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Monday, May 20, 2024

The Time Is Now: More WNBA Sneakers

  • As women’s basketball gains popularity, will it translate into a growing shoe deal market for its players?
  • How can the standards men's and women's shoe deals change?
Nike-Air-Jordans-in-front-of-wall
PETER PEREIRA/The Standard-Times / USA TODAY NETWORK
When 8-year-old Delilah Buhr’s father asked what her favorite WNBA sneakers were, she started off strong and named two-time gold medalist Candace Parker’s Exhibit sneakers. Directly after Parker, Delilah named 1999 NBA Rookie of the Year Vince Carter.

Her father asked her if she knew any other WNBA shoes.

“Nope, just Candace,” Delilah said.

Delilah ran up to Arizona State University’s head women’s basketball coach Natasha Adair at a home game in late February. Adair offered Delilah the opportunity to practice with the current Sun Devil team. Delilah showed up to practice in bright blue LeBron Witness 7 sneakers.

The probability of Delilah showing up in an NBA sneaker is more than four times as high as her showing up in a WNBA sneaker. There are 49 active and retired players with signature shoes from brands ranging from Nike to Li-Ning and ten brands in between. But, only 12 players in the WNBA’s 27-year existence have earned a signature shoe deal.

The WNBA’s growing visibility and interest do not match the number of deals being produced. The criteria for earning a signature shoe fluctuate with different standards. 

Unclear criteria

When each WNBA signature shoe deal is compared to others, some parallels are presented, but the criteria for getting this stamp of stardom have some gray areas.

Lesser-accomplished men generally get highly compensated signature shoe deals over accomplished WNBA players. 

Take Memphis Grizzlies superstar Ja Morant, who has never won an NBA Finals MVP,  never been crowned an NBA champion, and left college without an NCAA Championship. 

Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson has been named the WNBA MVP twice, won Defensive Player of the Year, and won an NCAA Championship and WNBA Championship. 

New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu saw success at the University of Oregon, finishing her collegiate career as the NCAA all-time leader in triple-doubles. The California native’s decision to take her talents only 110 miles away from Nike World Headquarters ended with a multi-year deal.

Morant received a multi-year $12 million per year signature shoe deal with Nike. 

Morant experienced the luxury of joining the fast-growing fraternity of NBA players with his own signature shoe. 

The way brands have operated, only Wilson or Ionescu can get a shoe, not both at one time.

The only time a top brand produced two WNBA signature shoes simultaneously it occurred in 1998 when Nike released Lisa Leslie’s Nike Total Air 9 and Dawn Staley’s Nike Zoom S5. Since 1998, no athletic brand has released two WNBA signature shoes in the same year.

Once companies decide to produce an additional WNBA signature deal, players still need to catch up because companies have shown they will only produce one at a time instead of four or more on the NBA side. 

Basketball shoes anchor sneaker culture. 

With the worldwide sneaker market banking in $72.72 billion in 2022, when it comes to sporting shoes, basketball leads the way because consumers are allowed to embody the player fully.  

“When you look at Jordans, Pennys and Barkleys and shoes from 90s that really made a mark, it was always because you were buying the exact shoe the player was playing in,” said Nick DePaula, ESPN footwear industry reporter. “Deion Sanders and Ken Griffey, as great as they were, you were not able to wear the exact same shoes they were wearing on the field because, obviously, they were wearing cleats.”

Disguise in deal types

During any given time in the 1990s, there were 14 to 15 NBA players with a signature shoe.  Three types of shoe deals exist for an athlete: signature, cash, and merch.

Signature shoe deals are the most desired type because of their longevity and revenue. Before six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan’s Nike signature deal, players were not getting a percentage of each shoe sold. With signature shoes, multiple versions, models, and colorways can be produced.

Player-exclusive (PE) shoe deals fall under cash deals. A WNBA player typically makes little to nothing from a cash deal, while NBA cash deals start at $50,000 and can exceed $5 million while also earning up to $300,000 from their PE every year.

Companies have been able to hide the lack of signature shoe deals given to WNBA players behind player-exclusive shoes (cash deals). Some of the league’s shining stars are given a PE, including 2022 WNBA Champion Aces guard Chelsea Gray.

