Her profile grew in her first season under head coach Kim Mulkey’s program — she won a national championship, became known as a double-double machine, and used her personality to charm anyone and everyone off the court.
The trendsetting forward now has 2.1 million Instagram followers and counting, and her $1.6 million NIL value is more than the combined salaries of the top six highest-paid WNBA players.
But the Tigers star was aiming for a goal that has evaded many of her predecessors: landing a big shoe deal.
At a press conference before the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Reese made it clear that she was already working on it.
“Hopefully, I can sign into a shoe deal before I leave college. That is my big goal right now, especially with NIL. I know I can make as much in college and probably more than the WNBA, so that’s just going to be important for me going into the league, emphasizing my fashion.”
During Reese’s life-changing tournament experience, her team received a surprise visit by the first WNBA player to dunk a basketball in a game and third to receive a shoe deal: Lisa Leslie.
After Leslie met Reese, she reflected on the significance of that deal with Nike.
“It was a blessing,” said Leslie. “If I was playing basketball or trying to be a fashionista, finding my size shoe at the time (13) was not that easy. I was really blessed when I got my own shoe. My shoe was based off of a Chanel bag. It had the puffy Chanel pattern on there, if you will, and then I had silver because I love silver and gold jewelry.”
Even with her own shoe deal, Reese may still face the same obstacles Leslie faced 25 years ago.
WNBA signature shoe sales don’t receive equal status as NBA deals.
Four-time NBA MVP LeBron James may be up to his 20th model, but even Carmelo Anthony, who saw his signature shoe sales fluctuate through his career, still landed additional colorways and 13 shoe models.
Sheryl Swoopes, the WNBA player with the most models, with seven.
“The thing I noticed a long time ago is a lot of the shoes, even if it was Dawn Staley, Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie, or Rebecca Lobo’s Reebok, there was a harder criteria,” ESPN sneaker expert Nick DePaula said. “They had a different set of expectations where if their shoe did not sell well, then they did not even have a second or third shoe.
“The biggest disparity is actually who gets a shoe — and once somebody does have a shoe, the expectation level is different.”
A shoe deal drought
A dozen years passed between the release of Candace Parker’s Adidas Ace Commander and Ace Versatility in 2010 and Breanna Stewart’s Puma Stewie 1 in September 2022, without a new WNBA signature sneaker deal. Nike took 15 years between WNBA shoe deals.
Nike innovation sourcing strategy manager Malcolm Hodge believes that the company is making amends for leaving female athletes out of consideration.
“I think the 15-year gap had to do with us trying to figure out what the future was for the company, the future of athletes, the future of sport,” Hodge said. “Right, wrong, or indifferent, we just did not have the right strategy around how we thought about it at the time.
“So, now, there is newer effort and new energy that is revolving around diversity, inclusion, and making sure we are getting the right people involved at the right time… I think we have acknowledged we were not doing it right, which is where we are putting all this energy around women today.”
Stewart, a two-time WNBA Finals MVP, was never offered a signature shoe with Nike, and when her deal ended, she moved to Puma. Stewart is now on her second model.
“She (Stewart) was only 26 or 27 at the time when she signed with Puma, but her resume was as if she was a 35-year-old Hall of Famer,” DePaula said.
To recover lost ground, Nike had to venture into new emotional territories.
The first Nike Air Deldon’s colorway was dedicated to Elena Delle Donne’s battle with Lyme disease, and her second is directly related to her coming-out story.
The third, a tribute to her sister — who is blind and deaf and has autism and cerebral palsy — is truly next-level. Delle Donne and Nike incorporated the company’s FlyEase technology to feature hands-free technology and modifications to the shoe’s heel and tongue.
“Competition is always a good thing,” Washington Post women’s basketball reporter Kareem Copeland said. “They [Nike] saw Puma. They were another company preparing and getting back into that market. I think this might be a little bit of motivation for others.”
DePaula said it’s noteworthy that Puma gave Stewart’s shoe the same marketing emphasis as LaMelo Ball’s shoe, which was released around the same time. Stewart is now onto her second model within her Puma deal, the Stewie 2 “Ruby,” named after her daughter.
“It appeared that Breanna and LaMelo had an equal level of support and push from the photoshoots and launches,” DePaula said. “They were making a distinct effort to really put Stewie on that level and make it a fully realized launch.”
Thanks to social media, the marketing landscape now extends well beyond traditional television commercials and billboards.
“I think the social media aspect is definitely part of it when you look at when Diana Taurasi launched her shoe — there wasn’t really any social media platform other than Facebook and Myspace,” DePaula said. “Now, you are really able to rally around players’ channels and different platforms that are dedicated to women’s sports and also promote the shoes.”
A different obstacle
Nine of the top 10 WNBA players are Black, but the recent distribution of signature shoe deals doesn’t represent this fact.
Reigning Las Vegas Aces champion A’ja Wilson, who’s currently in first place in WNBA All-Star voting with 35,968 votes — doesn’t have a shoe deal.
Wilson is an NCAA champion, WNBA champion, four-time WNBA All-Star, WNBA Rookie of the Year, two-time WNBA MVP, and WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. Although she has recently been in ads for the Nike Cosmic Unity, it’s not her signature shoe — she doesn’t get a percentage of each sale, and the line and models aren’t named after her.
“The fact that Elena Delle Donne has a shoe, Breanna Stewart has a shoe, you see in the WNBA and media there is just natural promotion of white athletes at the expense of Black athletes, and that is not always in line with their production. Stewie and Elena Delle Donne are former MVPs, but so is A’ja Wilson,” The Athletic’s Sabreena Merchant said. “Where is her shoe?”
Hodge is optimistic about future relationships for potential WNBA sneaker signees, but emphasizes that the industry can’t simply stop at sneakers.
“I think we need to take it a step back from sneakers and look at what equity looks like,” Hodge said. “We need to make sure we are supporting women the way they should be, and if sneakers are a byproduct of that conversation, then by all means. If it’s sneakers, if it’s the salary, if it’s the jerseys, if it’s the equipment, if it’s the capital — we should have broader conversations.”