Is the WNBA a Missed Fashion Opportunity?

Dallas Wings player Arike Ogunbowale COURTESY PHOTO

Can the WNBA tunnel serve as a replacement for the runway?

The conference finals series between the Connecticut Sun and Chicago Sky and the Las Vegas Aces and Phoenix Mercury earlier this month saw unexpected fashion moments from league stars like Diana Taurasi, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Liz Cambage, and A’ja Wilson, among others. They helped shine a spotlight on the women’s take on pro basketball’s “Tunnel Style.”


Wilson, the Aces’ top forward and the 2020 WNBA MVP, has been honoring former great WNBA stars by donning custom jersey dresses of women like Sheryl Swoopes, the league’s first player, and Lisa Leslie, the Los Angeles Sparks star and four-time Olympic gold medalist, throughout the conference finals.


Wilson, a 25-year-old Nike athlete and Olympic gold medallist said she prefers to wear “comfortable” clothing rather than “flashy.” But, for the league’s 25th anniversary, she felt nostalgic about the jersey dress style. So she wanted to bring it back for this playoff series to be game-ready and pay honor to the heroes who paved the way for her professional career.


“Fashion brings a person’s personality to life,” Wilson explained. “Tunnel fitting can reveal a lot about a person’s personality.”


Swoopes’ Houston Comets jersey and Leslie’s high school jersey for the Morningside Lady Monarchs in Los Angeles, where she once scored 101 points in a game in just two quarters against South Torrence High, which scored only 23 points and forfeited by halftime, were made for Wilson by a past collaborator who made jerseys for her.


Wilson commented, “I thought jersey dresses were nice.” “In the South, the Carmelo Anthony Denver Nuggets jersey outfit was huge.”


Wilson said she doesn’t usually work with a stylist, but she did for the Espys, and she might call her brother for guidance on which socks to wear. In order to prepare for a game, she prefers to dress comfortably in brands like Gucci and Fear of God Essentials and not overthink what she wears. “I believe you should be preparing for your game, but on the other hand, I think you should hire a stylist for when you’ll be seen.”


With rising viewership, social media feeds, and magazines like GQ showcasing WNBA players’ clothing, there are more opportunities to be noticed. Wilson claimed it was the first time she saw her jersey dress photo on Instagram’s Explore tab.


The posts offer a look into the league’s burgeoning popularity. In September, the WNBA said that this was the highest watched regular season since 2008 across all ESPN networks, including ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2, as well as the CBS Television Network. In addition, the most-watched regular-season game since 2012, a contest between the Seattle Storm and the Chicago Sky on Aug. 15 on ABC, averaged 755,000 viewers, a 51 percent increase over 2020.


Furthermore, achieved a record growth of 50% over 2020, with the orange WNBA logo hoodie being the most popular item for the second season in a row.


During last year’s rallies against police brutality in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, NBA players took a step back to provide their platforms to WNBA players who have been vocal about civil justice issues in the United States. Last year, players wore “Vote Warnock” T-shirts to promote Raphael Warnock, who was running for the United States Senate in Georgia against incumbent Kelly Loffler, a co-owner of the Atlanta Dream WNBA team. Loffler had been outspoken in his opposition to the NBA’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Warnock defeated Loffler to become Georgia’s first Black senator.


“The WNBA today lies at the crossroads of athletics, entertainment, culture, and personality. “We are proud to be commemorating 25 years of recognizing WNBA athletes’ talent, activism, passion, and authenticity as a player-first league,” WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said.

“We have seen an increase in viewership, fandom, and broader popularity of WNBA players in recent years, thanks in part to their strong activism for social justice and raising awareness of critical and difficult societal issues.”

Players continue to express their multidimensional appeal to millions of fans and act as role models for the next generation of athletes by leveraging social media, engaging in their local communities, or turning their arena entrance into a fashion statement for their latest’ looks.’

Charli Collier in custom Sergio Hudson for the WNBA virtual draft. EMILY JOHNSON

For years, many people have claimed that the WNBA and women’s sports are unwatchable, using viewing data to back up their claims. The reasoning was that if brands wanted to maximize their advertising efforts, they would receive more bang for their buck by collaborating with more prominent athletes. However, the social media era has altered the environment. While the WNBA regular season attracted the biggest audience to date, the NBA regular season averaged 1.32 million viewers, down 25% from the pre-pandemic 2018-19 season (1.75 million). However, that still beats the WNBA’s highest-rated game from the 2021 season. The highest-rated NBA game of the season, a contest between the Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks on Christmas Day, averaged 7.01 million viewers.