Similar to Gray’s Adidas Dame 8, other headlining WNBA players are getting PEs, and it keeps basketball fans, consumers and women from calling out brands – because on the surface, it seems like WNBA players are getting signature shoe deals at the same rate as NBA players, but in reality, they are not. 

The Jordan influence

Next year, Jordan and Nike will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their groundbreaking signature deal. On Oct. 26, 1984, Nike’s Sonny Vaccaro turned away the possibility of signing multiple players to Nike to put the entire budget into offering the biggest contract known to man for a college athlete at the time –  $2.5 million for the North Carolina standout.

“When we (Nike) did the deal with Jordan, we had to think about how to put together a roadmap for our future athletes,” said Malcolm Hodge, manager of Nike footwear and apparel innovation sourcing strategy.  

The first model of Jordan’s shoe earned $126 million in the first year. The Jordan Brand has made $19 billion in sales in the past five years, with $5.1 billion alone in 2022.

“He (Jordan) is the genesis of Nike basketball. It has evolved by his legacy, who he has influenced, people like Kobe Bryant, Jason Tatum, and LeBron James,” Hodge said. “All of these people were definitely inspired by Michael Jordan.”

DePaula said this one-of-a-kind formula for footwear success is difficult to replicate, making the Jordan brand exceptionally special. 

“The success of the Jordan brand is really a factor of every best variable you could have as a player,” DePaula said. “He won championships in those shoes. The shoes themselves were very innovative and have great designs. They also have represented greatness in terms of different materials and executions in colorways. Michael, himself, has become this larger-than-life figure while becoming an icon within the sport.”

Below Jordan, the other two top-grossing shoes are James’ at $32 million and Kevin Durant’s at $28 million. 

How TV and shoes intersect

Since Sheryl Swoopes, the first WNBA athlete to be signed by the league and first to be granted a signature shoe by Nike, scored 47 points in the 1993 NCAA championship, the viewership of the women’s Final Four has soared: 9.95 million viewers tuned into ABC’s main broadcast in 2023.

“The fact that besides South Carolina, we had Iowa, Virginia Tech, and LSU in the Final Four, the best players are not going to the same schools anymore, and it is creating more parity,” Swoopes said. “Because of this, the game is growing, and the excitement is growing, and I am just so happy that I am able to be around and be a part.”

During prime COVID-19 times in 2020, 48% of adults purchased at least one streaming service, with overall WNBA viewership benefiting.

In 2021, ESPN reported throughout 17 games across three of Disney’s platforms (ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2), the viewership of the WNBA grew 63% between the 2020 WNBA playoffs and 2021 WNBA playoffs.  

The WNBA experienced growth faster at its 26-year mark than the NBA did at its 26-year mark. The 2022 regular season was the most-watched season in the WNBA’s existence, with an average of 379,000 viewers, a 21% increase from the 2021 season. 

The WNBA also reported the WNBA All-Star Game viewership went up 53% from 2021 to 2022, averaging 734,000 views. 

“Naturally, girls are just getting better,” Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale said. “It’s cool to be in the middle. I was able to play with Diana (Taurasi), Sue (Bird), and Candace. Now, I am about to see a new wave of players come in, kind of like myself. It is really exciting to be in the middle right now. It’s only going to get bigger. The way these high schoolers  and college players are looking right now, it is only going to get better, and I am super excited for what is to come.”

With more viewers tuned into the product, it is another chance for brands to amplify themselves, but it is turning into a washed-up opportunity. 

To Delilah, who does not have revenue in her third-grade mind, her attention is grabbed by seeing players in their shoes. This explains why she drifts towards NBA shoes with more chances to watch these players.

“It would be really cool to have girl shoes, but all I know is boys’ shoes,” Delilah said. “I like wearing boys’ shoes, and I play with boys. It’s awesome. Girl shoes are cool, too, I guess.”

With the number of television and streaming WNBA deals rising, things might change for Delilah. Still, if the WNBA signature shoes are not created, her parents will continue to have limited options to buy for the aspiring star. 

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