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The Air Ship Sold for $1.5 Million. Why and What's Next?

The Air Ship Sold for $1.5 Million. Why and What's Next?
October 27, 2021
Dylan Dittrich

The Nike Air Ship.

Many didn’t know the model existed before this month – that there was a precursor to the renowned Jordan 1. And who could blame them? In a world awash with Dunks, Jordan 1s, and rampant frustration with not being able to buy either, the Air Ship is a forgotten vestige of that glorious, mid-80s Nike era.

They’re the Drew Bledsoe to Tom Brady – a solid performer completely lost in the unparalleled greatness of what would follow. A trivia question.

When Michael Jordan took to the court for his first official NBA games as a rookie, he was inked to Nike, but the signature product promised to him was yet to launch. So, he instead laced up (double-laced in fact) the Nike Air Ship, both in the white and red colorway that sold this weekend, and in a black and red colorway. The latter colorway was “banned” by the NBA, with Jordan receiving a letter from the league notifying him that he would be fined for wearing them; black was not technically a primary color of the Bulls at the time.

Nike’s reaction? Thank you, NBA! Thank you, David Stern! Nike ran with the decree, including it in the marketing campaign for the Jordan 1, which it referred to as the sneaker banned by the NBA.

“On September 15th, Nike created a revolutionary new basketball shoe. On October 18th, the NBA threw them out of the game. Fortunately, the NBA can’t stop you from wearing them. Air Jordans. From Nike.”

Even then, Nike buried the Air Ship and irrevocably transferred its clout to the Air Jordan. And the rest is history.

Of course, the one piece of history that the Air Jordan 1 will always be denied is the honor of being MJ’s first on-court NBA sneaker. No matter how popular the sneaker gets, that incontrovertible fact can’t be washed over with clever marketing. And it’s for that reason that the Air Ship offered by Sotheby’s is now the most expensive sneaker ever sold at auction, supplanting two pairs of game-worn Air Jordan 1s formerly tied for the lead.

After a quiet summer and auction sales that fell short of expectations, sneakers have catapulted back to the forefront this week, driven in large part by the record-breaking sale of the Air Ship. Sotheby’s created headline buzz over the last month, setting an estimate of $1,000,000 -$1,500,000, which would handily eclipse the former auction record of $615,000. The sale, of course, did not disappoint, nearing the high end of the estimate range at $1,472,000, a level well more than double the prior record.

The most expensive sneakers sold at auction. Photo: Sotheby's

By my count, over the last two years, game-worn Jordan 1s have come to auction eight times. I’ve only seen one other auction for a pair of game-worn Air Ships, period. Back in 2015, SCP Auctions sold a pair of Air Ships in the same colorway, with provenance from a Lakers ball-boy who received them at the Forum after Jordan’s 19th game. This would’ve come a few weeks after the Sotheby’s pair was given to a Nuggets ball-boy. That pair sold for $71,554, and at the time, it was advertised as the first pre-Air Jordan gamer to come to market. Of course, back then, Fleer Jordan rookies were trading hands for about $15-20k.

We do know that these are not the only two signed Air Ships in existence. Shortly after the Last Dance premiered in 2020, Aaron Goodwin of Goodwin Sports Management shared on social media that he owns a pair of signed Air Ships in the all-important Banned colorway, noting they were one of the first two pairs given to Jordan by Nike in 1984. They include “Air Jordan” text on the back, something missing from the Sotheby’s pair. If this pair of sneakers came to auction, they would easily be the most expensive sneakers ever sold, and it’s difficult to think of a more historically important pair that we know to be in existence.

So, while it seems like a pair of rookie Jordan 1s surface at auction every few months, an appearance of the predecessors is remarkably rare, so rare that they’re worth nearly $1.5mm.

Of course, while the Air Ship captured headlines this weekend, Jordan 1s have quietly continued to put up huge auction results in recent months. In fact, it was just in August that Heritage Auctions tied the previous auction record in selling rookie worn Jordan 1s for $615,000. Jordan re-autographed that pair the night he clinched his first NBA title. A few months earlier, in June, Grey Flannel Auctions sold another dual-signed rookie pair for $420,000.  Both of those sales would comfortably be the most expensive sneaker ever sold had they taken place before May of 2020.

Speaking of 2020, it was August when Christie’s sold the Shattered Backboard Air Jordan 1s to set the $615k record. Those sneakers were worn by Jordan in an exhibition in Italy where he – you guessed it – shattered the backboard with a signature dunk, leaving glass embedded in the sole to this day.

The buyer?

A fractional platform: Otis.

Despite the validation offered by some of the aforementioned sales, that pair has traded off 20% from its $700,000 IPO value, sitting at $559k. Whether the new record serves as a tailwind remains to be seen.

Shattered Backboard Air Jordan 1. Photo: Otis.

Further down the Jordan hierarchy sit unsigned game-worn Jordan 1s. Rally offered such a rookie pair for $250,000 about a year ago, in November of 2020 in the aftermath of the Christie’s sale. Since then, they’re down 45% to $138,500, with that drop taking place during the most recent September trading window. The catalyst may have been a May Sotheby’s sale of a similar unsigned pair for 138,600 CHF, or approximately $152k. Though sales are of course limited, unsigned pairs have garnered 20-25% of signed pairs in the past.

