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WNBA+Nike: The Growing Innovative Partnership

BySierra Webster|@WebsterSierraE| February 10, 2021
wnba-and-nike

The WNBA+Nike have been making news together for decades. Because investing in women is investing wisely. As Deloitte reported regarding 2021, “We predict that women’s sports will grow to be worth a great deal more than a billion dollars in the years ahead.”

Most recently, in February of 2021, Nike debuted a new sneaker: the Cosmic Unity. New designs and innovation are nothing new to the athletic-apparel international empire.

But it’s no mistake the mint green and black, galaxy-inspired shoes – a part of the brand’s move towards zero waste and circular design – were debuted on the feet of WNBA reigning MVP A’ja Wilson. Making A’ja Wilson, a Las Vegas power forward and the 2018 Rookie of the Year, the face of Nike’s most recent innovation.

Ground-breaking isn’t an unusual word to describe the 6-foot-4 superstar, who had a statue erected of her at her alma mater South Carolina. So it makes sense that Nike would choose her as the face of its trailblazing shoe. The brand’s move appears to be a part of Nike’s recent push to promote the women’s game after formally affirming its commitment in a 2019 statement

“Today, we are at a turning point for women in sport,” Nike Women VP and GM Rosemary St. Clair said just two months before the brand’s reaffirmation, sensing the changes in our understanding of athleticism.

Nike’s relationship with the WNBA goes back nearly to the league’s inception. So today, we’ll dive into the brand’s most recent moves in its partnership with the women’s game. Including the latest innovative co-branded gear, opportunities for former ballers, and what the future of a WNBA+Nike partnership holds.

WNBA+Nike supporting women

Already, Nike has partnered with FIBA to grow the women’s game internationally. And designed the WNBA’s 2019 uniforms, specifically created for female athletes in mind. 

It didn’t stop there. Last summer, Nike released its Swoosh Fly line, an apparel collection designed by women – former Phoenix Mercury center Mistie Boyd to be precise – for women. The face of the line? Current WNBA All-Stars, including A’ja Wilson. 

In December of last year, the Jordan Brand added five WNBA athletes to Jumpman. Who joined three previous members. To create the largest roster of female players the brand has ever had.

And while Nike – named for the greek goddess of speed, strength and victory – has been inclusive of athletic women for nearly four decades, launching Nike Women in 1978, their recent commitment to professional, competitive athletes is an attractive promise.

Still, not a single current WNBA player has a signature shoe. And hasn’t for quite some time. While some of the league’s current stars – most-notably former MVPs Maya Moore and Elena Della Donne – have had player exclusives, according to Erica Ayala with Sports Illustrated. Many think it’s high-time for a new signature shoe. Especially if Nike is going to live up to its recent commitment.

WNBA+Nike: Air Swoopes

If you’re going to talk about the Nike+WNBA partnership and signature shoes, there’s no better place to start than with Sheryl Swoopes. 

In fact, if you want to talk about the WNBA at all, you’d better start with Sheryl Swoopes, the first player signed to the league. But before that, and before the four-straight WNBA titles, the three Olympic gold medals and the three MVP titles, Sheryl became the first female player, and second ever behind Michael Jordan, to have a Nike signature shoe: the eponymous Air Swoopes. 

Ahead of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, Nike recognized the potential and the growing anticipation surrounding the league and seized the moment.

“It’s critical that it was Nike making the decision to develop the signature shoe for Sheryl Swoopes in the ’90s,” sports law and marketing professor Alicia Jessop told the LA Times. “It was them saying, ‘We look at you as being on the same ground in a sense as Michael Jordan.

“It was creating parallels between she and Michael Jordan in terms of the level of athleticism and the level of notoriety.”

The inception of the WNBA and the creation of the Air Swoopes weren’t Nike’s first brush with women’s hoops. 

Two decades earlier, the budding brand began to look at collegiate women’s basketball, sponsoring 30 college teams in 1983, according to a release from Nike. Creating a women’s signature shoe was less of a leap and more of another step on a path the brand was already on.

The Air Swoopes weren’t just another sneaker on the market. Even then, it was a statement: that Nike took the women’s game seriously. 

“Through TV spots and print ads, Swoopes encouraged young girls to be proud of their strength and athleticism,” the statement said.

And while Nike has recently reaffirmed their commitment to the women’s game. The brand hasn’t always backed up its promises.

“The real question is why didn’t it go forward. And the real answer is they didn’t sell enough shoes to make it worth their while,” Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at NPD Group, told Kelly Whiteside with the New York Times. “I’m hopeful it will change. If a brand figures this out and starts to make a lot of money, everyone else is going to follow suit.”

Sabrina Ionescu & Nike

It looks like the tide might be turning for women’s basketball, in one Sabrina Ionescu

Despite missing nearly all of her rookie season with an injury, the 23-year-old sensation has commanded the attention of the basketball world for years. From her attention-grabbing collegiate performance – which included an all-time NCAA triple-double record on both the men’s and women’s side and three conference player of the year awards – to her speech at Kobe Bryant’s memorial at the Staples Center to her status as the No. 1 WNBA Daft pick in 2020. 

