Inside the Sneaker School That's Sending Students Directly to the Industry

What goes down at the University of Oregon's Sports Product Management program.

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A decision has to be made, and soon. On a table cluttered with samples and drawings, people are trying to clear the final obstacles before getting their shoes turned from pitch to reality. Designers absentmindedly whip up sketches while others hash out potential production problems. Sportswear industry vet Ellen Schmidt-Devlin is concerned about the timing of it all–particularly if the shoes get stuck in customs while making their way from Asia to America.

“Tell the factory,” she says, instructing others to be as explicit as possible with their material descriptions. “We tie the hands of our factories with our vendors. They're not gonna bend over backwards to make sure that material gets through customs in time. Don’t back the factories into a corner.”

This meeting could be happening on the campus of any of the big players in the sneaker industry, but we’re sitting in a University of Oregon classroom in Portland, Oregon. The class is part of the school’s Sports Product Management program, which Schmidt-Devlin co-founded to create a new kind of pipeline to bring talent to the sportswear industry. It doesn’t focus only on the business or marketing side, and it’s not the pure dreaming of product design, but something in between.

When Schmidt-Devlin was still in the industry, the joke was that you couldn’t go to school for this. She certainly didn’t go through any such training, her entry point being through legendary Oregon coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, who approached Schmidt-Devlin during her days as an athlete at the school and asked her to test shoes for him. The dialogue she recalls from their initial meeting is almost too perfect, sounding like something straight out of a Nike marketing campaign.

“‘Would the girls on the team test shoes for Nike?’” Schmidt-Devlin remembers Bowerman asking her. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Bowerman,” she replied, “but we’re not girls, we’re women.”

Schmidt-Devlin worked at Bowerman’s lab in Eugene, Oregon, and became a Nike employee in 1980. She stayed with the Swoosh until 2009, working as a lead on product teams, a director for its footwear business in Japan, and more during her tenure. In January, 2012, she began work on what would become the Sports Product Management program, which just graduated its inaugural class in March.

The Sports Product Management degree is an 18-month master’s program designed to familiarize students with every step necessary to creating a product in the sportswear industry. Its courses—brand strategy, product design, and strategic management, to name a few—read like the job titles you’ll see if you browse career postings for Nike or Adidas. There are still real papers to write and tests to take, but there’s also an innovation lab where students learn how to put together shoes from scratch. There are even factories partnered with the program to help prototypes get made.

A large part of getting these things made involves collaborating with people of other backgrounds. In fact, the cohort is built with diversity in mind—at a series of product presentations by students there’s a Moroccan-born man from New York who worked with the Gronkowski family, a cryptologic language analyst from the Air Force, and a woman who played college basketball and wants to get closer to sneakers by actually making them. What’s more, the subjects they study are broad, from kinesiology to design to business, a cross-section Schmidt-Devlin hopes reflects the industry’s breadth of career paths. The idea behind this is that at any given company, the teams creating products are similarly varied.

"Because they think different than you do and you all have to accomplish the same thing collectively, you have to compromise. You’re learning from each other—we force tension"

A large part of getting these things made involves collaborating with people of other backgrounds. In fact, the cohort is built with diversity in mind—at a series of product presentations by students there’s a Moroccan-born man from New York who worked with the Gronkowski family, a cryptologic language analyst from the Air Force, and a woman who played college basketball and wants to get closer to sneakers by actually making them. What’s more, the subjects they study are broad, from kinesiology to design to business, a cross-section Schmidt-Devlin hopes reflects the industry’s breadth of career paths. The idea behind this is that at any given company, the teams creating products are similarly varied.

“You have to work on a team with everybody that has a functional background that’s different than yours,” she explains. “They think different than you do. Because they think different than you do and you all have to accomplish the same thing collectively, you have to compromise. You’re learning from each other—we force tension into the program. That’s how great product is made.”

One gets the sense that this master’s program could only exist in Portland, North America’s sportswear hub, where, as the students have noticed, even the homeless people wandering the streets wear hyped sneakers. It is home to Nike’s world headquarters and Adidas’ U.S. headquarters, and Under Armour is steadily increasing its footprint in the city. The students benefit from this via faculty who’ve spent countless years in the industry, access to brand spaces, and internships.

