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Why the Nike Air More Uptempo Remains a Cash Cow

Big on branding, bigger on nostalgia, learn how the Scottie Pippen pair has become a fixture in footwear for years since its arrival.

Ask yourself this question: What’s the most important city when it comes to sneaker culture?

Perhaps New York comes to mind — the birthplace of hip-hop, Mecca out of outdoor hoops, and a place where everyone is truly free to be themselves. Maybe the mind heads West to a place like Los Angeles, the land of skate, streetwear, and Hollywood. One really ought to consider Boston and Beaverton, too, two places where the biggest brands in the industry call home.

All are fair answers, though we must also pay our respects to Paris and Tokyo, where so many trends originate, or even cities in Turkey, China, and Indonesia where sneakers are manufactured.

However, the epicenter of what’s moving the needle in footwear in 2022 might just be Chicago.

(Photo by Manny Millan/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Home to the rise of Michael Jordan in the ’80s and the place where Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, Joe Freshgoods, and countless creatives cut their teeth, the Windy City claims connections to each Air Jordan shoe sold around the world, every Yeezy headline seen on this site, and the acclaim surrounding the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1.

While a host of Chicago-centric styles both past and present continue to move massive units that elevate the industry or achieve auction prices that rival fine art, a different Midwest favorite continues to carve a lane in malls around the globe:

Scottie Pippen’s maximalist Nike Air More Uptempo.

Worn by the point-forward during the Chicago Bulls’ historic 72-10 season in 1995-96 only to offer an encore at the 1996 Summer Olympics, the bold basketball shoe is modern art even 26 years since its debut.

An Americana nod to tech, marketing, and idol worship, the Wilson Smith design still speaks to an audience of adults long removed from their hooping days as well as a generation of children born years after Scottie retired from the game.

Since arriving in 1996, the Nike Air More Uptempo has returned in retro life as a revered favorite, a football cleat for Odell Beckham Jr., and even a couch. In 2022, the legs continue to stretch longer than Pippen’s arms by way of a sandal style.

So, why is the Scottie style so popular, profitable, and nimble after all these years? Boardroom breaks down the big business behind the big Air shoe.

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World Tour

The summer of 1996 marked the confluence of several distinct forces.

On the basketball court, the Chicago Bulls were pissed off. Coming off an early exit at the hands of Shaq, Penny Hardaway, and the Orlando Magic, Michael Jordan and company were looking for revenge. They found it, absolutely annihilating the competition en route to a then-record-setting 72-10 regular season, capped off by the franchise’s fourth NBA championship.

That summer, the world was looking for revenge against the 1992 Dream Team’s thrashing of the entire globe in the Olympic Games. Coming to America’s home court in Atlanta, it was a fight the world truly didn’t want with Team USA where the 1996 Summer Games were concerned. Still, it was the eyeballs big brands salivated over.

In Beaverton, Nike was relishing in the return of Michael Jordan, yet preparing as if it’d never happen. Working on a calendar that calls for planning 18 months ahead, the sleepless nights of 1994 and the first quarter of 1995 saw designers looking to elevate the basketball brand in a post-MJ era. To do so, they needed to position alternative athletes as the future. On top of that, they had to deliver a heightened level of creativity that could speak to the masses without a mass-market mouthpiece.

(Photo by Bob Daemmrich/AFP via Getty Images)

In the middle of all of it were Pippen and Wilson Smith.

For years, Pippen played second-fiddle to MJ in Chicago but ascended as an All-Star in his own right while helping take Chicago to three straight titles from 1991 through ’93.

In Jordan’s absence, Pippen proved himself among the league’s best, winning All-Star Game MVP in 1994 while making the All-NBA first team in ’94, ’95, and ’96. Since switching to Nike sneakers in 1989, the brand leveraged his positionless play and viable visibility next to Jordan by having him endorse models of the Flight variety.

Behind the scenes, the Nike veteran Smith shaped statement sneakers for the likes of Andre Agassi. Taking his talents from clay to hardwood, the brand brought in Smith to inject personality into its massive market of basketball.

In 1995, it released the Air Max Uptempo as a fluid expression of cushion and movement. As Kicksigma notes, the Max Uptempo was sold as having the most Nike Air ever packed into a sole.

Pippen (8) and Team USA teammate Gary Payton (14) rock the Air More Uptempos during the 1996 Olympics. (Photo by V.J. Lovero /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Doubling down, Smith’s sequel came in the form of the Air More Uptempo: a bold branding case study that was overt, over-the-top, and in your face. Originally titled the Air Biggest, Smith amplified the ethos of baggy pants and bold graffiti for a statement sneaker that was bluntly unapologetic.