Before even leaving the University of Oregon, she had a sold-out jersey from Nike. It didn’t even have her name on it (per NCAA rules). But the No. 20 women’s cut jersey couldn’t stay in stock. 

The worldwide sportswear empire set its sights on Eugene’s shining star, signing Sabrina to a multi-year contract that, according to her agent, will likely include a signature shoe, The Athletic’s Bill Shae reported last spring.  

“Relationships are important to me and I’ve had a long, long relationship with Nike just being a Nike athlete for nearly 10 years through high school and college,” Sabrina Ionescu told ESPN’s Hannah Storm following her decision.

“Weighing out the pros and cons and wanting to align with a brand that has high values and sky is the limit, and Nike really embodies all of that on and off the court, field, or whatever sport you’re playing. So I’m really happy with the decision I made and I’m excited to see how both of us together continue to grow the game of basketball,” she continued.

WNBA Nike gear on athletes

Sabrina joins an impressive class of Nike athletes, including league veteran Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart. As well as Jewell Loyd, one of the faces of Nike’s Kobe Bryant signature shoe, Sports Illustrated reported in 2020.

Today, WNBA+Nike gear is easy to spot:

“In 2021, Nike has a responsibility in our league partnerships to invest at a level that stands for something more,” said Sonja Henning, Nike VP, North America League Partnerships. “We have to make sure that ‘for all’ means inclusivity into a community where women can participate in sport, and in the conversations that only sport can open up.”

Nike and the WNBA’s partnership through programs and initiatives indicates the way both groups see women’s sport — as a position of influence for spectacular athletes and for leaders shaping the future of women’s sport and beyond.

The energy from within the WNBA to move beyond the box score as the metric for the league’s progress challenges partners like Nike to transcend its relationship beyond donations or branded gear. To that end, Nike is an inaugural member of the WNBA Changemakers collective, which recognizes values-driven businesses who are helping lead the way in the advancement of women in sports.

“Nike’s support as an inaugural WNBA Changemaker will enable us to continue transforming our league in key areas, and through our partnership, Nike continues to raise the bar in stepping up and supporting the current and next generation of elite athletes,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.  “We’re grateful for their steadfast support of the league and the athletes of the WNBA, contributing to a bright future for women’s sports.”

“Twenty-five years ago, the WNBA was a league that none of us knew was possible,” said Sonja. “Today, we’re in an empowering moment for women’s basketball players, but also for female and non-binary athletes across all sports. I can’t wait for what the next 25 years hold.”

WNBA+Nike: Women in Nike

And who’s leading the course in the Nike offices? Former WNBA players hired to the brand’s Women in Nike (WIN) program, which partners with the league to employ former players. The two-year program provides relevant work experience to retired players. Meanwhile, Nike has the expertise and perspective of professional athletes working in-house.

“The WIN program is one of the critical programs leading to a more diverse, equitable and inclusive Nike,” said Sonja Henning, a Nike VP and WIN advisor, as well as a former WNBA champion (casually).

“We know that Nike’s future success is rooted in the strength of our diverse, inclusive and equitable teams. Hiring talented professional female athletes provides us with a distinct competitive advantage, and we are industry leaders in this space.”

The program launched in 2019 with a cohort of 11 fellows and followed the next year with another 20, including Swoopes, the legend. 

Among WIN’s other notable fellows: Mistie Boyd, who eventually would create the Swoosh Fly line in 2020 (just over a year after beginning her fellowship). 

The WIN programs look to be a win-win, with former league stars getting credible experience and the W’s current stars finally getting gear hand-tailored to them.

The industry connection goes deeper though. Not only are the W’s retired athletes getting a chance to create and innovate with Nike, but the WNBA just added a former Nike executive to its team. In December 2020, the league named Phil Cook, Nike’s director of Global Basketball Brand, as its new Chief Marketing Officer, according to a league statement

Phil Cook, who has over 20 years of experience at Nike, brings industry expertise in marketing and branding. In his roles at Nike he oversaw partnerships with the league. Now he’ll be tasked with bringing that knowledge to benefit the W directly, executing growth strategies and driving fan engagement.

Part of those efforts will undoubtedly involve working with Nike to bring innovation and excitement to the WNBA brand. 

“The quality of play on-court has never been higher while the relevance and support of the athletes off the court has attracted a growing consumer base for the league to serve,” Phil Cook said in the statement. “I’m excited to bring my long history of marketing world class athletes, teams and leagues to the WNBA to inspire and grow the women’s game around the globe.”

WNBA+Nike’s story is still unfolding

Despite its longtime support of the WNBA and its athletes, Nike’s commitment to the women’s game hasn’t always lived up to what some have hoped. Now with a renewed commitment and exciting developments, the expectations for the performance-gear giant loom large. And with Nike branding experts working in the WNBA’s offices, a record numbers of signees, a hopeful signature shoe, and former ballers in the decision-making rooms, it looks like the house might finally be paying out.

Up next, check out the best sneakers for female guards, topped by – no surprises here – the Nike Air Zoom BB NXT.

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