From college recruiter, all-star game founder and sports marketing innovator to player advocator, Sonny Vaccaro can be described as the ultimate pioneer. It’s fitting then that he will be receiving the Pioneer Award at the Sport Entertainment and Venues Tomorrow conference in Columbia, S.C., next month.
“The thing when you say ‘pioneer’ is it’s usually connected to a certain thing,” said Vaccaro. “You’re a pioneer that went West or you’re a pioneer when you were marching with Dr. King. My pioneer roots changed. I was a pioneer to start the first high school all-star game. Then I went on to representing athletes after I quit teaching high school. Then I went to Nike. I’ve been a freelance pioneer, I guess.”
As the godfather of sneaker deals in sports, Vaccaro changed the way sneakers were marketed at every level of the game, only to walk away from it all to take up player advocacy. 
Richard Southall, associate professor, Department of Sport and Entertainment Management, University of South Carolina, first met Vaccaro in 2007 when he came as a keynote speaker to the first College Sport Research Institute conference, a speech that Southall said challenged him personally and professionally to be fair.
“That’s why he walked away from the business,” said Southall. “He fundamentally believed that college players are not being treated fairly. You know the old saying, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander? Well there are a lot of geese that have gotten fat, and Sonny recognized that and that’s why he walked away.” 
His plan was to be a teacher and a football coach, and he was even recruited to play football at the University of Kentucky, but he was sidelined by injury and ended up recruiting basketball players.
“Starting from that incident, I was able to adapt,” said Vaccaro. “The irony of getting this award is that if you had told me that 60 years ago, people would have laughed. My fellow classmates would have laughed. But that’s the nature. The next thing I did was the first time I did it.”
In the 60’s, Vaccaro co-founded the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, the first national high school all-star game and, in 1984, he founded the ABCD All American Camp, which showcased elite high school basketball standouts.
In 1976, Vaccaro went to Nike with a notebook full of shoe designs that he and a shoemaker friend had come up with for basketball-specific shoes. The company was just getting started at the time when Vaccaro told them if they wanted to get coaches and kids to wear their shoes, pay the coaches. 
But maybe what Vaccaro is most remembered for during his tenure at Nike is being part of signing Michael Jordan to his first sneaker deal in 1984.
“I had never met Michael Jordan, I had only seen him play in the Final Four,” said Vaccaro. “His school did not wear Nike shoes, so there was no prior connection between me and Michael at all, but I said give all the money to the kid. They said well he’ll be one of three. And I said well if you believe in him give it all to him. My theory was you can’t split the baby three times. Eventually I won.”
In 1984, Arn Tellem, vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment, first met Vaccaro in a Santa Monica, Calif., deli where he was conducting office hour-type visits. 
“Something I knew but that he always demonstrated was that this is a relationship business,” said Tellem. “What we do is based on human capital and having relationships and trust with people is so valuable.”
But after changing the face of basketball, and especially college athletics, and years at Nike, Adidas and Reebok, Vaccaro switched sides in 2007.
“Since I was involved in the commercial part of it, I saw all the money,” said Vaccaro. “The NCAA and amateurism have walked lock-step together for 100 years, and the only consistent thing is the athletes who play the games. Everything else has changed. They didn’t have television, they didn’t have 68 teams in a tournament, they didn’t have multimillion-dollar contracts and athletic directors making nine zillion dollars. My fight has been how can you possibly take away the most vital part of the whole system, the athletes, and say their value is nil. Again let me say, I am not opposed to them earning and carrying on college sports, just leave out the word ‘amateurism,’ and allow for these kids to share the wealth of what they’ve grown. That’s my fight.”
“Even though it doesn’t show in the court documents, it has created change for all athletes,” said Vaccaro. “The NCAA isn’t protected by antitrust anymore. Schools are doing things for athletes that they wouldn’t have done without the court cases. All the other things on a professional level—working for the companies, starting games—were business models that I was fortunate to be part of, but a case where you’re fighting the system, this is the way I’ve chosen to end my life. These kids started my life, and I’ll end it fighting for their rights.”