Upon arrival, his peers panned and praised basketball’s billboard for “AIR” all at once.

“Well, it’s bad design,” Tinker Hatfield reportedly told Smith upon seeing the sample, “and you’ll sell millions.”

Hatfield, the man behind Jordan’s signature shoes from 1988 to 1999, was on to something.

Famously, the very versatile Pippen played in the More Uptempo when winning his fourth NBA championship with the Bulls and second gold medal with Team USA.

Both teams took up TV time all over the country and also around the world with Smith’s larger-than-life design jumping off the screen.

From Foot Locker in Times Square to Eastbay catalogs littered around middle America, the Air More Uptempo drew dollars and eyeballs from all aspiring hoopers. Priced at $139.99 per pair and merchandised with matching tees and caps, the design was aspirational and advertorial all at once.

For almost a decade, Nike Air cushioning had been around in visible fashion but never like this. Even more aggressive, the More Uptempo was positioned higher on the food chain than that of the same season’s Air Jordan — the infamous 11.

Scaled down to youth sizes and the economy-oriented Nike Air Much Uptempo, which featured the same sidewall but only an Air unit in the heel, the Air More Uptempo popped under Christmas trees in the winter of 1996 before appearing on the big screen in 1997’s George of the Jungle.

For the remainder of the ’90s and early ’00s, Smith’s design language scored signature sneakers for the likes of Charles Barkley and Jordan with the Uptempo franchise favored by basketball’s best wings. The new millennium would give way to Shox columns and feather midsoles, making the Air More Uptempo somewhat of a time-capsule creation.

As trends tend to go, things cycle back every 20 years. For the Air More Uptempo, this couldn’t have been truer.

Retro Revival

Jordan’s first retirement in 1993 forced Nike’s basketball department to look forward. His second retirement in 1999 forced the brand to look back.

Rolling out retro releases both times but with better results in ’99, the early 2000s, and each era since have seen a greater appreciation at retail for styles from the past. After the success of vintage Air Jordan and Sir Charles styles in the early ’00s, Nike Basketball brought back the Air More Uptempo in 2006 to celebrate the shoe’s 10th anniversary.

At the time, the results were warm but not mass. Infamously, the OG Black/White model returned in leather rather than its signature nubuck. Meanwhile, new styles scored in white with 3M accents spoke to a new audience but didn’t change the game. In 2010, with a wider retro market emerging thanks to sneaker blogs and evolving styles, the Air More Uptempo returned again yet still played the background to Air Jordan retro releases at the same time.

Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Niche and nostalgic, the shoe still turned heads but didn’t turn out registers as if it was an event. To be fair, that success was only allocated for Air Jordan 11 Retros around the holiday season or the occasional Air Max model that cut through.

What an audience, both American and abroad, would eventually discover was that the Air More Uptempo was both all at once. It packed the ’90s nostalgia of a Bulls basketball shoe with the visible tech of an Air Max runner.

As the 2010s progressed, retro basketball shoes became absolutely mass due to the demand around holiday Jordan launches and the headlines sparked by the “Galaxy” Nike Air Foamposite One release. In 2014, Nike announced Air Max Day as a celebration of its most memorable tech in new and archival fashion, reprogramming retailers to position shoes with said cushioning as status symbols.

Additionally, consumers of the Gen Z and Millennial variety became brand conscious in a very literal sense when it came to footwear, gravitating toward classic models reliant on sidewall brandings like the Nike Air Force 1, Adidas Superstar, and Vans Old Skool.

Once again, an array of adjacent forces culminated in making the More Uptempo more than perfect for the second time.

Designer John Elliott waves to the audience at the conclusion of his John Elliott + CO show during NYFW Men’s F/W 2016 at Skylight at Clarkson Sq on Feb. 4, 2016, in New York City. (JP Yim/Getty Images)

In 2016, Nike returned the Pippen pair with a more thoughtful rollout. While retro release rumors swirled almost a year before they were released at retailers, gasoline was thrown on the flame at February’s New York Fashion Week. Designer John Elliott addressed attendees in an all-white pair of the iconic model, matched by models wearing the vintage style with contemporary clothes. The contrast of Elliott’s neutral design with the loud shoes turned heads and aligned the somewhat kitschy style as fashion-forward.

“Today, there is a subversive kind of appeal to having a subtle style, kind of like more toned down, monochromatic look, and then going left with the footwear,” Elliott told Complex’s Matt Welty in 2016. “It’s an altogether dope move because it’s unexpected and it also shows that you have a taste level that has been curated for like your entire life. If you know how to pull something like that off, it means that you pay attention.  So, in a way, it kind of gives you some extra juice.”

