SEATTLE – What should I do here to buy a cap that represents the best team in women’s basketball?
That’s what I thought last week as I walked the streets of downtown Seattle, home of WNBA champions the Storm.
In sports accessories stores I was looking for a green and gold Storm cap, t-shirt, or maybe a replica of the team’s new black jerseys, anything that would show my love for one of the best teams. sports.
What I found were shops full of Seahawks, Mariners, and Washington Huskies swag. I’ve seen enthusiastic customers buy caps with the ice blue “S” that represents the Kraken, the new NHL team in town. The Kraken’s first game is only next month.
Every time I have asked for Storm merchandise I have been surprised and surprised. One seller suggested that the Storm gear will surely remain intact due to the demand for Russell Wilson jerseys. Another told me that she could sell me a Storm bumper sticker, but she didn’t know where it was.
Disappointed, I went to a nearby suburb and found a sporting goods store in a mall. Here my question was answered with this:
“Who is the storm? “
In their 21 years of existence, the Storms have been remarkably consistent. They hold four WNBA titles. The first came in 2004. The last in 2020. As the league heads into this season’s playoffs, which begin this week, they are once again in their top four teams and have a good chance of a repeat in as a champion.
At the head of the reigning champions are three athletes of remarkable distinction. Jewell Loyd is an offensive spark plug with play inspired by Kobe Bryant, who was one of his mentors. Breanna Stewart, the league’s 2018 MVP, is perhaps the best player in women’s football. Sue Bird, one of the few stars of her sport, has spent her entire professional career in Seattle.
These three women helped the United States win gold at the Tokyo Olympics. During the opening ceremony, Bird carried the American flag in the parade of athletes.
This is who the Storms are.
And yet, in the stores I visited last week and on the streets of a city that boasts of being deeply progressive, I saw nothing to indicate that Seattle has a WNBA team, let alone the passion for one.
The commodity is a metaphor, an indicator of something else: cultural capital. They don’t call all of these hats, shirts, jerseys, and sweatshirts “swag” for nothing, and their prevalence – or, in this case, their absence – speaks to something deep.
The signal sent when the equipment is so hard to find and so rarely seen? Women remain an afterthought, which is particularly striking for a team sport played primarily by black women.
The players notice.
“You don’t see us represented as much as we should be,” Loyd told me, still sweating after hard training last week. “It’s almost impossible to find a jersey. We are like a hidden gem. To put all of this work into something and not be seen, what else do we need to do? We’ve won championships here and brought value to our city, and yet you can’t find a jersey?
There is, however, a nuance in this story. Certainly in its 25th year, the WNBA continues to fight for hearts and minds. But after last season, when the league regained its reputation for excellence and solidified as a leader in the fight for social justice, it is also making inroads.
As audiences for most sports decline in an era of cable TV cable cuts, the WNBA’s national ratings are on the rise. Player salaries are also rising, and several league stars are featured in nationwide advertising campaigns for major corporations. Eight players recently signed deals to represent Nike’s Jordan brand, a number that was once unthinkable. In a first, an enduring star, Candace Parker of Chicago Sky, is the helm of the popular NBA 2K video game.
The league was also successful in gaining support from companies including Google, Facebook, AT&T, Nike and Deloitte, the professional services firm led by Cathy Engelbert before she joined the WNBA in 2019 to be its commissioner.
When I interviewed her last week, Engelbert spoke about the need to change and amplify the story of the league. She praised the dedicated, diverse, young and socially progressive fan base. She wants the WNBA to be valued in new ways that go beyond old metrics like Nielsen ratings.
When I mentioned that I rarely saw Storm material in Seattle, my hometown, she hardly seemed surprised.
“We have to do better” in marketing and telling the story of the league, she said. If this happens, the sales of the merchandise will increase, as well as the overall popularity. “I mean, everyone should know who Sue Bird is,” she said. “She happens to be one of our household names, but we don’t have enough of her.”
The commissioner also stressed the importance of selling the game by highlighting individual stars and intense rivalries between players and teams, like the growth of the NBA when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird arrived in this league.
One of those rivalries, between the Storm and the Phoenix Mercury, was fully visible on Friday night.
It was Seattle’s last regular season game. Both teams had qualified for the playoffs, but a lot was at stake, including the bragging rights between two organizations that have a history of epic clashes. More importantly, the winner could also skip the first round of the playoffs.
In that game – played 30 miles north of Seattle because the team’s typical arena is undergoing renovations – I finally found rabid fans carrying their Storm loot. Caps, T-shirts, socks, masks, headbands. A few fans donned green and gold shoes with player autographs. Some wore the uniforms of Bird, Loyd and Stewart of the Olympic team.
In front of 6,000 spectators instead of the 2,000 usually present in the Storm’s temporary home, the teams presented a showcase of fluid and fast basketball. Despite the absence of Stewart, who is treating a foot injury, Seattle came out shooting. Loyd hit a barrage of midrange and 3-point deep jump shots. On her way to a career-high 37 points, she scored 22 in the first quarter.
The Storm won, 94-85, delighting a loud, fun-loving crowd. It was easy to feel the intensity of the team and see how their strong base of loyal and diverse fans fueled the WNBA.
But outside of these fans, far from its arenas, the league reflects society and its inequalities. All you have to do is walk the streets of Seattle and buy a Storm cap to see it.