Breanna Stewart and Elena Delle Donne get signature sneakers

ATLANTA — Elena Delle Donne stretched out at one end of the plaza at Gateway Center, music blaring overhead, rainbow-colored Nikes on her feet, knowing she was part of an exclusive group of women. At the opposite end of the floor, No. 1 overall Rhyne Howard did her own warm-up – wearing an NBA player’s shoe – and pondered what could be.

Delle Donne will join Breanna Stewart as the first WNBA player to debut signature models since Candace Parker in 2011. The self-proclaimed sneakerheads are only the 10th and 11th women to have their own shoe.

Howard has the same ambitions.

Everything changed for Delle Donne when Sheryl Swoopes became the first player to wear 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 in my backyard with the shoes and thinking I’m Sheryl. So that memory is really like a big moment for why I fell in love with basketball so much.

“My mom was probably so mad at me. “Can we get her? When can we get them?” There’s just such a thing as when you get your favorite players’ boots and then you can try to emulate them and be in their gear, it feels really good.”

More than two decades later, Delle Donne is a two-time MVP wearing the Nike Air Deldon 1, which is expected to be released in October. Stewart owns her own MVP trophy and her Stewie 1 is out in September. For comparison, at the start of last season, 22 NBA players had their own signature shoe, according to sports business website Boardroom. WNBA players have sneaker deals and some player editions, but the signature is the mountain top. These are models that are specially developed for the player and marketed as a separate shoe. Player editions that Delle Donne previously had are unique tweaks over other models.

Both Delle Donne and Stewart dreamed of owning their own shoe growing up, knowing that few women would be able to achieve that peak. Swoopes, Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Cynthia Cooper, Nikki McCray, Chamique Holdsclaw, Diana Taurasi and Parker are the complete list.

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

“I hope to be the beginning of something,” Stewart said. “There are so many great players in this league and unique stories and things like that, and hopefully we’ll have more signature shoes in the WNBA a lot quicker than we’ve had.”

Sneakers have grown beyond the basic function. They are used as a storytelling avenue to convey a variety of ideas. The Jordan 13 was inspired by Michael’s Ferrari. Durant had Colorways, a shoe with a different color scheme dedicated to his aunt Pearl, who died of lung cancer in 2000. The Nike Air Deldon is inspired by Delle Donne’s sister Lizzie, who suffers from cerebral palsy and autism and was a tester throughout the creation process. The shoe features a “Press and Go Fit” system that allows for easy, hands-free entry into the shoe, which was important to Delle Donne. The rainbow color is inspired by Pride, and there are others who do, with her woodworking business, her alma mater University of Delaware, a green version with a nod to her Lyme disease, and one dedicated to the orange WNBA hoodie popularized by Kobe Bryant , are connected. There will even be an insole with a nod to the Bring it On movie after Delle Donne developed a crush on the character Missy.

The WNBA, which plays its All-Star game on Sunday, is constantly trying to reach new fans while continuing to engage with the current base. The sneaker market is an opportunity, but companies just haven’t taken this step on a regular basis.

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

“So I think you’re going to hopefully see the re-emergence of different companies coming back into the game and pushing each other.”

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Puma is one of those companies, having re-entered the performance basketball market in 2018. The return began with a heavy investment in this NBA draft when 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 oversee the women’s basketball collection. Stewart, who previously wore Nikes, said it was Puma’s commitment to women in sports and women’s basketball in particular that made the partnership so good. Skylar Diggins-Smith, Jackie Young, Katie Lou Samuelson and NaLyssa Smith are also part of this list.

The timing of the investment seems perfect as interest in the WNBA is at an all-time high, including apparel items the league is struggling to stock.

“The change has happened,” said Allison Giorgio, Vice President of Marketing at Puma North America. “I think we, and I personally would say, there hasn’t been enough change and it hasn’t happened fast enough. But I think things like working with Breanna Stewart and introducing a female signature will help to be another step in the line of necessary changes. And my real hope is that this will inspire other brands, other athletes and even ourselves to do more of the same.

“I would hope that this is not the last signature model for women.”

Howard is certainly a favorite to win Rookie of the Year – like both Delle Donne and Stewart – and is named an All-Star in her first season. She has already signed with Jordan Brand and regularly wears the Jordan Zion 1 and Jordan 36. She said there is already a discussion about having her own signature one day.

“It would be great to have a signature shoe,” Howard said. “I think that would be inspiring.

“It’s easy [young girls] hope that there is greater things to come in women’s sport and that they should never give up and by the time they grow up and play in this league everything will be different. And just for wanting to keep fighting for it.”

The Stewie 1 is set to appear first in September after being officially unveiled on Friday. The ‘Quiet Fire’ colourway features a neon yellow tip and body that fades 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 the biggest hurdle is that companies are willing to invest in and stand behind women.

“The representation of signature shoes is huge for women’s sports, huge for women’s basketball, a way to really connect with youth all the way up,” Stewart said. “And we miss that. That’s really investing in women. … keep fighting for equality.”

Both Delle Donne, who has 200 pairs in her collection, and Howard named the Jordan 1 as their favorite sneaker – a timeless model that can be worn anywhere. And that’s a key for new models, noted Delle Donne, as they’re stylish both on and off the court. She was involved in the development of the shoe, which has been in the works for over a year. The six-time All-Star was and still is obsessed with the Space Jam Jordan 11s. She doesn’t really remember the movie, but the shoes are a whole different story.

Despite having her own signature shoe, Delle Donne is like other sneakerheads around the world — she gets up for a Saturday morning release, logs into multiple devices with her wife Amanda, and still catches “Ls” when she’s within minutes are sold out. She joked that they need a bigger house to store all the sneakers the two have collected.

While having a signature sneaker is a great first step, it’s not the end. Sneakers come and go that aren’t well advertised and therefore don’t sell well. And, according to Taurasi, companies are out to make money.

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

“I think now is the time. I think it’s late of course, but it’s a good time to do it. And I think companies will recognize the value of women’s sport and keep investing.”

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

“A signature shoe is something that lasts forever, which I think is really important given how important sneakers are to basketball,” Taurasi said. “You think of the Jordan line, the LeBron line, Griffeys. You become more than just the person. It’s becoming that way of life that everyone can hold on to.

“And I don’t think we’ve had that on the women’s side where you’re like, ‘Man, I’m going to get the Delle Donnes every year. I’ll get the Maya Moores. I’ll get the sues. I’ll 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.”

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