WNBA Sneaker Culture Deserves More Respect
Sneaker culture has been part and parcel in the NBA for quite some time. Everyone from Nike poster boy LeBron James and his LeBron 15s to Damian Lillard and his Dame 4s can be seen all across the league and prompt thousands—if not millions—of kids to go home to their parents and beg for the newest release.
But in the WNBA, the options are, shall we say, not as plentiful. No current WNBA player has her own signature shoe, a far cry from when the Air Swoopes debuted in 1995 and brands gave shoes to a handful of female ballers, including Dawn Staley, Cynthia Cooper and Lisa Leslie.
Why this is no longer the case when sneaker culture and basketball in general are a much bigger deal is a mystery. Even Maya Moore, who in 2011 became the first female basketball player to sign with the Jordan Brand, doesn’t have her own model, instead settling for a series of Jordan silhouettes in custom colorways.
None of this, however, means that sneakerhead culture in the WNBA is dormant. The only evidence you need is to peep what players like Las Vegas Aces forward Tamara Young or Seattle Storm stars Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart rock on a regular basis.
Whether it be Young’s seemingly endless collections of Jordans or Stewart promoting messages to go out and vote or partnering with RAINN to make shoes that help survivors of sexual assault, sneaker culture and deeper meanings behind the shoes that the athletes wear abound around the WNBA.
So why don’t sneakerheads in the WNBA get more attention? It’s likely a problem with exposure.
We are keenly aware of almost every move NBA superstars like LeBron or James Harden make, and when they drop a new model of their signature sneakers or a silhouette releases, giving us a sneak peak at the upcoming drop, it engages sneakerheads and casual fans alike.
But when none of your athletes have signature shoes and publicity for the league is growing but nowhere near what the NBA has, it’s difficult to get a foothold. It doesn’t matter how many dope KD 11s Stewart brings out for games if no one is there to capture it and share it outside of the WNBA sphere.
In a league full of personalities and starved for media coverage, it’s strange that brands like Nike, adidas and Puma don’t take advantage of more of the athletes they’ve signed to endorsement deals. When Jordan Brand produced a giant billboard of Moore mimicking Michael Jordan’s famous 1989 “Wings” poster in Minneapolis to kick off the WNBA season, it was a huge hit with the basketball-obsessed city and women’s basketball fans alike. The billboard was part of an ad campaign that also featured a commercial showcasing the four-time WNBA champion’s accomplishments during her time in the league.
The whole campaign was incredible and showed what kind of power a brand like Jordan can have in bringing awareness to the WNBA and its players. But the poster was taken down after a day—the amount of time the City of Minneapolis approved for it to be up—but a more permanent return could be in the works.
The impact that this kind of branding could have can’t be overstated and yet it feels like we’re still so far away from anything substantial.
While front-facing stars like Candace Parker, Chiney Ogwumike—both of which were featured in adidas “Calling All Creators” spot late last year—and her sister Nneka show out on the court for adidas, 2018 Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson reps Nike and seemingly the entire Phoenix Mercury roster rocks rare Nikes, it feels like even the league’s superstars are relegated to the shadows.
Diana Taurasi is one of the most fiery players in the WNBA and could easily lead an ad campaign in the vein of Kobe Bryant, despite her penchant for wearing LeBron 15s. Wilson oozes personality and would be a great player to build around, especially as her youth and happy-go-lucky nature could help bring in younger fans.
So maybe we never will get our Air Mayas or Candace Parker 1s, but brands could do a significantly better job of capitalizing on the huge sneakerhead culture in women’s hoops. Slam Magazine does a good job of it, as do fan accounts like WNBA Kicks on Instagram, that constantly post about the sneakers WNBA players are rocking. The account even ranks the best sneakerheads in the game—Young was ranked No. 1 this year, cementing her status as the P.J. Tucker of the WNBA.
On the Around the Rim podcast, LaChina Robinson talked with Under Armour Basketball’s head of Brand Marketing, Justin Brown, who offered a rosier future for women’s basketball sneakers.
“I think, when you look at how impactful women’s basketball is, not only in North America, but then also across the globe, right?” Brown said, “they have reach and impact that’s growing at a rapid pace, everywhere. And so, we’re primed to be able to take advantage of that opportunity.
“So hopefully, the answer will be yeah, in the future, we can identify someone—at least on the women’s side—who can have that same impact that Steph (Curry) does.”
That’s a lofty prediction, but imagining Under Armour signing a newcomer like 2018 Final Four breakout Notre Dame star Arike Ogunbowale if she reaches the WNBA or Nike putting a legitimate campaign behind Wilson could pay huge dividends for the league and its players.
Until then, sneakerheads in the league and the small handful that have endorsement deals will continue to live in obscurity until something like the Jordan Brand’s Moore ‘Wings’ poster brings the issue back into the national consciousness.