Under Armour and other brands' basketball shoes rarely, if ever, named for female athletes

The 9-year-old girl who recently got Under Armour athlete Stephen Curry’s attention simply wanted a girl’s size of his signature basketball shoes, after finding Curry5s only for boys.

Riley Morrison, a young fan of the Golden State Warriors point guard, wasn’t disappointed. Curry responded to a letter from the Napa, Calif., girl saying Under Armour’s youth basketball shoes, which are for both boys and girls, had been incorrectly labeled for “boys.” The brand promptly changed the sizing to “grade school” and sent Riley a pair.

Riley and female basketball athletes of all ages may be able to fit into Currys and Nike Air Jordans for girls or women, but they have far fewer options if they’re looking for basketball shoes or other sneakers named after female stars.

The reason is part supply-and-demand and part the male-centric nature of professional sports.

Basketball shoes made for women made up less than 1 percent of total basketball shoes sold in the U.S. so far this year, said Matt Powell, a senior industry adviser for sports for The NPD Group. And it’s a struggling category, he said, with women’s sales plunging about 30 percent and men’s and women’s down about 4 percent, compared with last year.

Though more girls and women play the game than the market share numbers suggest, “the women’s portion is a tiny factor in the overall business,” Powell said. “Part of this is due to the fact that brands don’t really make products that are specifically for her.

“There are a significantly greater proportion of women playing the game than 1 percent, and most of those women are forced to wear a man’s shoe,” he said.

During a growth spurt for women’s basketball in the mid- to late-1990s, former Olympics Team USA basketball star Sheryl Swoopes became the first female athlete to get a Nike basketball signature shoe.

The brand launched the Nike Air Swoopes in 1996, the year Team USA won the gold medal in Atlanta, and followed it up with shoes for other players in the then newly formed Women’s National Basketball Association, including Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley.

But that market never really took off. Today, few options exist, though Nike re-released the Swoopes II in August, a nod to retro footwear, and in October, Adidas unveiled its Candace Parker Pro Bounce 18 shoes, named for the Los Angeles Sparks star.

Nike also has created a number of sneakers for tennis star Serena Williams, arguably its biggest female athlete, but in limited editions.

Baltimore-based Under Armour has WNBA players Alyssa Thomas, Marissa Coleman and Crystal Langhorne on its roster. But the brand has not created any women’s signature basketball shoes.

“We are exploring girls and women’s styles thanks to Stephen [Curry] in upcoming models,” Dean Stoyer, Under Armour’s vice president of global brand communications, said in an email.

The issue of boys’ labeling on unisex shoes came up when Curry responded to a November letter from Riley, the young fan who told him she plays basketball and goes to Warriors games with her dad. She said they looked online for Curry5s but found them sold only in the boys section.

“Unfortunately, we have labeled smaller sizes as “boys” on the website,” Curry replied in a letter he posted on Twitter. “We are correcting this now.”

Under Armour said it made the switch from “boys” to “grade school” sizing on its website and will make the change on boxes of the next generation Curry 6 shoes starting this spring.

Though the brand has been working to attract more women, it’s not surprising the company hasn’t launched a signature shoe from a female basketball player given the predominantly male fan base in professional basketball, said Marie Yeh, assistant professor of marketing at Loyola University’s Sellinger School of Business.

But that doesn’t mean sports leagues and brands such as Under Armour shouldn’t do more to attract women to the sport and offer products designed for them, Yeh said.

“They could be doing things to try to change that,” she said. “That’s an untapped market.”

Yeh said she believes Under Armour, which has its roots in football, has been proactive in highlighting female athletes and luring female consumers, but hitting on the right blend of marketing and product development to achieve that can be tricky. Decisions on who should get a signature shoe typically hinge on the fan base for a particular athlete and market demand.

Within existing lines such as the Curry brand, the sports apparel maker could appeal to more girls and women through marketing or by creating shoes specifically designed for women.

“They have to be careful not to create a product that tries to target women in a way that’s stereotypical,” she said. “Would you need to make it differently to fit what women would wear? It would have to make sense.”

Most girls and women looking for basketball shoes in the DTLR store in Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall end up buying boys, or even men’s shoes, said Brittany Lee, a store assistant manager.

“They mostly come in looking for shoes that the men wear,” Lee said. “Girls who play basketball are taller” and often need the larger men’s sizes. “We don’t have a lot of women’s basketball shoes.”

And the gender a shoe is designed for doesn’t always matter, anyway, she said. Women still want the men’s shoes, and increasingly, shoes designed for women, without pink and purple, appeal to men.

Often, “it’s for the colors,” Lee said. “Men are becoming more versatile.”

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lmirabella

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