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Nike hopes Michael Jordan can sell sneakers to women

After ignoring women for three decades, Nike Inc's Jordan Brand will start making sneakers for them.

[NEW YORK] After ignoring women for three decades, Nike Inc's Jordan Brand will start making sneakers for them.

There will also be gear for weekend warriors and football fans. Nike's vision for Michael Jordan's flagship line is to now extend to categories beyond basketball - all with the goal of doubling the brand's sales to US$4.5 billion by 2020. That even includes a play for runners, a category Nike already leads by a mile.

"It is a great brand and has been one-dimensional - largely footwear, largely male and US-based," Nike Chief Executive Officer Mark Parker said in an interview with Bloomberg Television's Stephanie Ruhle. "The opportunity is to give the consumer more choice in that brand, carefully." The success of the effort will be the latest referendum on the current state of Jordan's marketing power, and on Nike's reputation as a branding juggernaut. The move also has the potential to dilute one of the company's crown jewels by getting away from its hoops DNA, according to Matt Powell, an analyst for research firm NPD Group.

"It's doable, but it will really take some thoughtful design work, and the product has to be right also," Mr Powell said. "If they can harness the strength of the brand, it can work." Nike already dominates women's athletic shoes, but the Jordan brand barely registers. Even at some marquee basketball programs where the men's teams wear the Jordan brand, the women opt for Nike. Examples include Marquette University and the University of California. At Jordan's alma mater, North Carolina, both teams sport the superstar's line. While there's anecdotal evidence that some women are buying boys sizes, current Jordan offerings for women on Nike's website are just accessories like socks, hats and backpacks.

The brand also faces a challenge among 20-somethings, said Neil Schwartz, vice president for market insights at researcher SportsOneSource.

"The millennial, for the most part, never saw Michael play," he said. "These are the folks who are right now at the forefront of consumer spending." Another risk of expanding the Jordan brand to women is that it may turn off the guys who came to love it as a men's-only line, said Laura Ries, president of marketing-strategy firm Ries & Ries.  "Jordan is one of the most iconic and successful brands, and it very much aligns with young men," Ries said. "Once you start diluting it, it doesn't have the credibility and authenticity it once had, and the guys might not want it anymore."

As a celebrity, Jordan is still tremendously popular. A dozen years after his playing days ended, Jordan is known by about 97 per cent of women in the US, making him the seventh- most influential celebrity for them, according to the Marketing Arm's Celebrity DBI database. Men rank him 11th.

"Jordan's scores are so strong in every way," said Matt Fleming, executive account director at the Marketing Arm. "In terms of how female respondents and consumers feel about him, it's virtually identical to how males view him, regardless of age." Nike unveiled a few details on Wednesday in a presentation to investors in which it forecast an increase in annual sales from US$30.6 billion to US$50 billion by 2020. The Jordan brand is expected to contribute by doubling revenue through adding products and expanding beyond North America. The Jordan brand generates about 95 percent of its overall sales domestically, Mr Powell says.

Targeting women makes perfect sense, said David Falk, Jordan's longtime agent. The 52-year-old Jordan, who consults on the brand, is on board with the shift. It's a "high-end, performance lifestyle brand," he said.

"Michael has evolved beyond just being the heritage of a basketball player," he said. "Michael is somewhat of a fashion icon." The brand already has been dabbling in other categories. For starters, the University of Michigan's football team will wear Jordan-branded uniforms next year. Now it seems almost anything is on the table, even a push into legitimate performance footwear. At US$150 per pair and higher, Jordans long ago became a fashion accessory, with the irony that few recreational athletes actually wear them to play.

"There's a tremendous opportunity," Nike Chief Operating Officer Eric Sprunk said. "Think of it as a performance brand. If Jordan is going to go into running, they are going to make a shoe you can run a marathon in."