How The Reebok Pump Changed The High-Tech Sneaker Game Forever

When it comes to cutting-edge athletic footwear, Reebok and its competitors - Nike being the most prominent among them - have been at the forefront of industry-shaking innovations that literally change the way people wear (and buy) sneakers. But few innovations have caused a stir quite like the Reebok Pump. On its way to becoming a veritable game-changer, the Pump - introduced at the tail-end of the 1980s - featured technologies that many brands, including arch-rival Nike, had been tiptoeing around for years. 

Thanks to various celebrity endorsements and buoyed by the "Pump Up, Air Out" campaign, the Pump became noteworthy among professional athletes and sports fans, eventually working its way into pop culture - not to mention every aspiring athlete's closet. The Pump utilized a high-tech air bladder system to provide an at-the-time unparalleled amount of support for feet and ankles. Reebok was one of a few brands manufacturing similar products at the time, but the Pump was without a doubt the most successful - until it wasn't.

Despite the Pump gracefully falling out of favor by the mid- to late-'90s, sneakerheads and nostalgia lovers continue to fawn over the highly coveted original Reebok Pumps, with their limited-edition releases and colorways.

  • With The Pump, Reebok Found A Much-Needed Edge Against Arch-Rival Nike

    For decades, Nike and Reebok - among a few other major brands - have competed against one another to gain the greatest market share in the athletic footwear industry. Prior to the release of the Reebok Pump, Nike had taken a strong lead in the industry, leaving Reebok to try to play catch-up throughout the 1980s.

    At the time, Nike had already begun releasing new air-based technologies that eventually led to the release of the manually inflatable Air Pressure shoe. Reebok, however, was still emptyhanded when it came to equivalent technology. When the company finally started making headway on what would eventually become the Pump - thanks in large part to the acquisition of a tennis and skiing brand called Ellesse - things began to change for the struggling brand, and fast.

  • The Pump Was A Huge Hit, Selling 20 Million Pairs In A Four-Year Span
    Photo: GOAT

    The Pump Was A Huge Hit, Selling 20 Million Pairs In A Four-Year Span

    After Reebok’s initial release of the Pump in late 1989, the shoe experienced a steady rise in popularity thanks in part to the "Pump Up, Air Out" marketing campaign. However, this mild popularity eventually skyrocketed as soon as endorsements by NBA stars like Dee Brown, Shaq, and others caught the attention of basketball and sneaker fans alike.

    And despite the relatively high price of the shoe at $170, Reebok managed to sell well over 20 million pairs in just four years.

  • It Was The Most Expensive - And Heaviest - Basketball Shoe Around

    The journey to crafting the perfect Pump was arduous but rapid. The shoe went through quite a few versions before designers settled on the one that ultimately won the hearts of basketball players and sports fans worldwide. In its first renditions, the Pump reportedly felt like wearing a brick on your foot, according to Reebok's vice president of operations at the time, Chris Walsh. The shoe was around 30% heavier than typical athletic sneakers, due in large part to the technology needed to inflate it. 

    Another potential obstacle to selling the shoe was its price tag of $170 - nearly double the cost of comparable sneakers on the market. Luckily for Reebok, consumers were more than willing to fork it over.

  • Parents Were Outraged About One TV Ad, Forcing Reebok To Pull It
    Video: YouTube

    Parents Were Outraged About One TV Ad, Forcing Reebok To Pull It

    As demand for the Pump steadily grew beyond its target audience - namely basketball players and NBA fans - Reebok decided to diversify its marketing strategies. This meant a collection of new commercials focusing on not just the shoe's superior performance in sports, but specifically its superiority to its rival, Nike.

    One of the company's most controversial ads garnered a lot of negative attention, particularly from parents, resulting in Reebok quickly removing it from circulation. 

    The ad features two bungee jumpers leaping side by side from the same bridge; one is wearing Nikes, while the other is wearing Reebok Pumps. They jump simultaneously - but only one of them survives. The final moments show the jumper wearing Reebok Pumps securely attached to the bungee cord - and his feet - while the Nike wearer is nowhere to be seen, with only his empty shoes hanging from the cord.

  • Reebok Found Unlikely Inspiration In A Ski Brand, Using Its Developmental Tech To Create The Pump Concept

    In 1989, when the Reebok Pump and other air-based shoes were first being developed, there were two design elements on the minds of athletic shoemakers: comfort and fit.

    When Reebok found itself in a deep sales lull in the late 1980s, it decided to get creative. Paul Litchfield, who is credited with inventing the Pump, decided to start looking outside of traditional shoe design market for inspiration. With Reebok's convenient acquisition of Ellesse, a tennis and skiing brand, Litchfield had access to certain technologies Ellesse had been developing for its skiing gear - specifically an inflatable shoe tongue.

    Litchfield proceeded to adapt this technology to fit a new line of basketball sneakers he was developing with the aim of creating greater ankle support - a key concern among hoopsters. This technology - albeit after a painstaking trial and error process - paved the way for the hand-pumped sneaker tongue that launched the Reebok Pump.

  • Reebok Faced Competition From Nike's Proposed 'Air Pressure' Shoe

    At nearly the same time Reebok was busy developing its air bladder system, Nike was following a similar path. But it wasn't until the two competing brands showcased each of their prototypes - in February 1989 at a sports product show in Atlanta, GA - that they discovered their shared goal.

    Despite the design similarities - using air-inflation systems to create additional support and security within the shoe - the rivals had one important difference that turned out to be the make-it-or-break-it factor.

    While Reebok premiered two different prototypes of the air bladder system - one that was self-inflating and one with a heel pump - Nike's shoe developers had taken an entirely different, if more traditional, route. Much like an air pump one might use to inflate a basketball or bike tire, Nike's "Air Pressure" shoe required an attachable handheld air pump to inflate the shoe.