There’s a moment in the first few minutes of the new movie Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1 that paints a truly bleak picture of what the National Basketball Association was like a generation ago.
Today, of course, the NBA is the second-most valuable sports organization in America—one in which every team franchise is worth over $1 billion, one that’s defying professional sports’ overall ratings slump (18 million viewers tuned in for Game 3 of NBA Finals earlier this month) and one with a highly diverse viewership (45 percent are African American).
But in 1984, the NBA had money problems, ratings problems and, forgotten by most of us now, a racial problem—one that Unbanned’s guests discuss with unvarnished frankness. Among the frankest is Russ Granik, the league’s former deputy commissioner.
“The NBA was in a fairly precarious position,” Granik recalls in the film. “The national television audience at the time was a largely white audience, and there was a lot of speculation that we’d never be able to have a league that had such a high percentage of African-American players and sell that to the public. We were struggling with some really unfair stereotypes.”
As its title suggests, Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1 is a film about Nike’s Air Jordan sneaker and, by extension, about its influence on the NBA and the culture at large. The film’s writer and director is Dexton Deboree, co-founder of creative agency Los York, whose client list just so happens to include Nike. The logical assumption, then, is that Unbanned is a feature-length piece of sponsored content, a “film” that’s really just a long, praise-filled commercial.
Except that it isn’t.
“The brand had nothing to do with the film,” Deboree’s publicist stressed in an email. (By “nothing,” he means nothing proprietary; Nike did introduce Deboree to some notable personalities who appear.) The first clue that it isn’t sponsored content is the candid talk about race. And while both the Air Jordan sneaker and Nike corporate come off looking pretty good in these 90 minutes, the story is of the sort that could only be told well without a brand’s marketing department holding the clapperboard.
Significantly, that makes Unbanned, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April and is slated for theatrical release this fall, more than just a new feature film. It’s also a potential model for the future of branded content—an independent product that a brand cooperates with but doesn’t supervise or underwrite. In the process, the film avoids the compromises that invariably come into play with sponsored content, whose basic mission is to banish the negative or controversial aspects of a story in favor of showing the obligatory rosy picture.
To partner or not to partner
Not that the Air Jordan story isn’t plenty rosy in this film. In an admiring, at times adulatory tone, the movie recounts how Jordan’s shoe deal with Nike revolutionized the endorsement model by giving an athlete his own branded line. (In this case, a striking red-and-black shoe that ran afoul of the NBA’s uniform code and resulted in a fine—one that Nike happily paid). The film also revisits how Jordan himself did much to revolutionize the NBA, drawing a new generation of fans to the game that diversified its audience and eventually revived its fortunes.
In light of Los York’s standing relationship with Nike, then, it would have made plenty of sense for the filmmaker to approach the brand as a partner and underwriter, a move that Deboree admits he considered making. “We had a lot of discussions about that,” he said.
And with good reason. Nike’s obviously not lacking for funds—its revenues were north of $34 billion last year—and Los York had already worked on creative for the mammoth sportswear brand, including 2016’s “Built for More,” a campaign created to launch Carmelo Anthony’s 12th edition of signature sneaker in the Air Jordan collection.