Seattle has a winning basketball team. Good luck finding a jersey.

SEATTLE – What do I need to do here to buy the hat that represents the best team in women’s basketball?

That’s what I was thinking last week as I walked the streets of downtown Seattle, where the WNBA champion, the Storm, was home.

In sporting supplies stores, I looked for a green-and-gold storm cap, a T-shirt, or perhaps a replica of the team’s new black jersey, whatever displayed my love for one of the major teams in the sport. Do.

What I found were stores full of Seahawks, Mariners, and Washington Huskies swag. I saw eager customers buying caps with an ice blue “S” that represents the Kraken, the new NHL team in town. Kraken’s first game isn’t until next month.

Every time I asked for Storm merchandise, I was surprised and surprised. One seller suggested that Storm Gear would remain untouched due to the demand for Russell Wilson jerseys. Another told me she could sell me storm bumper stickers, but she didn’t know where.

Frustrated, I drove to a nearby suburb and found a sporting goods store in a mall. Here my question was answered with:

“Who is the storm?”

In its 21 years of existence, the storm has been remarkably consistent. He has four WNBA titles. The first came in 2004. Last in 2020. As the league enters this season’s playoffs, which begin this week, they are once again among its top four teams and have a good chance of repeating as champions.

The defending champions are led by three athletes of remarkable distinction. Jewel Lloyd is an aggressive spark plug, sporting the latter of Kobe Bryant, who was one of his mentors. The league MVP in 2018, Brenna Stewart, is possibly the best player in the women’s game. One of the few breakout stars in her sport, Sue Bird has spent her entire professional career in Seattle.

These three women helped the United States win a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. At the opening ceremony, Bird waved the American flag in a parade of athletes.

These are the storms.

And yet in the shops I visited last week and on the streets of a city that describes itself as deeply progressive, I saw nothing to indicate that Seattle has a WNBA team, fueling a passion for one. leave.

Merchandise is a metaphor, a sign of something else: cultural capital. They don’t call all those hats, shirts, jerseys, and sweatshirts “swag” in vain, and its prevalence — or, in this case, the lack of it — speaks to something profound.

Signal sent when gear is so hard to find and rarely seen? Women remain an ideology, which is especially difficult for team sports played primarily by black women.

Players notice.

“You don’t look back on us as much as we should,” Lloyd told me, still sweating after a hard workout last week. “It’s almost impossible to find a jersey. We are like a hidden gem. To put all this work into something and we can’t see, what else do we have to do? We’ve won championships here and brought value to our city, and still you can’t find the jersey?”

However, there are nuances in this story. True, in its 25th year, the WNBA continues to fight for heart and mind. But after last season, when the league lit up its reputation for excellence and reinvented itself as a leader in the fight for social justice, it’s also making inroads.

While viewership for most sports is declining in the age of cable television cord-cutting, the WNBA’s national broadcast ratings are rising. Player salaries are also rising, and many of the league’s stars are involved in national advertising campaigns for major corporations. Eight players recently signed deals to represent Nike’s Jordan brand in a way that was once unthinkable. In the first, a permanent star, Chicago Sky’s Candace Parker, faces the popular NBA 2K video game.

The league has also successfully garnered support from companies such as Google, Facebook, AT&T, Nike and Deloitte, the professional services firm run by Kathy Engelbert, before she moved to the WNBA in 2019 to serve as its commissioner. .

When I interviewed him last week, Engelbert talked about the need to change and enhance the league’s narrative. He lauded 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 the Nielsen ratings.

When I mentioned that I rarely saw Storm Gear in my hometown of Seattle, he was hardly surprised.

“We need to do better” in marketing and telling the league’s story, she said. If this happens, the overall popularity as well as sales of the merchandise will increase. “I mean, everyone should know who Sue Bird is,” she said. “He’s one of our household names, but we don’t have enough of him.”

The commissioner also underscored the importance of selling the game by highlighting the intense rivalry between individual stars and players and teams, such as how the NBA evolved when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came into the league.

One such rivalry was on full display Friday night between Storm and Phoenix Mercury.

It was Seattle’s final regular season game. Both teams qualified for the playoffs, but much was on the line, including bragging rights between the two organizations that have a history of historical conflicts. More importantly, the winner must also skip the first round of the postseason.

In that game — played 30 miles north of Seattle as the team’s elite area is being renovated — I finally found crazy fans wearing their Storm swag. Cap, T-shirt, socks, face mask, sweatband. Some fans wore green and gold shoes with players’ autographs. Some wore the uniforms of Bird, Lloyd and Stewart from the Olympic team.

Teams played flowing, fast-paced basketball before 6,000 spectators instead of the 2,000 usually at the Storm’s temporary home. Despite being without Stewart, who is battling a leg injury, Seattle came out firing. Lloyd hits a barrage of midrange jump shots and deep 3-pointers. On the way to a career-high 37 points, he scored 22 runs in the first quarter.

The Storm won, 94-85, delighting a boisterous, fun-loving crowd. It was easy to feel the intensity of the team and see how its strong base of loyal and diverse fans powered the WNBA.

But outside of such fans, away from its arena, the league reflects on society and its inequalities. All you have to do is walk the streets of Seattle and shop for storm caps to see it all.

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