 states in 2020,” says the Cincoro CEO. After that, the team will be looking towards international markets and perhaps another round of global domination for Michael “Air” Jordan. Just as he likes it. ■
Text by TIM STRUBY