When Breanna Stewart signed an exclusive signature sneaker deal with Puma in 2020, the moment was considered a victory for the entire WNBA. Still, people around the league wondered why it had taken so long for one of women’s basketball’s most exciting players to be recognized by a shoe brand.
That’s not to say that shoe deals are thrown around all the time in the NBA, but star male players have less trouble trying to get picked 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 lives financially. Signature sneakers are considered one of the highest accolades among professional basketball sponsors, but the women’s sector has passed ten years between its last two.
Basketball is a sport that spawned some of the most influential trends and figures in history. From glittering arenas to shortside fashion to the celebrity status of its players, it’s as much about viewership and engagement as it is about performance. Cultural markers like the space jam Dennis Rodman’s candor and experimental style reinforce the immortal legacy of basketball in society.
Yet most of the attention is shown through the male lens. Although the NBA has its female equivalent beaten by 50 years of history, there is a disparity within the women’s league that affects salaries, marketing efforts and merchandising. Sneaker deals in the NBA are getting more crowded every day, but the women’s branch of its sports promotion tree often remains without water.
If the shoe fits
Only ten WNBA players have signature sneakers today, with the tenth breaking a ten-year drought, while the NBA has 18 and counting. If basketball is one of America’s most famous and profitable sports, why aren’t more female athletes getting iconic sneakers?
The first answer to the question, and the one most people point to, is perhaps the most unsatisfying. Women simply make less money than men and this fact applies to almost all areas of professional sport: salary, viewership and sponsorship. This, in turn, results in less attention being paid to WNBA athletes by brands, media, and fans.
As a whole, professional basketball generates more than $8 billion in revenue in the United States, split between the Men’s and Women’s National Basketball Association, or NBA and WNBA, respectively. The NBA earns around $7.4 billion, while the WNBA contributes around $60 million. In 2019, the average salary for an NBA athlete was $8,321,937, compared to $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, the WNBA’s signature sneakers don’t have much of a priority.
According to Tiffany Beers, iconic designer of Nike’s self-lacing Mag sneaker and Kanye West’s first Air Yeezy, there are limits to making women’s sneakers. When designing for a WNBA athlete, the sneaker is designed for her size and needs, while shoes like Air Jordans are widely accepted by men and women as everyday shoes, but not without effort. . “All Jordans are high-performance basketball shoes that people wear every day,” she said. Grab in an interview. “But if you’ve worn one as a woman, you can say that’s a lot of shoes to wear every day.”
Nike Blazer Mids and Chuck Taylor Converse were basketball classics on and off the court due to their minimalist design, but building a shoe today that men and women wear alike necessarily requires sacrifices in terms of comfort or performance. However, without a strong market for women’s basketball shoes, there aren’t enough sales in this type of product to justify the effort to get teams together to build another version, Beers noted. Without everyone trying to get their hands on a signature WNBA shoe like they do Jordans, brands are turning even more blind.
An unfair trade
jasmine baker, founder of @WeGotGame2, a sports platform showcasing black women in sports culture, thinks brands should be doing more to support WNBA athletes, including rolling out sneakers and hosting events. “Right now we’re in a new era of women’s basketball and my question is whether brands are ready to jump on it or not,” she said. Grab. “Often people try to guess who the next person is. [to have a signature shoe], but you never ask that question with men. They all have shoes now and we buy them.
The ten women who currently have signature sneakers include 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 have been stretching since the inception of the WNBA in 1996, although there is a ten-year gap between Candace Parker in 2010 and Breanna Stewart in 2020. Some brands have slowly taken over women’s sports, such as Puma which signed Stewart and led the “She Moves Us” campaign, but the real reason for the gap is unconfirmed and many see it as a gross lack of investment.
“My question is whether the brands are ready to jump about it or not.
Nearly 40% of American athletes are women, but they make up only 2-4% of media coverage. Erica Ayala, a sports journalist, noted that even “the least-watched men’s sports league has major sponsors and a broadcast deal.” The WNBA and other women’s leagues would have to do their own marketing and achieve a competitive level of stardom without proper resources. As a result, there aren’t many investments from sneaker sponsors.
The audience for women’s sport is obviously difficult to increase without media coverage, a crucial element of sponsorship. Brands don’t make as much money on products or apparel, which leaves them to focus on what they make money on: people. Millions of dollars are even pouring into high school basketball, bolstered by Mikey Williams’ multi-year contract with Puma.
Big brands and organizations, in sport and elsewhere, are committing and recommitting to diversity and pushing for inclusion, but it’s still a slow and uphill battle to make progress. During the tumultuous summer of 2020, sports brands around the world announced their support for black athletes through ads and campaigns, but people of color were still excluded from product rollouts.
Women’s sports historian Cat Ariail wrote that if the big brands gave players the respect and fairness they deserved, “there would be no need, once again, to think about issues of race and gender. equity in the WNBA and women’s sports”. Without sufficient funding, market, inclusivity and branding, women’s merchandising cannot scale.
“The town has a huge voice, it’s just if [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 she gets there. Fashion marketing drives sneaker hype and storytelling, but ultimately the community drives innovation with its dollars. “The designers do their best to meet the needs of the community,” Beers said. “The community has a huge voice, it’s just so [everyone] can get [their] voice on the same page or not. Brands are stocking shelves with what’s selling, and the constant sale of classic sneakers and older silhouettes inhibits new ideas and innovation, including iconic women’s shoes. Why stop making and selling Air Jordans from decades ago if that’s what people want?
Given that the WNBA is so young, Baker believes Gen Z will be the first generation to truly see a flourish in women’s sports. “There will never be a time when these children will not know that women’s sport is part of traditional sporting culture,” she said. “There’s a privilege to that that I think a lot of these companies have to jump on.”
It’s hard to say if the success of the WNBA can thrive without a bigger community and more investment in the brand. A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces is long overdue for a signature sneaker, while Chicago Sky’s Dana Evans is a savvy entrepreneur who launched an eyelash vending machine for college students and could benefit herself and a brand with a shoe of its own. At the very least, brands can take a look at high school girls’ basketball programs, where future WNBA stars could be born — if it’s for boys, why not girls too?
The doors open a little more each time companies take the necessary steps to change the landscape, but until they decide that more than one player can reap the benefits at a time, it will take another ten years for a major shoe deal – and the WNBA and its players deserve better than that.