The NBA, NFL, and other men’s sports are getting more attention because to broadcast ratings and blogs like GQ, Bleacher Report, and League Fits documenting tunnel fits. More optics mean more competition from brands to get in front of athletes and higher prices for athletes to collaborate with. The top WNBA players, champions, and MVPs may not have the same social media following as their male counterparts, but their numbers far outnumber any micro-influencer.


Sue Bird, the Seattle Storm player who won several NCAA championships, WNBA championships, and Olympic gold medals, said, “There is an overall trend where women are disregarded at times as a smart investment, and this is special to the WNBA, but it applies to other professions.” “This league was viewed as a charity, but if that perception is changed and it is viewed as a place to invest, it will make a great splash.”


Brands like Steve Madden, Aldo, Spanx, and J. Crew, according to Kesha McLeod, stylist, author, creative director, and a regular partner with the WNBA, have been supportive of the league and its players. However, she argues that brands are hesitant to deal with female athletes, even McLeod’s client Serena Williams, who is widely recognized as the best female athlete in the world today.


“It was wonderful for the women to participate in the [‘Match My Fly’] style segment for the WNBA about three or four years ago,” McLeod said. “I see women wearing Kith, Supreme, and Hanifa, and I wish the luxury market would embrace them more.” Another brand or designer that the players wear, according to McLeod, is Sergio Hudson, who clothed number-one draft pick Charli Collier in a special outfit for the WNBA Draft.


McLeod, a former basketball player, believes that brands struggle to accept female athletes in general. “They have no idea,” she explained. “They don’t realize what kind of industry they’re entering or how to welcome an athlete.” They don’t understand, and it’s up to the stylist and the media to educate them.”


Tennis, gymnastics, and track and field have all seen resurgences akin to the WNBA’s. For example, Sha’Carri Richardson became an overnight sensation during the Olympic trials in track and field, landed a Beats headphones commercial shortly after despite failing to qualify for the Games, and attended this year’s Met Gala in Theophilio alongside Allyson Felix. The latter won a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.


When she announced her departure from Nike Inc. for Athleta, Simone Biles made news, claiming that the Gap Inc. brand is more committed to diversity and inclusiveness. She’ll design a line for the company. Serena Williams continues to be a dominant force in tennis, as well as incorporate partnerships. Williams’ endorsements are worth $34 million, according to Sportico, second only to Naomi Osaka’s $50 million in endorsements. Osaka is a role model for the next generation of tennis players, including Coco Gauff and Sloane Stephens, who both attended this year’s Met Gala with Osaka.


Tennis, gymnastics, and golf are among the top six highest-paid female sports. Alex Morgan, the seventh-highest earner, is a member of the USWNT and the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League, and Mikaela Shiffrin, the ninth-highest earner, is an alpine skier. Basketball was not among the top ten sports.


“Athletes have immense power and clout in general, and will continue to be key to how companies, luxury, mass, and beyond, look to promote,” said James Denman, executive director, strategy and digital innovation at Yard NYC. For example, to promote the next generation of American tennis players, the firm has worked with Coco Gauff, Sofia Kenin, and the United States Tennis Association.


Denman explained, “Tennis and luxury brands have a long heritage – which continues to this day.” “However, as the sport matures and a new generation of stars emerges, different businesses, particularly younger brands, would be wise to connect with tennis players.” Beyond sponsoring Nike, Uniqlo, Rolex, or Tag [Heuer], Naomi Osaka and the Sweetgreen collaboration point the door to a much larger, more intriguing ambit for tennis players.

“Non-male athletes will have an increasing impact on fashion firms,” he added. Even if you consider genderless apparel, it is more important to consider what the athlete represents while wearing them than who is wearing them. You may see everyone from Russell Westbrook to Barcelona FC to Ashlyn Harris in a brand like Thom Browne, which has surprisingly pushed into sports as a marketing opportunity. A clear, bright-line appeals to these athletes in a brand like that: a subversion of identity, formalizing sporting stereotypes. Athletes in fashion brands may be a great, subversive potential if handled correctly.”

Lauren Varvara, creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, a WNBA partner, agrees with Denman that non-male athletes offer fantastic marketing opportunities.

“For fashion firms, non-male athletes are a well of untapped promise,” she remarked. “For starters, I can’t think of a greater group of people than athletes who are known for being strong and powerful above all else to help models and the people who see them highlight a healthier body image.”


The WNBA’s “Count It” campaign, which celebrated the league’s accomplishments with specifically themed events and promotions, was created in collaboration with Saatchi & Saatchi. Additionally, according to Varvara, since Sheryl Swoopes’ debut Nike sneakers, Air Swoopes, when the athlete became the first woman to have a signature athletic shoe, the league and fashion have been associated.


