Unprecedented distribution for film about former sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro; TV premiere on April 16
For the first time ever, ESPN Films will premiere a full-length 30 for 30 film digitally. “Sole Man” will debut on Grantland.com in six parts—one chapter per day—from April 6 through 10, with the final two chapters on the 10th. An exclusive first look at the chapter featuring LeBron James will premiere on the 6 p.m. edition of SportsCenter on Friday, February 13. The film marks the directorial debut of Jon Weinbach and Dan Marks, whose previous collaborations include “Straight Outta LA,” one of ESPN’s original 30 for 30 films. “Sole Man” is a definitive, first-hand and unflinching account of how former sports marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro rose from his humble Pennsylvania steel-town roots to be at the forefront of the modern era of sports marketing in the $13 billion athletic-shoe industry.
Vaccaro’s supporters call him a visionary. His friends laud his loyalty. And his enemies accuse him of corrupting a sport and profiting off amateur athletes. What’s undeniable is this: Sonny Vaccaro is one of the sports world’s most polarizing and influential figures. Now 75, he is still a fast-talking maverick whose zeal for basketball and instinct for sales forged an era of unprecedented growth for two pillars of pop culture: basketball and sneakers.
It was Vaccaro who was instrumental in launching Nike’s “Air Jordan” empire in the ‘80s and started the movement of paying college coaches to have their players wear Nike shoes. He ushered in the professionalization of youth basketball in the ‘90s by creating a new era of high school all-star games led by his ABCD camp at a time when players such as Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady—both of whom signed shoe deals brokered by Vaccaro—turned high school games into auditions for the NBA. “Sole Man” will take viewers through Vaccaro’s personal story, which mirrors the narrative of basketball’s ascent over the last 40 years. It is an era in which James Naismith’s creation morphed into a global enterprise that stretches from Brooklyn to Beijing. To a staggering degree, many corners of the basketball world are really just “Six Degrees of Sonny.”
The film features original interviews with many of the biggest names in basketball, including legendary coaches Jim Boeheim, John Thompson, Larry Brown, Jim Calhoun and John Calipari, as well as former and current NBA stars such as Chris Webber, Tracy McGrady, Brandon Jennings and Joakim Noah. Five years in the making, “Sole Man” is executive produced by Jamie Patricof (“The Place Beyond the Pines” and “Blue Valentine”), Cash Warren and former NBA All-Star Baron Davis.
“Considering Sonny Vaccaro’s much-debated influence on basketball has spanned five decades, played out in so many defining stories within his larger narrative, and touched so many huge names like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Phil Knight, we thought this 30 for 30 warranted an unprecedented rollout,” says ESPN Films Vice President and Executive Producer John Dahl. “By featuring the film in a series of chapters over an entire week on Grantland.com in advance of the TV debut, we believe we’re giving it the kind of presentation style and weight that matches his persona and impact.”
Grantland will provide extensive complementary content to coincide with the film’s release. “Sole Man” will make its primetime television debut on Thursday, April 16, at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Chapter 1: How Sonny became Sonny
Premieres Monday, April 6
Meet John Paul Vaccaro, the pudgy native of Trafford, PA, whose success at identifying and befriending top basketball players changed the game forever. His Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh, one of the first national All-Star games for high school players, not only became a fixture on the recruiting circuit for top college basketball programs but also cemented Vaccaro’s relationships with high-profile coaches—who would then become Vaccaro’s business partners after he joined a young sneaker company called Nike. During the ’70s and early ’80s, Vaccaro signed such college coaches as Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, John Thompson of Georgetown, and Jerry Tarkanian of UNLV to “shoe deals” that turned the feet of the top players into billboards and launched Nike’s basketball business.
Chapter 2: The Jordan Effect
Premieres Tuesday, April 7
In 1984, Vaccaro and Nike executives plotted a strategy to create a new business for the company in pro basketball. How they ended up signing Michael Jordan and launching the brand known as “Air Jordan” is a Hollywood story that features secret phone calls, a six-figure check, a mansion in Oregon, and a plate of ribs at a Tony Roma’s restaurant in Santa Monica.
Chapter 3: The Gunslinger Shoots for Kobe
Premieres Wednesday, April 8
After being fired by Nike in a haze of controversy, Vaccaro resurfaces at Adidas, which had virtually no presence in the U.S. basketball market. In a seismic first big strike for his new employers, Vaccaro’s signs a phenom named Kobe Bryant to a multi-million dollar contract, an unprecedented deal for a player making the risky (and much-criticized) jump from high school to the NBA.
Chapter 4: There Are Victims Here
Premieres Thursday, April 9
An in-depth look back at the cutthroat, lucrative and often-corrupt culture that Vaccaro and his sneaker company competitors created during the ’90s and early ’00s, when Adidas, Nike, Reebok and others zealously sought to find and sign “the next Michael Jordan.” With Vaccaro at Adidas and his former best friend George Raveling running grassroots basketball at Nike, the battle for talent turned into a deeply personal and all-consuming crusade that impacted players, coaches and executives at all levels of the industry.
Chapter 5: The LeBron Affair
Premieres Friday, April 10
Once upon a time, LeBron James wore Adidas Kobes. That was back in high school, when Sonny made sure that his St. Vincent-St. Mary’s team was outfitted in Adidas jerseys, sweatbands and shoes. The two first met when LeBron was a sophomore, and after seeing him in a private audition, Sonny declared him to be the best high school player he had ever seen—which not only said something, but also revved up the hype machine for King James. He might still have three stripes on his shoes today instead of a swoosh if Nike hadn’t outbid Sonny with a seven-year deal worth a staggering $105 million.
The Final Chapter: Sonny, Ed and the NCAA
Premieres Friday, April 10
Since retiring from the shoe business in 2007, Vaccaro has pivoted into a full-time, all-out advocate for change in the basketball industry he helped create. The man who outfitted coaches in Swooshes and funneled millions into universities’ athletic departments is now one of the NCAA’s most outspoken critics, working behind the scenes to organize efforts for the antitrust suit led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon.
About ESPN Films
Created in March 2008, ESPN Films produces high-quality films showcasing some of the most compelling stories in sports. In October 2009, ESPN Films launched the Peabody Award-winning, Producer’s Guild Award-winning and Emmy-winning 30 for 30 film series. Inspired by ESPN’s 30th Anniversary, the films that made up the series were a thoughtful and innovative reflection on the past three decades told through the lens of diverse and interesting sports fans and social commentators. The strong reaction from both critics and fans led to the launch of 30 for 30 Volume II, which is currently underway. Additional projects from ESPN Films include the critically acclaimed Nine for IX series, SEC Storied and 30 for 30 Shorts.