There are some facts that read like fiction the first time you hear them.
And that, until three years ago, women’s basketball sneakers pretty much didn’t exist.
It’s that last fact that drove Natalie White to form her own company called Moolah Kicks in 2019. White, then a senior at Boston College saw an ad featuring some of the top players in the WNBA promoting Kyle Irving’s signature kicks. The commercial left a sour taste in her mouth.
“I had never thought about the fact that they’re playing in sneakers that are named after someone that’s not in women’s basketball – they’re named after men’s players,” White tells UPROXX. Growing up in Manhattan, White had spent a good amount of her time on city courts, playing with other boys and girls in her neighborhood and ignoring how wrong her own kicks felt after a tough game. When she started college, she managed the women’s varsity team, where the disparities between the men’s and women’s sides appeared even starker.
“Growing up, I was so aware of the differences in treatment between men and women’s basketball,” she says. “I played club. I was very plugged into the women’s basketball scene. I would look at men’s and look at women’s and see what we don’t have, and I was very wrong for doing that. I think we’re conditioned to do that. But teaching young girls to look across at men’s basketball, and boys’ basketball, and see what they don’t have is not helpful and it’s not pushing our sport forward.”
So, instead of dwelling on the negative, White used her university’s resources and her inherent drive to, quite literally, change the game for female athletes. She scraped together all of the public research she could find – there was a lot – and contacted experts in the field. Doctors, podiatrists, the entire training staff at Boston College. “Basically anyone who would talk to me,” she explains.
Next, she went to the folks at Jones & Vining, one of the world’s top last manufacturers. (A last is a mechanical form shaped to resemble the human foot.) The problem she found with women wearing sneakers either built specifically for men or sneakers labeled as unisex models that were still fashioned from male-skewed lasts – the only two options female players had at the time – came down to a simple truth: men’s and women’s feet are just different. And, by not crafting a shoe that fit their feet, the women’s game – whether the players knew it or not – was suffering.
Once her last was created, White polled the very people she wanted to help. She contacted college players and professional athletes she knew through her work at Boston College. She stood outside the school’s Conte Forum during game nights, stopping the young female players who came to watch the women’s side dominate and asking them what they’d change about the kicks they played with.
“Hi, I’m Natalie,” she’d start. “I’m starting a women’s basketball brand. What don’t you like about your sneakers?”
Armed with Google surveys and handwritten notes cataloging players’ input, she created her first prototype, asking players to wear a Moolah Kicks sneaker on one foot and their regular gameday shoes on the other. She’d put them through drills, pick-up games, and team events, testing their durability, their range of motion, and, most importantly, asking players how they felt after wearing her shoe.
And something strange began to happen, something even White didn’t expect.
“When we built the last, we didn’t know that it would completely take away the pain women had been playing with,” White explains. Normally, female athletes rocking men’s sneakers carry the same complaints after spending time on the court.
“They all think it’s them,” White jokes. “But really, everyone is experiencing similar things. When people initially put [men’s sneakers] on they say, ‘It takes a long time to break them in.’ Another comment is that people’s toes will slide to the top and hit the front of their sneakers and they’ll get bruises on the top of their feet. Then the third one is that the bottom of people’s feet hurt and burn after they’re playing basketball. Your feet are kind of on fire sometimes after playing. All three of those things are not true when you’re wearing sneakers that are fit for you.”
In fact, by wearing shoes crafted specifically for women, female players reported less back pain, shin splints, and susceptibility to injury. White had former professional athletes calling her to tell her they wished they had Moolah Kicks when they were in the league. She had college girls phoning to say their game had improved and their recovery time had lessened.
“I shopped in the children’s section for 20 years and never realized the performance implications and the social implications of that,” White says. “Most of the women in the sport don’t. But the second they put on our sneakers, they realize what’s been missing.”
That kind of feedback pushed White to grow her company into something more than just a footwear solution for female players. The hard truth, she says, is this: “Brands have invested a ton of money into the ‘unisex model.’ Which means built for men, marketed to all. And that’s extremely harmful to female players because we’re not talking about a t-shirt that doesn’t fit you. We’re talking about the only piece of performance equipment, a shoe that you are going to play your body’s hardest at for hours on end, for not just a season, but years of your life. Think of the damage that does.”
The sponsorship money and brand deals flooding the WNBA at the moment are great, but often those contracts come with stipulations. If you’re representing Nike, Adidas, New Balance, or Puma, you’ve got to sport their kicks – even if they don’t offer any that are tailored to a woman’s feet. Instead, White is hoping that the science behind her shoes coupled with the styles and collections the company is trying to drop at a quicker pace, will change the economy of footwear in the women’s game too.
“Once you have the performance down, you want to make sure that those players are wearing sneakers that they feel embody their personality on their feet,” she explains. That’s how the brand can grow its footwear selection, by attracting younger players hoping to match their sneakers to their team colors or rookies looking for something bold and eye-catching to dominate with on the court.
“We have some colors that go with all uniforms, they go with your home, they go with your away,” White explains. “And then we have some really loud, crazy prints, like the Electric Cheetah” – a personal favorite of Moolah’s founder. There’s the Paint Shop collection that dropped last spring, a mix of pastels and gradients that pull the eye. And then there’s the Neovolt Pro, the latest design that improves on the tech of the original Moolah Kicks and elevates the game with clean lines and fresh designs.
“Those packs serve so much energy, to really kind of show off that attitude and that on-court style,” White says. “Not style in just the fashion sense but game style — when you look somebody in the eye and you tell everyone else to clear out. That is what those sneakers are for.”
White’s next order of business is growing her company into a recognizable brand, one that blends style and performance in the way SBX and Speedo do. And she wants to move talk around the women’s game away from the word “equality.”
“We’re using men’s basketball as a measuring stick,” White explains. “When in reality with Moolah Kicks, women’s basketball has an opportunity to have a unique value, our own culture, our own everything. That’s not legitimized or de-legitimized dependent on how we stack up against men.”
And she has an idea of how to start, with a goal that sounds just as unbelievable as those facts we listed off earlier … until you realize how quickly the women’s game and game style has changed thanks to brands like Moolah Kicks and fans like White, putting in the work of creating something dope and new despite the obstacles facing them.
Where does she see Moolah Kicks in five years’ time?
“On the feet of all girls and women’s basketball players in America,” White answers. “At least.”