It was the case when the previous record was set that a trickle-down to unworn player sample Jordan 1s and OG 1985 Jordan 1s took place. Additionally sold in this weekend’s Sotheby’s auction was a pair of pristine, signed Tong Yang Player Sample Jordan 1s for just over $100k. Tong Yang refers to the factory in which Jordan’s player-issued sneakers were made. We’ll have another chance to analyze the trickle-down impact, as a similar pair comes to auction with SCP Auctions this weekend. That specific pair appeared to sell this summer with RR Auction for $205k, though the result is not listed on the site, and the re-listing at another house so shortly thereafter suggests the sale was not consummated. Strength there may bode well for the dual signed TYPS PE on Otis which is, amazingly, flat with its $67,500 IPO price. That price is essentially right in line with a $62,500 sale of a signed, unworn PE at the same 2020 Christie’s sale as the Shattered backboard. There have been fewer deadstock PEs offered at auction than game-worn, and condition is more important here.

Further down the hierarchy still are the sneakers that flew off the shelves when Nike’s marketing campaign went 80s-viral. Nike’s initial sales expectation for the Air Jordan was 100,000 pairs. In the first month, they shipped 1.5 million pairs. Execs were floored by how the sneakers were not just worn for basketball, but as a fashionable, “hip” shoe. Their lifestyle applications are validated today more than ever, as Air Jordan 1 OG High sneakers are among the most hotly demanded, consistently garnering resale prices that are often multiples of retail.

But the 1985 release…the genuine original. Those are a cut above – so much so, that Nike has recently taken to releasing a 1985 cut of the Jordan 1 that stays truer to the original lines. Of course, those original 1985 Jordan 1s are sought after today not just because of their looks, but because they were the retail genesis of a sneaker – and an entire brand - that would remain immensely popular for decades to follow.

So, it was after the Christie’s Shattered Backboard sale that demand for the originals pushed market values for the most iconic “Chicago” and “Banned” colorways to $15k and beyond. In the right condition, they’ve even found their way past $20k, with the “lesser” colorways tagging along behind between the $10k and $15k levels. These are values that were more commonly the territory of game worn Jordans in the mid-2010s.

However, where, when, and how these dear relics are sold matters critically. Lost in the depths of hundreds of lots in a sports card and memorabilia auction, iconic colorways in solid condition (hang-tag included) have sold in the neighborhood of $5k this year. And while StockX may show bids as high as $25k, I caution against putting too much weight on StockX bids for sneakers this old and this expensive; those bids are submitted sight unseen, likely with the expectation of a sneaker in absolutely perfect condition, but deadstock sneakers from 1985 are bound to have their wrinkles.

Of course, fractional shareholders don’t have to worry about where to consign; the offers come to them. And come to them they have in the case of Otis’s 1985 Air Jordan 1 Collection. The collection, which has traded up 52% from its $33k February 2020 IPO value (note: before the Last Dance) to $50k, has received a $69k buyout offer.

1985 Air Jordan Collection. Photo: Otis

With five pairs in the collection, that works out to about $13.5k per pair. However, the collection is comprised of five different colorways. Among them are the standard-bearing Bred and Chicago colorways, with the Royal colorway a tier below, and the Black and White and Neutral Grey colorways rounding out the field. While you would expect the two iconic colorways to bring in comfortably more than $13.5k, as well as maybe the Royals (on the right day, though this is the pair in worst condition), the Black and White colorway likely fetches in the ballpark of that level or a little less, and the Neutral Grey would be safely expected to sell for some measure under.

Whether you think the deal is “fair” in the short term is one question, but the more important one may be how the investor expects these OGs to fare long term. If, however, they are sold out from under an investor who believes in the long term thesis, there’s always the 1985 Air Jordan Collection II, which features two pairs of “Chicagos” and one “Banned” pair. Those debuted in December of 2020 for $24,000 and are up 40% to $33,600.

It may surprise some to learn that sneakers – both deadstock and memorabilia – are down nearly 5% on average fractionally. But the reality is that catalysts have largely been missing since the feverish activity that followed the Last Dance and the collecting boom that followed. Softness and unsold items were the story of summer sneaker auctions. Can the Air Ship help things take flight once again?

We’ll soon find out.

Attainable Alternatives

Air Ship New Beginnings - Released in 2020 as part of a pack with a Jordan 1, this is effectively a re-release of the sneaker that just sold for $1.47mm. Expect to pay $500-1,000 for the Air Ship alone, or $1,500 to $2,000 for the pack.

Air Jordan 1 Retro High "Chicago" - The Jordan 1 High "Chicago" was most recently released in 2015. Expect to pay $2,000+....not so attainable.

Air Jordan 1 Retro High "Banned" - Last released in 2016, the going rate for the "Bred" or "Banned" Jordan 1 High is approximately $1,000.

Air Ship Pro "Banned" - Released in August of 2020 at the height of Jordan-mania, these are a modern take on the "Banned" Air Ship. Prices are commonly in the mid $400s.

Air Jordan 1 Retro High 85 "Neutral Grey" - Released in early 2021, this is the newly conceived 1985 cut of the Air Jordan 1 High - effectively a re-release of one of the pairs in the Otis Jordan 1 Collection. Currently sells for $300-400.

Air Jordan 1 Mid "Chicago" - Okay, now we're really getting attainable. If you're not a sneakerhead with a complex, a pair of mids will achieve the iconic aesthetic without completely breaking the bank, selling for $200, though they retailed for just $115. But be warned, some people really do have an irrational disdain for midtops, though Jordan's on court 1s were effectively mids, and he still wears mids to this day.

Air Jordan 1 Mid "Banned" - See the previous entry. Nike was able to capitalize on hot Jordan 1 demand by releasing these in high quantity. Also trading for just under $200 at present.

Disclosure: The Author owns the Air Ship Pro "Banned", the Air Jordan 1 Mid "Chicago", and the Air Jordan 1 Mid "Banned". Please don't hate the author for owning mids.

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