It’s Time for a Massive Investment in WNBA Kicks

As Miami Heat guard Jimmy Butler searches for a new shoe deal, the vast majority of his counterparts in the WNBA are in the same situation. But one is far likely to find a new home than all the others.

The time to change that has come because of the prevalence of star power in the women’s league and the demand for merchandise aligned with those athletes.

Fortunately, things have begun evolving on this issue already.

The WNBA has moved from a league-wide sponsorship with Puma in 2018 to a newer deal with Jordan/Nike that allows players to negotiate their own individual sponsorships with other brands if they desire.

Unfortunately, that side of the equation, (i.e. players getting their own deals), has struggled to keep up.

The extremely rarified air included the “Airs Swoopes” in 1996 and Maya Moore’s deal with Jordan in 2011. Elena Delle Donne helped Nike break into the vertical in 2016 with the Nike Hyperdunk EDD. When Puma inked its league-wide deal, it included a collaboration with Skylar Diggins-Smith.

WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 27: Washington Mystics guard Elena Delle Donne (11) puts a move on Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson (32) during a WNBA game between the Washington Mystics and the Minnesota Lynx, on May 27, 2018, at Capital One Arena, in Washington, D.C.
(Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire)

Delle Donne and Diggins-Smith remain the only two active players with signature shoes. League rules mandate that all other players wear Jordans or Nikes of their choice during games. Few players have tested that boundary, with Tamera Young wearing a pair of Dwyane Wade’s “Way of Wade” signatures in 2018 for which she was warned by the league and Wade offered to cover her fine if she received one.

There are many other stars in the league—from legends like Diana Taurasi, to instantly recognizable icons like Britney Griner, to emerging talents like Diamond DeShields. So why the hesitation on the part of brands?

The economics of the situation stresses a lack of return on investment.

Even on the NBA side, the bump from player endorsements is questionable for shoe brands. Basketball sneaker sales have been on a three-year decline, sometimes as much as 12 percent year-over-year. The leading analyst on footwear sales, Matt Powell of NPD, says that he’s skeptical about basketball sneakers ever coming back as fashion wear as well.

Despite that, however, brands haven’t stopped shelling out dollars to land talent on the NBA side.

Puma signed the top two picks in the 2018 draft. This year, Jordan has inked Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson. Clearly, the downward trend in basketball shoe sales hasn’t made brands abandon the strategy wholesale yet. It may have made them more selective but that isn’t dependent on on-court performance.

Williamson has yet to take the NBA regular-season court, and the same went for both of 2018’s top two picks when they signed their deals. As Powell stated, on-court performance doesn’t typically move shoe sales in either direction. What moves shoes is brand power.

As Powell aptly stated:

“Brands need athletes performing at a high level wearing their products, that’s a given. It builds credibility and authenticity for the brand. From a credibility and authenticity point of view, he’s going to bring them a lot. A player playing at a high level wearing their products is certainly a wonderful endorsement, so there is an indirect feeling towards the brand.”

Despite the prevalence of stars in the WNBA, brands have taken a similar approach to Wade’s message to Young in 2018.

The question begs to be asked, then: If Wade was really serious about Young promoting his brand, then why didn’t he sign Young to wear his shoes? That would have not only solved her issue of facing the fine but establish a more permanent foothold for his brand on the WNBA stage. The number of opportunities for brands to capitalize on in the league is plentiful.

UNCASVILLE, CT – AUGUST 23: Las Vegas Aces forward Tamera Young (1) in action during a WNBA game between Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun on August 23, 2019, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT. (Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire)

The 2020 season will see the return of Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird in Seattle, both of whom missed the 2019 campaign due to injuries. Their returns will be a media event for both for the Storm and the entire league. It would be a tremendous opportunity for a brand to interject itself into that situation and get a lot of exposure in front of fans.

That isn’t the only upcoming opportunity, however.

The current free-agent class is loaded with star power, and that means a lot of announcements about new signings and re-signings. Again, those announcements are a marketing opportunity that, up until right now, shoe brands have missed out on. The 2020 season also offers an unprecedented opportunity with the introduction of a player with unprecedented brand power for her status.

Sabrina Ionescu might come into the WNBA with more brand power than any rookie in league history.

Apr 5, 2019; Tampa, FL, USA; Oregon Ducks guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) reacts during player introductions prior to the semifinals of the women’s Final Four of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at Amalie Arena against the Baylor Lady Bears. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Her Nike Oregon jersey sold out in a matter of hours when it was posted for sale. She’s already been published on The Players Tribune as well. It’s hard to watch a full day of women’s college basketball without hearing her mentioned, and if she isn’t the top overall selection in the 2020 WNBA Draft, there will likely be a revolt from New York Liberty fans.

Because of all these things, there should be a bidding war for her signature on a variety of products when her eligibility to compete at Oregon expires. There’s no more endemic brand for her career than shoes, and her ability to promote that product is unquestionable.

That goes for all WNBA players.

Although not all players are made equal as far as star power goes, there is an equal number of opportunities for brand promotion in the WNBA as there are in the NBA. If manufacturers want to keep their basketball lines from slipping any further into irrelevancy, it’s time they took advantage of the opportunities the WNBA’s biggest names afford on an equitable scale in an untapped market.