Search for girls’ or women’s basketball shoes on Nike.com, and a multitude of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and, of course, Michael Jordan models fill the screen.
As technology and design thrust sneakers into the future with self-tying laces and 3-D-printed soles, footwear gender equity remains stuck in the past.
In 1995, Sheryl Swoopes became the first female athlete to have a basketball shoe named after her. In the WNBA’s early seasons, Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Fila released shoes with Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Cynthia Cooper, Nicki McCray, Rebecca Lobo and Chamique Holdsclaw.
Now, in the 21st season of the WNBA, not one player has a line to call her own. Why the backpedal?
In the late 1990s, the sneaker business was not the giant of today, and the WNBA was new.
“The real question is why didn’t it go forward, and the real answer is they didn’t sell enough shoes to make it worth their while,” said Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at NPD Group. “I’m hopeful it will change. If a brand figures this out and starts to make a lot of money, everyone else is going to follow suit.”
Although there are more athletic shoes on the market specifically for women, many female players still make do with sneakers made for men, and not just in basketball. Last year, Adidas introduced its first soccer cleats designed for women.
“It’s long overdue,” said Robyne Carrasquillo, 52, a New York Liberty fan. Twenty years ago, Carrasquillo bought a Teresa Weatherspoon jersey. She has since passed it on to her 13-year-old daughter, Savanah, who wore it for Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Lynx.
Maya Moore, a three-time WNBA champion with the Lynx, said she would never forget her first pair of Air Swoopes.
“My mom and I both had them,” she said. “It was exciting. I didn’t know how unique that was as an 8-year-old. I just saw Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper and Tina Thompson winning WNBA championships and playing amazing basketball, and I just wanted the shoe.
She added: “Those things matter, especially when you’re young. There’s value there. Her work and talent were being rewarded. The investment was worthwhile because it inspired the next generation of women’s basketball players.”
Naté Burley walked through the corridors of Madison Square Garden wearing a Moore jersey. Burley, 13, of Middletown, New York, cheers for the Liberty but idolizes Moore, a former Connecticut star.
“When I wear my jersey at school, boys will ask me, ‘Who is Moore, and what is the Mayo Clinic?’” she said. (Like other teams in the league, the Lynx feature their marquee sponsor — in their case, the Mayo Clinic — on their jerseys instead of the team name.)
As a child, Moore did not know that it was unusual to have a sneaker named after a female player. Burley, however, never considered the possibility; she just assumed that only NBA players had signature basketball shoes.
In 2011, Moore became the first female basketball player to sign an endorsement deal with Nike’s Jordan brand. In 2015, Nike produced its first retail shoe with Moore. The Jordan brand will release a two-shoe special collection Sept. 30 billed as a tribute to Moore.
But it will not be called Air Maya. The Moore-inspired Air Jordan 1 Retro High ($95) and Air Jordan 10 Retro ($140) will be sold in children’s extended sizes from 3.5 to 9.5. The shoes feature pops of fuchsia, one of Moore’s favorite colors, and personal touches such as “3:23” on the pull tab, for her favorite Bible verse, Colossians 3:23.
So what’s in a name? To sneaker heads and athletes, everything. A signature shoe signals that a player has arrived. It is a multimillion-dollar investment in a player’s success and marketability. It is less of a gamble to have a female player endorse an already established product line, and even less of a risk to roll out a player-edition shoe.
“They’re getting more sales power with Moore under the Jordan brand,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising. “It makes more sense to put female players under the parachute of their other brand.”
Moore said she hoped that her shoes would inspire children, appeal to various groups of customers and maybe even have sustained success similar to that of Swoopes’ footwear, which came in seven models.
“There’s no question, the sneaker culture is a big part of the excitement, respect and legitimacy in the basketball world,” Moore said. “The sneaker culture is very influential for men. That’s why it’s an interesting dynamic, with me being a female, to see how guys in the sneaker culture think about a female signature shoe.”
Women’s athletic or lifestyle shoes are more likely to be named for entertainers, designers and models. Rihanna and Kylie Jenner have deals with Puma; Stella McCartney has a line with Adidas; and Under Armour sponsors Gisele Bündchen (as well as her husband, Tom Brady).
“For the women, it’s still about marketing and sales, and it’s not there yet,” Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer said. “If it was a big seller, you’d still see it. Sorry to say that, but it’s just reality.”
Liberty point guard Epiphanny Prince sees both sides as the WNBA’s foremost sneaker head, with a carefully curated collection of more than 400 pairs.
“It’s still a business; you want shoes to sell,” Prince said. “You don’t want them sitting on the shelves. You want it to sell out. Everything is about the dollar.”
For the moment, Prince has stopped adding to her collection.
“The way the sneaker culture is now is that a shoe comes out, someone buys all of them and then resells a pair for $800 because that’s their hustle,” she said. “Resellers have ruined the fun.”
Still, her face lights up when she discusses her collection.
“Let me show you a picture,” she said.
In the photo, Prince is in her shoe room, surrounded by hundreds of clear plastic containers, each showcasing a pair. As for those on her feet?
“I wear Kobes,” she said, “because it’s Kobe.”