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Why the WNBA’s first signature sneakers in 11 years mean so much

Elena Delle Donne will be the second active WNBA player to have a signature shoe this season. At the start of the 2021-22 season, there were 22 NBA players with signature shoes. (Getty Images)
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ATLANTA — Elena Delle Donne stretched on one end of the court inside Gateway Center, music blaring overhead, rainbow-colored Nikes on her feet, knowing she’s part of an exclusive group of women. On the opposite end of the floor, No. 1 overall pick Rhyne Howard went through her own warmup — wearing an NBA player’s shoe — and thought about what could be.

Delle Donne will join Breanna Stewart as the first WNBA players to debut signature models since Candace Parker in 2011. The self-described sneakerheads are just the 10th and 11th women to have their own shoes. Howard has those same aspirations.

For Delle Donne, everything changed when Sheryl Swoopes became the first women’s player with her own shoe, the Nike Air Swoopes in 1995.

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“The moment I got the Swoopes was like one of the greatest moments of my basketball career,” Delle Donne said. “Being able to play in the Swoopes, being out in my backyard with the shoes on, thinking I was Sheryl. So that memory really is like a big moment of why I fell so in love with basketball.

“My mom was probably so annoyed with me. ‘Can we go get them? When can we go get them?’ There’s just something like when you can get your favorite players’ shoes and then be able to kind of try to emulate them and be in their gear, it feels really neat.”

More than two decades later, Delle Donne is a two-time MVP wearing the Nike Air Deldon 1, which is expected to release in October. Stewart owns her own MVP trophy, and her Stewie 1 is due out in September. By comparison, 22 NBA players had a signature shoe at the start of last season, according to sports business website Boardroom. WNBA players have sneaker deals, and some have player editions, but the signature shoe is the mountaintop. Those are models specifically designed for a player and marketed as her own. Player editions, which Delle Donne has had before, are unique tweaks on other models.

Delle Donne and Stewart grew up dreaming of having their own shoe, knowing that few women were able to reach that pinnacle. Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Cynthia Cooper, Nikki McCray, Chamique Holdsclaw, Diana Taurasi and Parker are the entire list.

Stewart, like sneakerheads around the globe, has been on the hunt for the latest signatures from LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but she always wanted more.

“I hope that I’ll be the start of something,” Stewart said. “There’s so many amazing players in this league and unique stories and things like that, and hopefully we’re going to have more signature shoes in the WNBA coming a lot quicker than they have been.”

Sneakers have grown beyond basic function. They’re used as a storytelling avenue to convey a multitude of ideas. The Jordan 13 was inspired by Michael’s Ferrari. Durant has had colorways, a shoe with a different color scheme, dedicated to his aunt Pearl who passed away from lung cancer in 2000. The Air Deldon is inspired by Delle Donne’s sister Lizzie, who has cerebral palsy and autism and was a tester during the creation process. It features a “press and go fit” system that allows the shoe to be put on easily without the use of hands, which was important to Delle Donne. The rainbow colorway is Pride inspired, and there are others attached to her woodworking business, the University of Delaware (her alma mater), her Lyme disease (a green version) and to the WNBA orange hoodie popularized by Kobe Bryant. There will even be an insole with a nod to the movie “Bring it On” because Delle Donne had a crush on the character Missy.

The WNBA, which plays its All-Star Game on Sunday, is constantly trying to reach new fans while further engaging the current base. The sneaker market is an opportunity to do so, but companies simply haven’t taken that step with regularity.

“No matter what, they’re in the business of making the most money they can,” Taurasi said. “There was a time that women’s basketball was very important to these sneaker companies. And you see how they dictate what society thinks is cool and not cool. And when they put things at the forefront, those are the things that they push and move.

“So I think you're going to be seeing, hopefully, with the reemergence of different companies getting back in the game and pushing each other.”

