On the sacred grounds of Nike’s world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, where buildings are named after the gods of sports and athletic wear, the new LeBron James Innovation Center is the highest temple.
The huge space is home to the latest version of the Nike Sport Research Lab, an 85,000 square foot facility where the brand collects athlete data to use in product design. In one section, there is a set of 400 cameras to track body movement, which Nike says is the largest motion capture facility in the world. There are body scanners, environmental chambers, multiple tracks, and areas where prototype sneakers can be made in under an hour.
The extent of the operation and how it relates to it is still somewhat unbelievable to James. This despite the fact that he testified about the building during a tour with Nike CEO John Donahoe a few weeks ago.
âDuring my career and my time here at Nike, that it all comes together is surreal. Sometimes that just doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m really honored, âsays James. âHaving my name on the innovation building seems very fitting to me as I’m always trying to find ways to keep innovating and keep breaking the timeline of what they say is your best. “
Nike entered the LeBron James timeline early on, signing an 18-year-old James to a $ 90 million contract in 2003 before he played a single NBA game. Soon after, Swoosh scientists were able to begin collecting statistics on him that would inform the Nike LeBron signature line.
âWe hosted it at NSRL at that time,â says Matt Nurse, Ph.D., Nike’s vice president who runs the sprawling lab. âWe started showing him our abilities, we took some basic action on him at the time. And if you look at how we’ve evolved and how it evolved over the past two decades, our paths have really been parallel.
The man and the brand are linked in perpetuity: James signed a lifetime contract with Nike at the end of 2015. Now, he joins greats like Michael Jordan and Serena Williams, who also have their own buildings at the company’s headquarters.
âWe got it and it was amazing,â says Nurse, recalling James’ first visit to the new building. âHe came in, he called it his sanctuary. And we would like this place to be a sanctuary for athletes of all skills and abilities. All backgrounds and all body types.
Nike certainly has room in its new facility to adapt. The extended NSRL is five times the size of the previous lab. The 750,000 square foot building he lives in resembles a spaceship, a fully manned vessel that could be seen suspended among the stars in a distant galaxy. According to Nurse, the first sketches of it date back to 2013.
As futuristic as it is, the building contains many references to Nike’s past. There’s a replica of Winnebago – a reminder of co-founder Phil Knight’s days selling shoes in a van – and a piece named in honor of the late Sandy Bodecker, the beloved Nike frontman who launched the brand’s SB line.
Nurse positions the NSRL as the distant successor to the lab of Bill Bowerman, the company’s other co-founder. Its team is made up of around 75 researchers and support staff, including 25 doctoral students and 40 masters. They work to gather information that can benefit both their subjects and Nike’s larger mission of making shoes and clothing.
âThe goal is always to turn it into something meaningful. This should be meaningful both for an athlete, of course, and for the company, âsaid Nurse. “And when we’re at our best, it’s meaningful for both.”
Nike’s broad definition of âathleteâ – a company maxim is that if you’ve got a body, you’re an athlete – means its vast array of sports research equipment isn’t just available to athletes. professionals. While he has yet to appreciate the LeBron James Innovation Center’s full suite of tools, the endorser Nike Drake has used the NSRL machines.
In his 2020 music video for âLaugh Now, Cry Later,â the rapper turned Nike headquarters into a personal playground, tearing up his lake on a jet ski and crossing his fields on a golf cart. He also donned VO2 max gear on a treadmill in a part of the campus that was temporarily used for NSRL research as COVID-19 safety measures pushed some work outside.
âIt was actually in a covered parking lot,â says Nurse.
His biometrics won’t influence the design of any of his upcoming Nocta collaborations with Nike. Drizzy data is not stored or retrieved.
âFor something like Drake where he was pushing himself, he was having fun too,â Nurse explains. “It is not something that we are going to collect for research purposes.”
While the lab is keen to glean a deep level of information from its participants, it ensures that they share their information voluntarily, with full consent. Data privacy policies aside, the building is no place to keep secrets.
Nurse describes the LeBron James Innovation Center’s layout as encouraging interaction between its scientists and designers, forcing teamwork between groups. There is no separation of Church and State. There is a direct line of sight between him and the concept design centers where the shoes and clothing are made.
âWe’re not at all with individuals having their own ideas under a blanket at their desk, it doesn’t work for anyone,â he says.
Nor are they just in the business of manufacturing commercial products. Not everything created at the LeBron James Innovation Center is intended for a retail audience. Some of its production goes beyond the boundaries of what one would expect from a sneaker company.
âThings you might never consider would be under the normal Nike footwear and apparel banner,â says Nurse. “We make all kinds of crazy stuff here.”
The madman is informed through hours of hypotheses, data logging and learning tests. That this level of effort is poured into a given pair of performance sneakers from Nike is enticing to shoe enthusiasts, but perhaps not fully visible in the end product to the average consumer. But Nurse says he’s not focusing on whether the process is visible or invisible to the end consumer.
His goal is to ensure that what Nike manufactures can advance athletes to their best. His ideal at LeBron James Innovation Center is a version of it that blends fashion and function, pushing design and data together for the benefit of the user.
âThe science itself is interesting, but it’s new, it’s hard to apply,â says Nurse. âDesign itself can be beautiful, can be aesthetic, can be fashionable. But when science and design come together and push each other, that’s when great things happen.
His take on it, the place he hopes Nike’s innovation teams can head to, is a target that is sinking deeper and deeper into the skies.
âWe shouldn’t be happy to be able to take off and fly, we should be headed for the moon,â says Nurse. “And when we’re on the Moon, we shouldn’t be happy with Mars, we should go further.”