It started as a conversation between two friends at a seafood restaurant in Atlanta.
Bria Janelle, a former Division II college basketball player at Mars Hill College who had transitioned into a career as a professional entertainment emcee and in-arena host, had enlisted the help of upcoming sports producer Melani Carter to develop a thought which had started to take root around two of her passions: sneakers and women’s basketball.
“We had a conversation just about the culture of women in sports and what we can do to continue to push the culture forward and not only that but help leave the game better than how we found it,” Janelle remembered about that night in 2018.
That initial conversation soon morphed into another five-hour tête-à-tête at Carter’s house and the idea began to take shape. That is the origin story of Made for the W (formerly WNBA Kicks), a lifestyle platform dedicated to showcasing sneaker culture in women’s sports, starting with the WNBA.
Addressing a Problem
“We broke down a case study on the WNBA and we were talking about what’s happening with marketing. Why aren’t players getting brand deals? Why aren’t players getting shoe deals? Why aren’t companies using the players to promote products that were related to basketball,” recalled Carter, a former broadcast associate at NBA League Pass.
“You would see the men getting it, but you definitely wouldn’t see the women. So, our focus of course started with the WNBA, because we felt like this was a sport that was not represented in mainstream media and they were underserved.”
Determined to debunk the myth that WNBA players weren’t marketable and that they didn’t have global appeal, the duo from Georgia launched Instagram and Twitter accounts in February 2018 with the support of some of the players.
“We already had relationships with a lot of the players even outside of basketball,” explained Janelle. “So, we went to some of them and said this is what we’re looking to do and again the biggest thing was how do we leave the game better than we found it. And one player in particular, Alex Bentley, was like, whatever you guys are doing I support y’all because it’s helping grow the game.”
Making an Impression
Midway through the 2018 season, Carter and Janelle bolstered their own roster by adding Simran Kaleka to the team, a sports entertainment lawyer from Chicago who brought a wealth of industry experience and legal expertise.
The three women shared a love of basketball, a desire to provide exposure to female athletes, and a passion for creating opportunities for contributors and writers unable to secure positions in the sports industry.
While Carter, Janelle, and Kaleka are reluctant to take credit for the recent explosion of interest in women’s sneaker culture, their role cannot be understated.
Since February 2018, Made for the W has positioned itself as an authority for female sneakerheads with exclusive content on the kicks being copped and worn by WNBA players on and off the court.
The site has been namechecked on national television by retired WNBA Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, while NBA superstars James Harden, Chris Paul, and Kyrie Irving have shown love by granting interviews or reposting content.
And it can’t be a coincidence that nine months later, the NBA unveiled NBA Kicks, their own Twitter and Instagram pages highlighting their league’s sneaker culture, or that other sneaker platforms popped up catering specifically to women.
Apparel companies with basketball divisions also started to branch off and create women’s divisions — just this past April, the WNBA’s No. 1 overall pick, Sabrina Ionescu, signed a multiyear shoe and apparel endorsement deal with Nike.
Their #WNBAKicksChallenge saw everyone from WNBA Legends Lisa Leslie and Dawn Staley to ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe showing up and showing out. An ensuing Top 10 Sneakerheads List had players vying for sneakerhead supremacy.
So, who are the players with the most heat in the game? Janelle singled out a few of the ones to watch.
“Seimone Augustus,” Janelle said. “She has a lot. Ty Young of course. I think a sleeper is Arike Ogunbowale. I think a lot of people sleep on her collection. She’s got some fire kicks. Obviously Sue Bird, Diana (Taurasi) with some crazy PEs (player exclusives) on the court with her Lebrons. Breanna Stewart. She’s got some crazy PEs as well.”
Don’t sleep on the coaches’ drip either. “Tanisha Wright. She’s a sneakerhead. She’s now with Las Vegas, but she’s definitely got some heat in her closet. It’s quiet heat, but when you look at her Jordan collection, it’s crazy.”
Made for the W Takes Shape
In the platform’s nascence, they built their strategy around the hashtag and handle WNBA Kicks despite no official affiliation with the league.
The addition of Kaleka would prove prescient as they found themselves embroiled in a dispute in 2019 over the use of ‘WNBA’ with the league office. But Kaleka saw this as an opportunity to expand the burgeoning brand past the sneaker subculture.
“We were just told it was an IP issue and, you know, as an attorney, I totally understand that space, but it made us realize that we had a larger purpose at hand and we couldn’t let something like that dilute our mission and we understood that we had a lot more spaces to elevate and tap into and rebranding,” she said.
The new site still showcases their signature sneaker content, but takes a deeper dive into storytelling and creating a safe space for the players and coaches to share their experiences.
As Carter so succinctly put it, “These women are dope, they have great sneaker collections, but they also have a voice.” And in the current climate of social unrest, these voices have been leading the charge for change.
WNBA star Maya Moore is sitting out a second straight season to advocate for criminal justice reform and recently helped orchestrate the release of Jeremy Irons, a Missouri man who spent over 20 years in prison on assault charges despite his insistence that he had been misidentified. The revamped version of Made for the W was built for this exact moment.
This remains a grassroots project with no significant funding or backing and all three ladies are quick to acknowledge that none of this would be possible without their 25 contributors both in the US and abroad. Kaleka is proud of their trajectory.
“It’s been a privilege to be able to give our contributors a platform to further their own exposure and careers,” she said. “And it’s been amazing to see the opportunities that they’ve even been able to transition to and I think that adds to our uniqueness because we don’t pigeonhole them or have any legal stipulations or anything that will restrict them of any conflict of interest to be able to pursue what they do.”
Of course, none of this would be possible without the women who inspired this mission: the players.
Janelle summed it all up. “As women, we naturally rise to the challenge and the fact that they have been rocking with us every step of the way — I don’t think we can say thank you enough. If we could tell them anything it would be, this is only the beginning of something very special. More to come. Our purpose is larger than a handle.”
Source: Sports Illustrated