Stewie Gets Her Own Sneaks: WNBA Star Pens First Deal In A Decade

May 12, 2021
Originally published on May 12, 2021 7:20 pm

Go to your local sports store and you'll find the shelves groaning under the weight of sneakers named for men's basketball stars: Under Armour Currys, the Kawhi by New Balance and many varieties of Jordans — though it's been a long time since MJ dunked in an NBA game.

What you won't find is a single shoe named for a current WNBA player, though that is about to change. On Wednesday, Breanna Stewart, the power forward for the Seattle Storm, announced a deal with Puma that includes her own signature sneaker.

"It's a monumental day for the basketball world, for women's basketball and for the athletics industry as a whole; I think, even larger, for women's endorsement deals in particular," says Nick DePaula, who covers the sneaker industry for ESPN and for the Boardroom web series The Sneaker Game. "It's been a full decade since the last women's signature shoe. There's currently 18 NBA players that have their own signature shoe, and no woman."

The very first women's basketball player to get her own signature shoe was Sheryl Swoopes back in 1995. Others followed, but as the WNBA begins its 25th season on May 14, Stewart will be only the 10th player to pen a signature deal, following Candace Parker's deal with Adidas.

DePaula spoke to NPR's All Things Considered about why there was a decade drought in women's signature basketball shoes, how sponsorship deals factor into the pay gap between male and female athletes and the way Stewart hopes her deal leads the way for more women's shoes to come.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

On the history of women's basketball shoe deals, from Sheryl Swoopes to now

So Sheryl, back in '95, that was really the starting point of the WNBA, which launched in 1997. Seven of the first nine women's signature shoes were within the first five years of the WNBA. Then I think what happened was brands were looking at slowing sales and turned away from it altogether. It's been unfortunate because I think there's now there's a whole generation of young girls that grew up playing the game that didn't aspire to have a signature shoe. Yes, they could aspire to play in the WNBA, but it wasn't something they had visibility to [do]. And now, to see a brand like Puma take a chance on Breanna Stewart and really step up with a massive deal for her to get her own signature shoe, it's long overdue.

On how sponsorship disparity contributes to the pay gap between male and female athletes

There is a bit of a gap. It is a little tough, because the NBA season is 82 games; WNBA is 32. But even within that, the household names — let's say the top 10 NBA players — where they're making anywhere from $8 to $15 million a year. From the WNBA standpoint, you're looking at a six-figure [to] a mid-six-figure deal per year. So it's a far-off gap there. Even the NBA players, that's the biggest thing of a signature shoe deal is you have a 5% royalty as well, so you're making even more money off the sales of every footwear item, every apparel piece.

On the potential "domino effect" of this deal

If Breanna Stewart can lead the way here, and I spoke with her on Monday and she's hoping this has a bit of a domino effect and that more signature shoes come as well. She said "I hope this becomes a competitive thing and turns into a domino effect," which was word-for-word. There is definitely a competition. There were so many players hoping to be the next and the 10th person to get a signature shoe. For Stewie, that's definitely a point of pride that she can say she was the 10th one in the 25-year history.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Go to your local sports store, and you will find shelves groaning with sneakers named for men's basketball stars - Under Armour Currys, the Kawhi by New Balance, many varieties of Jordans, though it's been a long time since MJ dunked in an NBA game. What you will not find is a single shoe named for a current WNBA player, though that is about to change. Breanna Stewart, power forward for the Seattle Storm, today announced a deal with Puma that includes her own signature sneaker. Here to talk about what that means is Nick DePaula. He covers the footwear industry for ESPN. He also hosts the new boardroom show, "The Sneaker Game." Hi, Nick.

NICK DEPAULA: Hey there. How's it going?

KELLY: Pretty well. So how big a deal is this deal? This is about more than just a shoe.

DEPAULA: This is much more than a shoe. It's a monumental day for the basketball world, for women's basketball and for the athletics industry as a whole and, I think, even larger for women's endorsement deals in particular. It's been a full decade since the last women's signature shoe. There's currently 18 NBA players that have their own signature shoe and no woman. And so to have a WNBA player like Breanna Stewart that's going to be launching the first signature shoe in a decade, it's a huge day for the industry.

KELLY: And why has it been more than a decade? And I guess we should go back farther than that. The very first women's basketball player to get her own shoe was Sheryl Swoopes. This was back in 1995. What happened? Why did it seem to fall off a cliff?

DEPAULA: Yeah, so Sheryl back in '95 - that was the - really the starting point of the WNBA, which launched in 1997. Seven of the first nine women's signature shoes were within the first five years of the WNBA. And then I think what happened was, brands were looking at, you know, kind of slowing sales and just turned away from it altogether.

And it's been unfortunate because I think there's now a whole generation of young girls that grew up playing the game that didn't aspire to have a signature shoe. Yes, they could aspire to play in the WNBA, but it wasn't something they had visibility to. And that's what the men have always had on their side. And so I think there's been so many different, you know, men of different positions - different men of different start levels. And now to see a brand like Puma take a chance on Breanna Stewart and really step up with a massive deal for her to get her own signature shoe - it's long overdue.

KELLY: And you touched on this, but let me dig deeper. I'm thinking about the gender pay gap between male and female athletes, which, of course, transcends basketball. But I'm wondering if there's an endorsement pay gap. How big are these deals, the WNBA deals, compared to the NBA?

DEPAULA: Yeah, there is a bit of a gap. I think it is a little tough because, you know, the NBA season has 82 games. WNBA has 32. But even within that, the household names - let's say the top 10 NBA players, where they're making anywhere from $8 to $15 million a year. And I think from WNBA's standpoint, you're looking at a six-figure to a mid-six-figure deal per year. So it's a far, you know - a far-off gap there.

Even the NBA players - that's the biggest thing of a signature shoe deal, is you have a 5% royalty as well. So you're making even more money off the sales of every footwear item, every apparel piece. So if Breanna Stewart can lead the way here - and, you know, I spoke with her on Monday, and she's hoping this has a bit of a domino effect and that more signatures come as well.

KELLY: Oh, so she wants competition. That's interesting.

DEPAULA: She said, I hope this becomes a competitive thing and turns into a domino effect, which was, you know, word-for-word. And there is definitely a competition. There were so many players hoping to be the next and the 10th person to get a signature shoe. And so for Stewie, that's definitely a point of pride, that she could say she was the 10th one in the 25-year history.

KELLY: Stewie - this is Breanna Stewart's nickname.

DEPAULA: That is her nickname. And I could see that being the name of the shoe. They could be called the Stewie 1s. We'll have to wait and see.

KELLY: I love it. ESPN's Nick DePaula - he covers sneakers and basketball for ESPN. Thanks, Nick.

DEPAULA: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.