“We’ve also observed athletes gaining greater attention for their street style during pregame entrances,” Varvara noted. “When it comes to marketing, I believe athletes to be among the most believable influencers because, unlike actors, we tend to see athletes as ordinary people who happen to be extraordinarily talented.” Because they don’t feel like they’re being sold to,’ their marketing has a higher level of authenticity. Plus, seeing the off-court personas, we don’t get to see during games or interviews is always fun.”


What are fashion labels doing with regards to the WNBA? Players have named Gucci, Dior, Fendi, Market, Fear of God Essentials, Daniel Patrick, and Zara their favorite luxury, men’s clothing, and fast-fashion companies.


“I believe the WNBA is an underserved market for fashion manufacturers,” said Marc Keiser, designer of Keiser Clark. The Bird was introduced to the designer by her companion Megan Rapinoe, and the two have collaborated ever since. “Many men’s brands, such as Fear of God and Rhude, do not sell or advertise themselves as unisex. In terms of my brand, I imagine how everything we design will look on a woman since I believe it’s a vast market that many brands may easily dismiss.”


Rapinoe and Bird, according to Keiser, increase traffic and revenue for his brand, and brands may reach everyday customers and young girls who look up to WNBA players by working with WNBA athletes or female athletes in general. “The WNBA players have a real fan base,” Keiser added. “They get twice as much attention from the fans as the men’s athlete.”


He also recognizes that there may be a fit issue, but this is where men’s brands excel. Chelsea Gray, a guard for the Las Vegas Aces, describes her style as “fluid,” saying she wears men’s clothes with women’s fashions. For example, she wore a floral men’s blouse from Zara with women’s shorts and Fendi shoes in one outfit. She frequently shops Fendi’s men’s collection. She also enjoys shopping for Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, Adidas tracksuits, and shirts promoting historically black colleges and universities.


Gray explained, “My style is extremely flexible.” “All of the women’s styles, as well as men’s, will not fit me properly, but I can mix and match.” I’ve been in touch with a stylist, and we’ve discussed various styles and what looks good. My wife assists me greatly, but my daily tunnel appearance is me making something.”


Many WNBA stars, including Skylar Diggins-Smith, the Phoenix Mercury guard who was the first female athlete to sign with Roc Nation Sports in 2013, Arike Ogunbowale, the Dallas Wings guard who is an ambassador for sneaker community website SoleSavy and launched merchandise with Pwrfwd, and Bird, have stepped out as style ambassadors.


Out of all of the players, Bird has had the most talked-about fashion moments. She wears Essentials, Market, and Keiser Clark, and she has a friendly shoe rivalry with P.J. Tucker, the NBA’s top sneakerhead. However, her most memorable moment occurred off the court in 2020, when she co-hosted the ESPYs with Rapinoe in Black designers Pyer Moss, Fear of God, and Christopher John Rogers.


“The [ESPYs styles] were a collaboration between me, Megan, [stylist] Karla Welch, and Nike’s Ben Kushner,” Bird explained. “Megan and I discussed it, Karla was on board and helped bring it to life, and Ben was in charge of the footwear.” We wanted to bring attention to designers who aren’t usually recognized.”


Bird joined the WNBA in 2002 and has seen the league evolve throughout its 25-year history. She and Gray stated that in the beginning, the league had a “restricted” dress code that didn’t allow for jeans, T-shirts, or sneakers, similar to how former NBA Commissioner David Stern enforced a dress code for male players.


“Coming into the league, they stated the style needed to be more business casual,” Gray explained. There would be fewer jeans and more slacks. Sweats would not be seen in the tunnel. People were wearing formalwear, but they weren’t taking as many tunnel shots.”


Bird said of the NBA’s dress policy, “We kind of copied and pasted their dress code.” “I believe we had a minor revolution when they took the jeans off. The WNBA’s clothing code was extremely restrictive, which harmed a lot of fashion in the league.”


Since she was recruited in 2006, Bird has referred to former WNBA point guard Cappie Pondexter as one of the league’s more stylish players and sees the NBA’s “tunnel fits” as the doorway for players in both leagues to push their style.


“Seeing ladies in what they feel good in and comfortable in is how it is for all women out there,” Bird continued.


Bird said she might go to Acne Studios, but she’ll first look at the men’s section. She, like Gray, is helping to popularize a new way of merging high and quick fashion – unironically mixing women’s and men’s styles.


“Our league is at the intersection of all of those things,” Bird said of the current state of the planet. “We recently had a player come out as trans. We’re a whole market that has yet to be exploited. The chance is to go in now and develop those relationships that will pay off in three to five years. We have a lot of tall athletes, and tall women in general find it difficult to locate clothing in their size. “There’s a huge world out there that hasn’t been explored.”


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