She's Got Game

WNBA players deserve signature basketball shoes. Why do men get most of them?

Women sports are often kept out of merch conversations, but it’s time for sneaker brands to pay more attention to female athletes and their marketing potential.

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When Breanna Stewart signed an exclusive signature sneaker contract with Puma in 2020, the moment was seen as a win for the entire WNBA. Still, people around the league wondered why it took so long for one of the most exciting players in women’s basketball to be recognized by a shoe brand.

That’s not to say shoe deals are thrown around all the time in the NBA, but star male players have less trouble trying to get scooped up by companies like Nike, Adidas, Puma, and others — in deals that, more often than not, will set them up for the rest of their life financially. Signature sneakers are deemed one of the highest honors among professional basketball sponsorships, but the women’s sector went ten years between its last two.

Basketball is a sport that has bred some of the most influential trends and figures in history. From glistening arenas to court-side fashion to the celebrity status of its players, it relies on viewership and engagement as much as performance. Cultural markers like the Space Jam franchise and Dennis Rodman’s experimental style solidify basketball’s immortal legacy in society.

Still, most of the attention is shown through the male lens. Though the NBA does have its female equivalent beat by 50 years of history, there’s a disparity among the women’s league that affects salary, marketing efforts, and merchandising. Sneaker deals in the NBA are becoming more crowded every day, but the feminine branch of its sports endorsement tree often goes unwatered.

If The Shoe Fits

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Only ten players in the WNBA have signature sneakers today, the tenth breaking a decade-long drought, while the NBA includes 18 and counting. If basketball is one of the most celebrated and profitable American sports, why aren’t more of its female athletes getting signature sneakers?

The first answer to the question, and the one most people point to, is perhaps the most unsatisfactory. Women simply make less money than men and this fact applies to nearly all areas of professional sports: salary, viewership, and sponsorship. In turn, this translates to less focus on WNBA athletes from brands, media outlets, and fans.

As a whole, professional basketball boasts more than $8 billion in revenue in the United States spread among the Men’s and Women’s National Basketball Association, or NBA and WNBA, respectively. The NBA makes about $7.4 billion, while the WNBA contributes about $60 million. In 2019, the average NBA athlete’s salary was $8,321,937 compared to the $75,181 earned by their WNBA counterparts. At the same time, the WNBA trails the NBA in viewership and attendance, so without essential funding and support, WNBA signature sneakers aren’t given much priority.

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According to Tiffany Beers, iconic designer of Nike’s self-lacing Mag sneaker and Kanye West’s first Air Yeezy, making sneakers for women comes with limitations. When designing for a WNBA athlete, the sneaker is built to her size and needs, whereas shoes like Air Jordans are widely accepted by men and women as an everyday shoe – though not without some strain. “All the Jordans are high-performance basketball shoes that people wear daily,” she told Input in an interview. “But if you’ve worn one as a female, you can tell it’s a lot of shoe to be wearing every day.”

Nike Blazer Mids and Chuck Taylor Converse were basketball classics on- and off-court because of their minimal design, but building a shoe today that men and women wear equally is bound to require some sacrifice to either comfort or performance. However, without a strong market for women’s basketball shoes, there aren’t enough sales in that type of product to warrant the effort of putting teams together to build another version, noted Beers. Without everyone trying to get a hold of a signature WNBA shoe like they do Jordans, brands turn an even blinder eye.

An Unfair Trade

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Jasmine Baker, founder of @WeGotGame2, a sports platform highlighting Black women in sports culture, thinks brands should be doing more to support WNBA athletes, including sneaker rollouts and events. “Right now we’re in a new era of women’s basketball and my question is whether the brands are ready to jump on this or not,” she told Input. “Oftentimes, people are trying to figure out who the next one person is [to have a signature shoe], but you never ask this question with men. They just all have shoes now and we’re buying them.”

The ten women who currently have signature sneakers includes Rebecca Lobo with Reebok, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Cynthia Cooper, Chamique Holdsclaw, and Diana Taurasi with Nike, Nikki McCray with Fila, Candace Parker with Adidas, and Breanna Stewart with Puma. They span from the WNBA’s 1996 inception, though there is a ten-year gap between Candace Parker in 2010 and Breanna Stewart in 2020. Some brands have slowly picked up on women’s sports, like Puma who signed Stewart and spearheaded the “She Moves Us” campaign, but the true reason for the gap isn’t confirmed and many see it as a blatant lack of investment.

“My question is whether the brands are ready to jump on this or not.”

Nearly 40 percent of United States athletes are female, yet they account for only two to four percent of media coverage. Erica Ayala, a sports journalist, noted that even the “most mildly viewed men’s sports league has major sponsors and a broadcast deal.” The WNBA and other women’s leagues are expected to do their own marketing and achieve a competitive level of celebrity without proper resources. As a result, there isn’t much investment coming from sneaker sponsors.

Viewership of women’s sports is obviously difficult to increase without media coverage, a crucial element in sponsorship. Brands aren’t making as much money on products or apparel, which leaves them to focus on what they do make money on: men. Millions of dollars are even invested into high school boys basketball, solidified by Mikey Williams’ multi-year contract with Puma.

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Major brands and organizations, in sports and otherwise, commit and recommit to diversity and the push for inclusion, yet it’s still a slow, uphill battle to progress. During the tumultuous summer of 2020, athletic brands everywhere announced their support of Black athletes through advertisements and campaigns, but people of color were still left out of product rollouts.

Cat Ariail, a women’s sports historian, wrote that if major brands gave players the respect and equity they deserved, “it would not be necessary to, once again, reflect on issues of race and equity in the WNBA and women’s sports.” With a lack of sufficient funding, market, inclusivity, and brand strategy, women’s merchandising can’t evolve.

“The community has a huge voice, it’s just whether [everyone] can get [their] voice on the same page or not.”

When it comes to sneakers, there’s a correlation between what’s on the shelf and how it gets there. Fashion marketing does push sneaker hype and storytelling, but ultimately, the community drives innovation with its dollars. “Designers do their best to meet the community’s needs,” said Beers. “The community has a huge voice, it’s just whether [everyone] can get [their] voice on the same page or not.” Brands stock the shelves with what sells and the constant sale of classic sneakers and older silhouettes prevents new ideas and innovation, including signature shoes for women. Why stop making and selling Air Jordans from decades ago if that’s what people want?

Being that the WNBA is so young, Baker believes Gen Z is going to be the first generation that really sees a flourishment of women’s sports. “There’s never going to be a time these kids don’t know of women’s sports being a part of mainstream sports culture,” she said. “There’s a privilege to that that I think a lot of these companies have to hop on.”

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It’s difficult to tell whether the WNBA’s success can prosper without a bigger community and more brand investment behind it. The Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson is long overdue for a signature sneaker, while the Chicago Sky’s Dana Evans is a business-savvy entrepreneur who has launched an eyelash vending machine for college students and could benefit herself and a brand with a shoe of her own. At the very least, brands can cast an eye to high school girls basketball programs, where the WNBA’s future stars could be born — if that’s done for the boys, why not the girls, too?

The doors open a little more every time companies take the necessary steps to change the landscape, but until they decide more than one player can reap the benefits at a time, it’ll take another ten years for a significant shoe deal — and the WNBA and its players deserve better than that.