Sheryl Swoopes and the Marketability of Female Athletes


Sports product companies have long since known the benefits of athletes wearing their products.  As fans saw their sports hero wearing a certain shoe, they would seek after that shoe. In the 70s, the company Puma had Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Converse had Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and then in the 80s they added Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. While these companies saw an increase of profits from having signature athletes, no company saw more success from signature athlete than did Nike.  In 1984, Nike signed Michael Jordan to an unheard of amount of money to help propel their company to unprecedented heights in their industry. He was given a signature line named after him that continues to this day. After the success Nike had with the Air Jordan signature line, Nike began attaching the names of the best athletes to their products. Baseball, football, and basketball players all had signature Nike shoes with their names attached to them and consumers loved it. These shoes always represented the best of what Nike had to offer.  The newest technology mixed with the latest styles and best colors.  They usually coincided with an in depth marketing campaign that utilized TV and print ads as well. Until Sheryl Swoopes broke the barrier, all of the athletes that received signature shoes were male.

Sheryl Swoopes was born in brownfield, Texas. She grew up playing basketball with her older brothers and even though she received negative feedback and discouragement from her mother, she continued to play.  Out of high school she was highly recruited and chose to go to the University of Texas to play college basketball.  That dream was short lived.  Being from a small town, she experienced culture shock at a large university and became very homesick.  She moved home after a week and began playing at a local junior college. After the required time, she transferred to Texas Tech University and in her last season in school, led the team to an unlikely NCAA championship in 1993.  After her collegiate success, Sheryl continued her winning ways professionally. She was part of the gold medal winning team in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games and also won several championships in the WNBA as a member of the Houston Comets. The more successful she was on the basketball court, the more marketable she was in the business world.

Many people saw Sheryl as the “Female Michael Jordan”. She was fast, athletic, skilled, and competitive beyond the normal spectrum for a professional athlete. All of these qualities helped her to appeal to fans and also to companies looking to promote products.  One of these companies was Nike. Nike saw Sheryl as the perfect athlete to attach a product to.  The co- founder of Nike, Phil Knight said, “Jordan- the endorsement was obvious, and it wasn’t just that Michael was a great Player. It was also that he was so athletic. He could jump, he could shoot, he was great in the clutch, he won, he was a very intense competitor, and we saw all those things in Sheryl… She has enormous flair for the game. Her persona and her name it all went to gather and Air Swoopes made perfect sense!” Sheryl worked with Nike designer Marni Gerber to come up with the model that was built on a woman’s last for a more specific fit for women, rather than just using smaller men’s shoes. Swoopes became the first woman to have a signature model shoe when Nike released the Air Swoopes in 1995. It was a shoe that was released specifically for women basketball players but also had following with men as well.swoopes-shoes2

The signature line took hold and ran until 2002 and yielded seven different signature models for the athlete. Sheryl’s signature line opened up the door for other women basketball players to start getting endorsement deals as well with Nike, including Lisa Leslie, Chamique Holdsclaw, and Dawn Staley. The shoe endorsement was a huge honor for Swoopes who said, “The fact that I have my own shoe and you’re paying me to wear your product – That’s still like a fantasy! This is going to change my life…this is going to give me all sorts of opportunities for things that I never thought would be possible.” Nike has continued their support for women’s basketball by recently releasing a women’s specific basketball collection. They also continue the trend set by Sheryl Swoopes and have Elena Delle Donne as their spokeswoman and premiere signature athlete. When remembering the endorsement deal, Phil Knight said, “I think looking back, it was — Sheryl Swoopes and the Nike endorsement deal– were a significant step on the road to women’s basketball becoming, you know, a much bigger part of American culture.”

Swoopes. Directed by Hannah Storm. Featuring Sheryl Swoopes and Phil Knight.

Click, Calvy. “The Complete History of Women’s Signature Basketball Shoes.” Complex. April 10, 2013. Accessed November 20, 2016.





3 thoughts on “Sheryl Swoopes and the Marketability of Female Athletes

  1. It’s nice to hear about Nike supporting women athletes to such an extent! Are other sportswear companies doing the same? What kind of impact would it have if there were as many products and ads focusing on female athletes as there are male?


    1. addidas and Jordan Brand have both signed female athletes to sponsorship deals, and Nike still features many female athletes in their ads such as Alyson Felix and Elena Delle Donne. Pepsi recently featured Maya Moore in one of their main ad campaigns entitled “Uncle Drew”. It was really funny and really well done.


  2. This article offered an encouraging contrast to the trivializing of WNBA players that I have frequently heard. In high school, my guy friends would always say: “Would you rather find a penny on the ground or have your local WNBA team make it to the championships?” and all the boys would definitively respond, “Penny.” Hopefully, Nike can steadily improve the cultural perception of the WNBA by taking them seriously as talented athletes on the same level as men.


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