Shoes are a big deal in the basketball world.
Even with so many new and exciting options in sports shoes, there seems to be a market missing — signature sneakers from female athletes.
Air Swoopes, released in 1995, were the first pair of signature shoes named for a female athlete, Sheryl Swoopes. The shoes were gender neutral and became the second pair of signature shoes. The first were Michael Jordan’s, ten years prior.
Then in the 90s, Nike started using Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Mia Hamm and Jacki Joyner Kersee, in a print and TV marketing campaign. But the release of Air Swoopes is what gave women’s basketball a sense of legitimacy and belonging in the world of athletics, where women’s sports were often an afterthought.
Air Swoopes have almost completely disappeared from the market. There were a number of models following the original — Air Swoopes II, Air Swoopes Zoom, Air Swoopes IV, the Air Turned Swoopes, Air Swoopes VI and the Air Swoopes Premier — which are slightly easier to find.
But the very first model, the sneakers that signaled a new era of women’s sports shoes, are gone — much like the future of signature women’s sneakers.
Air Swoopes inspired other companies to get on board with female athletes. By 1999, six signature sneakers highlighting female athletes dropped. Two of the shoes bore athletes’ names. Reebok brought out The Lobo for Rebecca Lobo in 1997. FILA created the Nikki Delta Basketball for Nikki McCray in 1998. During 1999, women’s basketball shoes sales grew faster than men’s, according to USA Today.
Now, I can open any magazine or turn on the TV and view ads with female athletes endorsing all kinds of different things — soap, paper towels, headphones. And it’s great to see female athletes with sponsorship deals, but why are there zero shoe models named for any of them?
On top of that, female athletes already receive lower salaries and less-lucrative sponsorship deals.
Plenty of top athletic-wear companies sponsor female athletes across the sports world, but none of them have been honored with a shoe. But turn on an NBA game, and there will sometimes be multiple players on one court, all with signature shoes. Those shoes line shelves in hundreds of stores around the country, probably even the world.
Basketball shoe culture is a huge market.
Bringing female athletes into this market could bring in new customers and revenue.
And it’s not like there aren’t any deserving athletes. Elena Delle Donne, Candace Parker and Maya Moore would all be very worthy of a shoe collection.
The fact is, society has many ingrained ideas about gender roles. While there has been progress, these ideas of masculinity and femininity are habit, and it’s tough to break habit.
In advertising, sex sells. So for a female athlete to be marketable, she must have enough sex appeal to meet a broad audience. In contrast, male athletes are marketed on strength and masculine features.
I’ve never been an athlete, but I’m guessing that most female athletes aren’t looking for a pair of basketball shoes they feel sexy in. They’re probably looking for functionality more than anything, even though a cool color scheme doesn’t hurt. But advertising functional athletic wear isn’t as sexy as, well, sex.
It’s pretty well-known that women’s sports aren’t taken as seriously as men’s sports. But in the peak of women’s signature shoes, the WNBA’s peak game attendance soared to almost 11,000 spectators in 1998.
Today, the WNBA averages a little over 7,000 fans attending games. The WNBA also has shorter seasons and almost half the amount of teams as the NBA. Only a few of those teams are profitable.
This isn’t an issue that’s unique to basketball. Tennis stars like Serena and Venus Williams don’t have signature shoes, while Billie Jean King and Chris Evert had their own shoes in the 1970s, when women’s tennis was a tiny blip on the radar of sports. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic has a shoe by adidas. Djokovic said in 2016 that professional tennis players who are male should be paid more than professional tennis players who are female. I think maybe adidas should take away his signature shoe and give it to a woman. But that’s none of my business.
Being that the WNBA is not very profitable, and the sports world has a number of successful and talented female athletes, 2017 would be a great year to add more signature shoes from female athletes.
In working together, sportswear companies and professional sports leagues could create a new wave of fans and allegiance with women’s sports.
Tess Fox can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tesstakesphotos