For Courtney Williams, a guard for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, breaking in her shoes to get them to fit properly and avoid injury has been a ritual for her entire playing career.
(Bloomberg) — For Courtney Williams, a guard for the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, breaking in her shoes to get them to fit properly and avoid injury has been a ritual for her entire playing career.
“Once I have a shoe, I stick to that shoe for the whole season because I don’t want to have to go through the process of breaking that shoe back in again,” she said. Now, thanks to a startup that aims to provide improved basketball shoes for women, she’s only changing her sneakers once every week.
Moolah Kicks, founded by Boston College graduate Natalie White, is looking to solve a problem that some say is pervasive in the footwear industry — poorly designed sneakers, which can contribute to higher rates of injury for female athletes. Moolah’s website says their sneakers fit women better than other shoes, offering narrower heels, lifted arches, slimmer widths and shallow lateral sides. The brand has wooed Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and DSG Ventures, the $50 million investment arm of Dick’s Sporting Goods, as its primary investors.
“When female ballers are playing in unisex men’s or children’s sneakers, they’re more at risk for the knee, ankle and leg injuries that are so common in women’s hoops,” said White, who started the company in 2020 while she was still in Boston College’s Carroll School of Management.
Experts at Yale Medicine say ACL tears, ankle sprains and stress fractures are all more common in female athletes. ACL tears for women in particular are two to eight times more likely than men.
Wearing a shoe that does not naturally fit the foot can cause injuries. For athletes, footwear that isn’t custom-fitted also means the player has to wear the sneakers many times before they fit comfortably.
Read more: Women’s Basketball Is Raking in More Cash Than Ever, But the Players Aren’t
“People are realizing that a lot of shoes have been passed off as women’s shoes that are men’s shoes in a smaller size,” said Matt Powell, a senior adviser at consulting firm Spurwink River.
Normally, male professional basketball players change their shoes after two to five games. The main reason is firstly they can afford it, but a second reason is that their shoes are custom-fitted, so they don’t have to be broken in.
Moolah Kicks has posted rapid growth, with its sneakers’ sales tripling in 2022 from the previous year. The brand was in 450 stores as of last year, up from 140 in 2021. Two WNBA players, Williams and Destanni Henderson, who is currently unsigned, are wearing their sneakers.
White says the industry, which has built up massive brands around male stars, also needs to change its marketing to target women.
“I was struck by an ad that featured four of the top women’s basketball players in the world holding out sneakers named after men’s players,” White said in an interview. “And when I saw the ad, I really thought: ‘What are we teaching the next generation of girls basketball players?’”
She added that “brands not addressing this market previously gives room for us.”
Only about a dozen women across five major brands have had shoes with their names as part of the branding. Currently, the New York Liberty’s Breanna Stewart and Sabrina Ionescu are the only two WNBA players with a signature shoe.
“The women’s basketball shoe business is much smaller than the men’s business,” Powell said. “As stars really start to come up on the women’s side, younger players are going to want to emulate those stars.” He labeled women’s footwear as “the industry’s greatest failure and it’s greatest opportunity.”
“Brands now are starting very slowly to make footwear designed for women, but we still have a long way to go,” he added.
White said that’s the opportunity that Moolah Kicks seeks to address.
“So often women’s basketball is addressed as second to men’s,” she said. “It is an add-on or tacked on after. But here, women’s basketball comes first.”
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