She’s got sole: the current state of sneakers in the WNBA

Maya Moore wearing her Jordan Brand Air XI shoes. Photo courtesy of
Maya Moore wearing her Jordan Brand Air XI shoes. Photo courtesy of

The date was May 18, 2014 – the season opener for the Minnesota Lynx. Not only would four-time All-Star Maya Moore receive her WNBA championship ring with her teammates for the previous year, but she would debut her new Jordan Brand line shoe, by Nike.

Three years earlier, Moore became the first female athlete to represent Jordan Brand. The Maya Moore shoe put her in an exclusive contingent of athletes to have an Air Jordan XI Player Exclusive shoe named after them. The shoe is a bright teal patent leather with royal blue trim, and Moore wore them throughout the year, which ended with her being named the league’s regular-season Most Valuable Player.

Moore still remembers the day she debuted them.

“It was just special,” Moore said. “There’s so much history and popularity around the XI’s that it was just a great way to celebrate the start of a new season, where I wore a special edition of one of the most legendary shoes from Jordan Brand.”

For shoe aficionados, the debut marked another chapter in the evolution and art form of specialty footwear. Not only were XI’s unique when originally released in 1995, they were also the model worn by Michael Jordan during the Chicago Bull’s historic 1995-96 season when they went 72-10.

Truth be told, Moore has been making sneaker history her entire professional career. Coming out of the University of Connecticut in 2011, she joined fellow Husky alums Ray Allen and Richard Hamilton in landing a Jordan Brand deal.

“It was a pretty unique opportunity when I found out that the Jordan Brand was interested in partnering with women’s basketball through me,” Moore said. “Just really cool and exciting, kind of uncharted waters that we were both very excited to explore. Definitely a new buzz that it created in the game of basketball when we got the deal done.”

But though the debut of the shoe made a splash, featured shoes in the WNBA are often few and far between. While nearly the entire NBA is fortunate enough to have sneaker deals with the various brands – some even receiving their own signature model – WNBA stars are not usually given that same privilege. For every Maya Moore there is a Maggie Lucas playing without a sneaker contract.

To the average fan of the league, it may appear that both the Indiana Fever’s Lucas and Lynx guard Seimone Augustus play in Nikes. Both players seemingly play in colorways that the average consumer cannot find in store, so both must have deals with the brand, right?

The difference between the two players is that Nike’s Kyrie 2 that Augustus wears this season is a player-exclusive color scheme, which cannot even be recreated on NikeiD, a website where consumers can design shoes in the colors of their choosing. The Nike Kobe X Elite that Lucas had been lacing up before she got injured, in “Tour Yellow and Black,” is available for fans to purchase, despite one major modification that Lucas had to make on her own.

The WNBA’s current apparel deal with Adidas provides an interesting caveat. If players do not have a sneaker contract with a specific brand, they must wear Adidas sneakers on court or be forced to cover up the logos with tape or a marker. That is why Lucas’s Nike logo on her Kobe X Elite is yellow and not black, like the retail version: she had to conceal the logo.

This is different from the NBA, which plays under the same apparel contract. If an NBA player doesn’t have a sneaker contract, they are a sneaker “free agent” and are free to wear any brand they like on court, often receiving player exclusives from each brand looking to sign them. A sneaker free agent in the NBA can run the gamut with their on-court selections.

Adidas is currently only affording two WNBA players with a paid endorsement, but their brand is often seen on the feet of many players looking to reap the benefits of the free Adidas footwear, per the agreement of the apparel contract. But more than 20 players in the league choose to forgo the free kicks and wear their preferred brand.

Why the difference between the two leagues? It hasn’t always been this way.

During the late 1990’s when the WNBA was still in its infancy, signature sneakers for its stars were common place. Sheryl Swoopes became the first when Nike released her signature “Nike Air Swoopes” in 1996. This was followed by Reebok’s “The Lobo” for Rebecca Lobo, and FILA’s “Nikki Delta Basketball” for Nikki McCray.

Moore had her eye on that trend early.

“I owned a Sheryl Swoopes, both my mom and I,” she said. “It was really cool to be able to have some merchandise, something to wear that connected me to some of my favorite players.”

The shoes were sought after from not only women, but men as well, which raises the question as to why brands stopped giving female athletes a signature model. Until WNBA players are treated like their NBA counterparts in that regard, athletes and fans alike will be forced to settle with brief moments of sneaker notoriety, like Moore’s XI’s debut.

Adidas’ apparel contract with the WNBA will soon expire, and Nike will take over at the beginning of the 2017-2018 NBA season. Only time will tell what that will entail for the state of sneaker culture in the WNBA. But the pressing issue remains: why isn’t the entire roster of WNBA players extended a sneaker contract?