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Puma is one of those companies after it got back into the performance basketball market in 2018. The return started with a heavy investment into that NBA draft; it signed five of the top 16 picks, including No. 1 overall Deandre Ayton. The company hired fashion designer June Ambrose — who has worked with Jay-Z, Missy Elliot and Diddy — as creative director in 2020 to spearhead its women’s basketball collection. Stewart, who previously wore Nikes, said it was Puma’s dedication to women in sports and women’s basketball in particular that made the partnership a good fit. Skylar Diggins-Smith, Jackie Young, Katie Lou Samuelson and NaLyssa Smith are also part of that roster.

The timing of the investment seems perfect as interest in the WNBA is at an all-time high, including clothing merchandise that the league struggles to keep in stock.

“Change has happened,” said Allison Giorgio, vice president of marketing for Puma North America. “... Things like working with Breanna Stewart, launching a women’s signature will help to be one more step in the string of changes that needs to be made. And my true hope is that this inspires other brands, other athletes and even ourselves to do more like this.”

Howard is certainly watching. She is the favorite to win rookie of the year — like both Delle Donne and Stewart — and was named an all-star in her first season. She already has signed with Jordan Brand and regularly wears the Jordan Zion 1 and the Jordan 36. She said there already has been a discussion about having her own signature.

“It would be huge to have a signature shoe,” Howard said. “I feel like that would be inspirational.

“It just gives [young girls] hope that bigger things are coming for women’s sports and that they should never give up and by the time they grow up and are playing in this league, things will be different. And just for them to continue to want to fight for it.”

The Stewie 1 is scheduled to drop first in September and was officially unveiled Friday. The Quiet Fire colorway features a neon yellow toe and body blending into a black heel — a nod to her personality and passion. Stewart called it “crazy” that a decade has passed between women’s signature shoes and said it is tough to find companies willing to invest in and get behind women.

“Representation of signature shoes are huge for women’s sports, huge for women’s basketball, a way to really connect to the youth all the way up,” Stewart said. “And that’s what we’re lacking. That’s really the investment in women. … Continuing to fight for equality.”

Both Delle Donne, who has 200 pairs in her collection, and Howard listed the Jordan 1 as their favorite sneakers — a timeless model that can be worn anywhere. And that’s a key for new models, Delle Donne noted: being fashionable both on and off the court. She was hands-on in the creation of the shoe, which has been in the works for over a year. The six-time all-star is obsessed with the Space Jam Jordan 11s. She doesn’t really remember the movie, but the shoes are a whole other story.

Despite having her own signature shoe, Delle Donne is like other sneakerheads around the world — getting up Saturday mornings for a release, logging on with her wife, Amanda, on multiple devices and still catching “L’s” when they sell out in minutes. She joked that they need a bigger house to store all of the sneakers the two have collected.

Though having signature sneakers is a huge first step, it’s not the end. But marketing and commercial viability remain key.

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“They have to put the same marketing dollars behind the shoe because you don’t want to hear, ‘Hey, the shoe didn’t sell,’ ” Delle Donne said. “But it’s like: ‘Wait, you didn’t put any dollars into marketing it. People didn’t even know it was out.’ So I think that’s crucial.

“I do think now is the time. I think, obviously, it’s late, but it’s a good time to do it. And I think companies will see the value in women’s sports and continue to invest.”

Delle Donne got her Swoopes, but she wanted more Taurasis. The Swoopes were also a must-have for Taurasi, who also had Cooper’s model. These go beyond footwear and fashion. They were inspiration to some of the greatest players in the world.

“A signature shoe is something that will last forever, which I think is something that is really important when you look at how important sneakers are to basketball,” Taurasi said. “You think about the Jordan line, the LeBron line, Griffeys. They become more than just the person. It becomes this way of life that everyone can latch on to.

“And I don’t think we’ve had that on the women’s side where you’re saying: ‘Man, I’m going to go get the Delle Donnes every year. I’m going to go get the Maya Moores. I’m going to get the Sues. I’m going to go get the A’ja Wilsons every year.’ You don’t feel like you have that connection. And for me, that’s probably the saddest thing.”