Before she even heard the startling news, Natalie White was already on her mission.
Fueled by a mix of being perennially embarrassed at being led into the children’s shoe section to buy her basketball sneakers, seeing her taller teammates head for the men’s section, playing in front of sparsely filled gyms in New York City growing up, seeing the same lack of interest at Boston College games and generally offended by all the gender inequities between women’s and men’s basketball, White had already founded Moolah Kicks, a performance basketball shoe brand focused on women.
White’s research showed that unlike women’s running shoes, performance basketball shoes marketed as unisex or women’s by industry giants such as Nike, Under Armour, and adidas were basically down-sized men’s shoes.
Then she learned that a woman’s foot is anatomically different than a man’s.
It’s narrower in the heel, it’s more curved on the inside, it’s shorter on the outside and it has a higher arch.
The realization that she and every other women’s basketball player had been playing in sneakers with an interior molded to fit the contours of a different gender’s feet gave White even more conviction that Moolah Kicks might appeal to an untapped market.
“I didn’t re-invent anything, I’m not a genius who created the women’s foot form — I studied finance at BC and I’m just passionate about this,” said White, who’s 22 years old. “When I talk to people and say what we stand for, that ‘Women’s feet are different than men’s, so why are you wearing men’s sneakers?’ That’s the message, why are we still in men’s stuff? That’s pretty powerful to a lot of players.”
White is in the midst of a crowdfunding campaign that will launch on May 1, designed to raise at least $150,000 and fulfill an initial order for the first edition of the shoes (available in sizes 7.5-11.5, white or gray) to be ready for delivery by this October, in time for middle-school, high school, and collegiate fall seasons.
‘When I talk to people and say what we stand for, that ‘Women’s feet are different than men’s, so why are you wearing men’s sneakers?’ That’s the message, why are we still in men’s stuff? That’s pretty powerful to a lot of players.’
The rollout of Moolah Kicks is in high gear, highlighted by a spirited and cheeky social media campaign on Instagram. Mixing screen grabs of Nike’s online selection of so-called “women’s” sneakers, women basketball players, sometimes including White, hooping it up on a court or messages of support for anti-racism and pro-women’s sports causes, White is leaning into the brand’s unique lane with its “Fit for Female Ballers” and “Make Moves” slogans. She’s celebrating the company itself as being the first queer, female-founded sneaker brand, with a Black designer, Sean Gayle, and a Black agent, Robert Woods, both with experience in the basketball world.
For White, the social justice and equality component of Moolah Kicks holds even more sway than the shoes’ unique fit for women.
“I want women’s basketball to have the support that it deserves and that’s not something I could do as an individual but what I could do is create a brand that focuses solely on the women’s basketball game and girls playing currently that can motivate them to stay in the game and can be there for them despite everything else they have to deal with in the game,” said White, who graduated with a finance degree in 2020 from Boston College, where she managed the women’s basketball team her first two years and played on a club basketball team her last three years.
“So Moolah is really here to fight for gender equality in basketball and to provide a vehicle and a brand for these players to feel like they do have a voice in their own game, they do have agency and they do have a brand that’s really cool and it’s only for them.”
For the last 91 years, Jones & Vining in Brockton has manufactured “lasts” – the plastic molds used to shape the interior of shoes. The company counts the major sneaker and shoe manufacturers among its clients, and is accustomed to making women’s lasts for a variety of women’s shoes. Except performance basketball shoes.
That changed after Jim Salzano, the company’s CEO, heard about White and her idea from his Zappos contacts and agreed to meet with her.
“A couple of years ago when she came in, [Moolah Kicks] was just an idea on a piece of paper,” said Salzano, who sits as an unpaid member of Moolah Kicks’s advisory board. “What she’s been able to do in two years – normally it takes a shoe company about 18 months to go from sketch to production and that’s with a big team of people. When she told me recently that she’s about ready to launch, I almost fell out of my chair.”
Salzano believes in the product, which will be made using Jones & Vining lasts, and thinks the timing is excellent, but he sounds as if most of his faith in the endeavor is placed in White.
“She’s a powerhouse — I don’t know much about her athletic background but she’s really smart, very, very driven, just relentless but also incredibly humble,” said Salzano. “The thing about Natalie is she’s such a genuine, authentic inspiration that has led to this shoe.
“When you see Natalie, you fall in love with her story. We couldn’t do enough for her. She’s having that effect on other people, I see people doing things for her pro bono.”
Matt Powell, senior advisor for the sports arm of the market research analytical NPD Group, sees great potential for White’s product to fill a niche.
“I continue to say that women are vastly underserved by the sports industry,” said Powell. “Products that do focus directly on women athletes is a nice formula for success.”
Powell said that the performance basketball shoe market creates approximately $600 million in annual revenues, just 15 percent of the overall basketball sneaker market, with so-called “women’s” basketball shoes making up less than 1 percent of the total performance basketball shoe market — $6 million a year, according to Powell’s data.
“To me, that says there is a market there.”
Two other factors — the news cycle and the calendar — could give Moolah Kicks an edge in its start-up phase.
It’s no coincidence that the May 1 launch date is timed with the start of the WNBA season two weeks later and with the conclusion of the women’s NCAA March Madness tournament not that distant in the rear-view mirror.
While Stanford alumnae certainly will never forget their championship, the memory that may stick with the general population was when women basketball players pointed out the appalling differences in workout areas and overall support that the NCAA provided for the men and women players.
The women’s protests sparked enough outrage that the NCAA apologized and scurried to address the inequities, which thrilled White.
“I was so happy to see that people cared, but I was more surprised that people were surprised than by the differences, because this is something that we look at every single day at every level of women’s basketball,” said White.
The history of women’s athletic footwear is relatively recent and short. The Ryka brand was established in 1987 by Sheri Poe (who also sits on Moolah Kicks’s advisory board), before merging with an international company a decade later.
In 1995, three years before White was born, Nike created the “Air Swoopes,” the first women’s basketball shoe, named for Sheryl Swoopes, one of the sport’s all-time greats. The model has been re-introduced in different versions through the years, but it never caught on in a major way, said both Powell and White.
White notes that many of the major WNBA stars have shoe deals with the top sneaker manufacturers and that they’re wearing men’s shoes named after the NBA’s biggest stars, past and present, like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Kyrie Irving and more.
With Nike being the official outfitter of the WNBA, and other sneaker brands having deals with the WNBA’s top stars, White is not counting on, for now, much public support from WNBA players for the Moolah Kicks brand.
Salzano is optimistic that Moolah Kicks will find its commercial niche.
“I think when some executives see this, they’re going to be very interested in helping her out, and who knows, maybe there’s some kind of transaction in the future,” he said.
If and until then, Moolah Kicks is still on the outside, looking in, with White knocking as loudly as she can to get her women’s sneakers on women basketball players’ feet.
“I can understand why the shoe companies haven’t made women’s basketball shoes yet, but it’s something more than that, it’s more than the shoes, it goes back to people not watching women’s basketball, it goes back to when I remember, growing up, tickets for my games at AAU tournaments cost $5 and the boys’ games cost $10, it’s all those things that stack up,” said White. “We need to have more support behind us, because this has accumulated to the point where players internalize these messages and say, ‘Wow, the only thing I need to play basketball is sneakers and they don’t even make those for me.’”
Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.