Nike Air Swoopes are hard to come by. You can’t find them on eBay. You can’t find them on Flight Club. Sneaker Don doesn’t have them. And though its successive models – the Air Swoopes II, the Air Swoopes Zoom, the Air Swoopes IV, the Air Tuned Swoopes, the Air Swoopes VI and the Air Swoopes Premier – are a little easier to find, the mother shoe of them all is just as elusive as the legacy of signature women’s athletic shoes it was poised to inspire.
When Nike introduced the Air Swoopes in 1995, it was only the second time the sneaker giant had named a shoe after an athlete, the first of course being his Airness Michael Jordan in 1985. Throughout the 1990s, Nike put a full marketing force behind Sheryl Swoopes and fellow Nike athletes Lisa Leslie, Mia Hamm and Jackie Joyner Kersee, with groundbreaking print and television ad campaigns. But for girls playing basketball at that time, the introduction of the Air Swoopes signature shoe represented legitimacy and belonging in an athletic world that had for so long treated them as an afterthought. One of those little girls was Elena Delle Donne, who begged her parents to buy her a pair of Air Swoopes as soon as she learned they existed.
“To be honest I didn’t even care what they looked like,” says Delle Donne. “I just heard that her shoes were out and available and I knew I needed to have them. For me, it was just the fact that I was able to wear a pro woman basketball player’s shoes and not always have to wear the men’s, that’s what was so cool to me and why I wanted them so badly.”
Today Delle Donne is a WNBA MVP and Olympic Gold Medalist in basketball, one of many players who cite the importance of what Air Swoopes represented to her professional sports career. With its gender neutral design, the sneakers appealed to men and women alike, despite only being available in women’s sizing. And though their release preceded the first WNBA game by over a year, Air Swoopes were successful enough to inspire other companies to follow suit with their own shoes named after female athletes. By 1999, six signature sneakers honoring female athletes were on the market with at least two others bearing the players’ names – Reebok introduced The Lobo, named after Rebecca Lobo, in 1997, and FILA introduced the Nikki Delta Basketball, named for Nikki McCray, in 1998 – rather than just their initials or numbers. That year, USA Today reported that women’s basketball shoe sales were growing faster than men’s.
Today, female athletes are called on to endorse everything from headphones and hamburgers to credit cards and paper towels, but the number of shoe models on the retail market named for them is down to zero. That female athletes receive lower salaries and less-lucrative sponsorship deals than their male counterparts is a distressing reality of professional sports today, but that signature athletic shoes named after women are nonexistent in a time when sneakers are more popular than ever is equally surprising.
On the one hand, female athletes are by no means ignored by today’s sneaker manufacturers. Top athletic apparel companies Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Puma all sponsor a number of female basketball, soccer, tennis, golf and track and field athletes, using their images and playing records to sell all types of athletic merchandise. But the honor of having a shoe model named after them is not extended to any of these women. Meanwhile, shoes emblazoned with the names LeBron, Curry, Kobe, Kyrie, Rose and Lillard line sneaker boutique shelves the world over.
Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, points to the endurance of confining perceptions of gender, as well as shoes’ relation to athletic excellence, to explain the striking absence. “While we have these incredible athletes, [and] the Swoopes did actually create desire within the male market, most other shoes related to female athletes do not,” she says. “And I think this has to do with our society’s very complicated relationship with the ideas of femininity and athleticism. Desirable femininity and athleticism remain even today uncomfortable bedfellows.”
Whether as athletes or performers, men are still marketed based on their strength, while women are still marketed in relation to their mass sex appeal – rather than their intelligence or athleticism. This explains why signature sneakers named after women today are most likely to be named for designers and entertainers than athletes. Take, for example, Adidas by Stella McCartney line or the Fenty Puma by Rihanna collection. Even R&B star Teyana Taylor has scored her own exclusive Reebok shoe, despite the fact that her athleticism in dance is in an entertainment capacity rather than a professional competitive one.