“There’s a lot of connections to be made, that’s one huge thing that brought me out here,” says Kevin Derr, who studied industrial design at Iowa State University as an undergrad. “I knew this is basically—people call it the Silicon Valley of footwear and athletic companies. Being here, it’s where it’s all really happening. I made a lot of connections that probably would’ve never happened if I was somewhere else.”

While it’s easy to see the extent to which sneakers and sports apparel really matter to the industry people populating the program, this dedication is not all-encompassing. Students described having their teachers bring in rare and unreleased pairs from their portfolios, but this doesn’t always translate on-feet. One suspects Schmidt-Devlin has access to all sorts of impressive footwear from her many years with Nike, so it’s slightly disappointing to see her and other staff in shoes instead of sneakers. The master’s program isn’t strictly about sneakers though—some students focus on apparel and there are also projects based around sports equipment.

To the same extent that the Sports Product Management program feels most at home in Portland, it also feels at home at the University of Oregon, a school inextricably linked to the footwear industry through Nike. The brand’s co-founder Phil Knight met its other co-founder, the aforementioned Bowerman, there. Steve Prefontaine, the tragic hero referred to as the “soul of Nike,” ran there. Nike’s most celebrated designer, Tinker Hatfield, is an Oregon alum. Students know about these connections and mention them as part of the program’s pull.

But it’s not a Nike program, and Schmidt-Devlin aims to make the space brand-agnostic, even stopping herself from naming the company and selecting more general terms when possible. Greg Leedy and Mike Friton, a duo of Nike veterans who help with the Sports Product Management courses, don’t mention their former employer in introductions. That being said, the students do find themselves trending toward brand allegiances once they make inroads in the industry.

“You would see how people’s style changes,” says Courtney White, who landed an internship at Nike in 2016. “Someone who was wearing a ton of Nike, now they’re only wearing a ton of Adidas ‘cause they’re going to Adidas that summer. It’s like, if you’re with that company you better be wrapped in their stuff 24/7 or you’re gonna be walking down the streets and bump into [Nike CEO] Mark Parker. Actually, he goes to the gym down the street from me, so I have run into him.”

The placing of students in the industry through internships—be it at the Portland campuses of sportswear companies or at factories in Asia—gives them a head start that wasn’t available to generations past who sought to work at these brands. Schmidt-Devlin jokes that it took Nike nearly 30 years to teach her things that students can now learn in 18 months. It took her 16 years before she got her first offshore assignment at work, but her students today visit factories in Asia while they’re still in school.

Listening to Schmidt-Devlin talk, it becomes apparent that part of her motivation with the Sports Product Management program is to do for others what Bowerman—who referred to himself as a teacher rather than a coach—did for her. As the Nike co-founder was a sponsor of sorts for her, she was able to sit with pattern makers and design teams, learning in the industry.

“The kids today, they don’t have any of those advantages,” Schmidt-Devlin says. “What we’ve created here is an opportunity for today’s generation to have that same access to making.”

The hope is that this new generation will be better equipped than any before it to succeed in the sportswear industry. Its first graduating class is already realizing that ideal: 15 of its 37 members have jobs at brands like Nike and Adidas already, and three more offers are pending, a pretty good conversion rate considering how many applications these massive companies reject on a regular basis. In the future there’s the possibility of more of them starting their own companies: soon, investors from the industry will put up money to incubate start-ups directly out of the program.

In the classroom where students are pitching their shoes, the ideas behind the product are very much of this new generation, eager to challenge mainstream norms and sports. One sneaker is based on an androgynous muse that sheds the idea of gendered silhouettes; another is a sleek performance lifestyle sneaker responding to the growing trend of urban soccer. And this isn’t just moodboard stuff—the teams behind them are now equipped with the skills to turn them into tangible items. If all goes according to plan, these practices won't stop at the classroom.

“If you have to do every single step of the process, you have to know every single step of the process in a really deep way,” Schmidt-Devlin says. “Therefore, you can lead in this industry.”