“Those ’96 Uptempos had been kind of unexpected,” Elliott continued. “They were so dope and they made such a statement, especially when worn with all-black socks. The 96 Uptempo with the AIR is such a striking silhouette.”

Months after Elliott’s foreshadowing, the nostalgic Black/White OG came back as an authentic homage, allocated in a manner that created a chase. Hypebeast questioned whether 2016 was The Summer of the Nike Air More Uptempo, proving the appeal had grown outside of core hoop collectors. As the year progressed, Pippen’s “USA” pair came back in conjunction with that summer’s Olympic Games, celebrated by the gold-medal winner with an event at Ronnie Fieg’s KITH.

Montrezl Harrell, then of the Los Angeles Clippers, wears Nike Air More Uptempo Doernbecher basketball sneakers during a game in 2018.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

“I was looking for a shoe I felt would be good for a versatile player. Energy and excitement. I was looking for a shoe that assisted with my speed. The shoe came out and took graffiti off the wall and put the art on my feet,” Pippen said to Fieg at the event as recalled by Kish Lal for The Hundreds. “I never wore them off the court. The shoe came out way before its time. People look more to the shoe for fashion even though it’s really a performance shoe.”

While fans flocked to the original colorways of the ’96 style, new makeups crossed over as did collaborations. By the end of the year, the likes of Complex and XXL ranked the return amongst the best sneakers of the year while Nike went all in on its bet in 2017 by restyling the shoe with Supreme and a Doernbecher drop.

All this energy created more than just a moment, it created the clout and cache to make the model mass all over again.

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Sustained Success

Since the thoughtful approach to bringing back the Air More Uptempo in 2016 for its 20th anniversary and adding to its energy through collaborations in 2017, the Pippen pair has become an absolute mainstay in the modern market.

Odell Beckham rocks Nike OBJ game cleats during a 2019 game. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

A search on StockX for the term “More Uptempo” yields 168 results, speaking to the breadth of styles and sizes launched over the course of the last five years. Not only does every mall in America likely have a pair of More Uptempos for sale 26 years after their debut, but Nike has also used Wilson’s over-the-top aesthetic to inspire running shoes slanted towards lifestyle and performance cleats worn in NFL action by Odell Beckham Jr.

Much like ’80s basketball classics like the Air Jordan 1 and Nike Dunk are enjoying casual cache as sportswear staples, the ’90s defining Air More Uptempo is enjoying similar success.

When considering full-family sizing, the Nike Air More Uptempo is available in 25 different variations on Foot Locker along with Nike Store, Finish Line, Jimmy Jazz, and Sears all stocking styles.

Abroad, the likes of UK’s END. and Japan’s Atmos all keep the More Uptempo on their shelves.

Selling for upwards of $175 US in adult sizes to $75 for toddler takes, the Uptempo is priced like a status symbol, yet allocated as an everyday shoe.

“Since its release in 1996, the Uptempo has maintained its success and popularity among our Foot Locker consumers around the world as part of the Air Max franchise which remains among the most iconic and versatile innovations within our industry,” Samantha Lomow, EVP & Chief Customer Officer at Foot Locker, told Boardroom.

“We see its popularity firsthand with our partnership on Foot Locker’s Discover Your Air, our creative platform for all Nike Air products and related content. The Uptempo continues to be culturally relevant impacting sport and culture across generations.”

As the Air More Uptempo attempts another crossover, one to sandal styling, the market appears excited once again. Much like a comedian with a can’t-miss catchphrase, the A-I-R sidewall has yet to lose its luster on the masses, enjoying an unexpected reign at the top.

From a court standpoint, the bulky aesthetic and bulbous cushioning have not held up for modern, positionless play.

From a style standpoint, the Pippen pair has more than surpassed Tinker’s estimate that they’d sell millions, doing massive numbers around the world on an annual basis decades after the design debuted.

For fans, anything Air More Uptempo still speaks to the fun of a childhood birthday gift and statement wear with any outfit.

For Nike, it’s yet another breadwinner that takes next to no research and development costs while allowing the brand to retain a premium price point.

Sometimes, more is, in fact, more.

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About The Author
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook
Ian Stonebrook is a Staff Writer covering culture, sports, and fashion for Boardroom. Prior to signing on, Ian spent a decade at Nice Kicks as a writer and editor. Over the course of his career, he's been published by the likes of Complex, Jordan Brand, GOAT, Cali BBQ Media, SoleSavy, and 19Nine. Ian spends all his free time hooping and he's heard on multiple occasions that Drake and Nas have read his work, so that's pretty tight.
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