Besides old-fashioned gender assumptions, evidence also points to differences in attention that women athletes receive versus men. It’s no coincidence that the height of women’s signature shoes coincided with the WNBAs peak game attendance of nearly 11,000 in 1998. Today that number is down to an average of 7,318, as reported by the New York Times earlier this year. Additionally, the WNBA has a shorter regular season than the NBA and 12 teams to the NBA’s 30, only have of which are profitable.
The answer is not so clear when it comes to other sports in which women’s championship games consistently have comparable viewership as those of the men’s teams.
Just this year the U.S. Open men’s tennis finals drew 1.7 million viewers on ESPN, only slightly higher than the 1.5 million people who tuned in to watch the women’s finals game. In 2014 and 2013, however, viewership of the women’s finals (4.5 million and 6.2 million respectively) greatly overwhelmed that of the men’s finals (2.2 million and 3.4 million respectively), due no doubt to the presence of Serena Williams. And despite the fact that Chris Evert and Billie Jean King both had their own signature shoes in the 1970s when the Women’s Tennis Association was in its infancy, Williams, who is now one of the most famous (and highest paid) athletes in the world, does not have her own signature sneaker. (Though, she did release a player-exclusive shoe, the Nike Shox Glamour SW, in 2005.) On the other hand, male tennis player Novak Djokovic, who earlier this year commented that professional tennis players who are men should be paid more than those who are women, does have his own shoe by Adidas.
The world of signature soccer cleats also presents an as-yet-untaken opportunity for sports apparel companies. Just last year the U.S. women’s soccer team made history as their World Cup final victory over Japan drew 26.7 million viewers, the most of any soccer game ever broadcast in the United States. No one on that team has a signature cleat by any of the major shoe manufacturers. But Lionel Messi, who played for the second place Argentinian national team in the last world cup, does have that honor.
Though the heyday of women’s signature athletic shoes may be behind us, not all hope that they may return again is lost. Changing public perceptions of gender constructs as well as the rise of sneakers’ popularity as collector’s items may be creating the perfect environment for the return of signature sneakers named after women.
“Colorwise there’s really no difference between men’s and women’s sneakers nowadays cause you’ll see plenty of guys shoes that are decked out in magenta and highlighter colors that, 10 years ago, would be considered purely a female style,” says sneaker historian and sneaker culture expert Elliott Curtis. “Plenty of times Jordan brand has released certain sneakers in women’s colorways but they’re such a different color that still men will go out and buy them because it’s still very collectible.”
Semmelhack sees similar evolutions in men’s fashion. “Historically, in fashion history, men are very reluctant to borrow from the female wardrobe,” she says. “I think that when men no longer have something to lose by borrowing from women’s wardrobes, then you will see greater equity. And you know I do see it. When I walk down the street and I see a guy carrying an Hermès bag, that’s a remarkable change. We are seeing men borrowing from the female wardrobe in a number of different areas, and so I think that when there is greater equity there will be less concern and worry about what’s male and what’s female.”
WNBA player exclusives may be paving the way for dedicated signature sneakers in the near future. Shoe models within a brand’s pre-existing line that are then customized for a player and sold to the public in limited quantities, player exclusives demand less investment and risk for shoe manufacturers than actual signature shoes, but their popularity among athletes and sneakerheads alike may prove to be significant. Or at least so hopes Delle Donne, whose Hyperdunk Player Exclusive shoes will emerge on the United States retail market by the end of the year, joining fellow WNBA player Skylar Diggins’ Nike Zoom HyperRev. Both are unisex Nike shoes in men’s sizing.
“For this to be available to young girls and young boys is so great for the sport and in general,” says Delle Donne. “I just hope this is a stepping block to the next thing where you’ll see actual signature shoes out there. Not just mine but hopefully several females will have that and people will have the opportunity to buy both NBA basketball player shoes and WNBA basketball player shoes.”