There’s an epic quality to the story of Sonny Vaccaro, who significantly reinvented the financial dynamics of college basketball, the sports-apparel industry and even the NBA with “sneaker money,” before turning against the system he helped create. Enter “Sole Man,” a documentary devoted to the sports-marketing exec’s remarkable tale, which, in an interesting twist, will be serialized over five nights on the Grantland Website in advance of its ESPN debut. Like the best “30 for 30” fare, the project — timed to the NCAA basketball championship — does a little hand-biting of those who feed the lucrative world over which ESPN presides.
Making their directing debuts, Jon Weinbach and Dan Marks (“Straight Outta LA”) have an exceptionally colorful leading man in Vaccaro, who famously (or perhaps notoriously) transformed an Oregon running-shoe company named Nike into a powerhouse by handing out free shoes and fat deals to basketball coaches, a number of whom are interviewed, including Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) and John Thompson (Georgetown).
The sports titans whose path Vaccaro has crossed represent a who’s who of basketball. It was Vaccaro, after all, who singled out college star Michael Jordan as the ideal Nike pitchman, signing him to his first shoe contract once he jumped to the pros; helped steer Kobe Bryant to the Lakers; and chased a high-school student named LeBron James on behalf of Adidas after being fired by Nike, triggering a high-stakes bidding war between the two purveyors of footwear.
On a more dubious note, this kingmaker fostered a system that has “pre-professionalized” kids at a younger and younger age, as one sportswriter notes, one in which shoe companies are seeking to identify basketball prodigies while they’re still barely old enough to shave. It’s a strategy that dates back to the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic that Vaccaro founded, which became a kind of meat market for coaches eager to corral high-school talent.
Finally, Vaccaro soured on the arcane rules imposed by the NCAA, and has been working with former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon in his groundbreaking antitrust lawsuit against college basketball that challenges the way players are exploited without direct compensation.
Tellingly, these issues remain thorny enough that several of the key figures whose wealth was padded enormously by Vaccaro’s labor — including Jordan, Bryant, James and Nike CEO Phil Knight — refused to be interviewed, a point that clearly rankles Vaccaro when he is asked about it. There’s also a fascinating section detailing Vaccaro’s strained relationship with George Raveling, the best man at his wedding, with whom he had a falling out, Vaccaro says, after he refused to try to steer prized recruits O’Bannon and his brother Charles to USC, where Raveling was coaching at the time.
Not everything about the film works, including the liberal use of schlocky-looking animation to illustrate certain episodes. The overarching theme, however, regarding the corrosive effect of pumping so much marketing money into the college game, is both timely and extraordinarily compelling, as well as a crash course in a basketball-sneaker business that has grown into a $3 billion industry.
As constructed, the documentary’s segmented format can be readily consumed either as a whole or diced into chapters for the Web. And while ESPN doesn’t often address its own oversized role in shaping the sports ecosystem, “Sole Man” is emblematic of a “30 for 30” franchise in which the network consistently puts its best foot forward.