SEATTLE — What do I’ve to do round right here to purchase a cap that reps the perfect workforce in girls’s basketball?
That’s what I used to be considering final week as I walked the streets of downtown Seattle, house of the W.N.B.A. champions, the Storm.
In sports activities paraphernalia outlets, I hunted for a green-and-gold Storm cap, a T-shirt, or perhaps a reproduction of the workforce’s new black jerseys, something that might showcase my love for one of many premier groups in sports activities.
What I discovered have been shops full of Seahawks, Mariners and Washington Huskies swag. I noticed keen clients shopping for caps affixed with the ice blue “S” that represents the Kraken, the brand new N.H.L. workforce on the town. The Kraken’s first sport isn’t till subsequent month.
Each time I requested for Storm merchandise, I used to be met with bewilderment and shock. One salesperson instructed Storm gear would absolutely sit untouched due to the demand for Russell Wilson jerseys. Another informed me she might promote me a Storm bumper sticker, however she wasn’t positive the place it was.
Disappointed, I drove to a close by suburb and located a sporting items retailer in a mall. Here my question was answered with this:
“Who are the Storm?”
In their 21 years of existence, the Storm have been remarkably constant. They maintain 4 W.N.B.A. titles. The first got here in 2004. The final in 2020. As the league heads into this season’s playoffs, which begin this week, they’re as soon as once more amongst its prime 4 groups and stand a good likelihood of repeating as champions.
Leading the reigning champions are three athletes of exceptional distinction. Jewell Loyd is an offensive spark plug with a sport common after Kobe Bryant, who was one in every of her mentors. Breanna Stewart, the league M.V.P. in 2018, is presumably the perfect participant within the girls’s sport. Sue Bird, one in every of her sport’s few breakout stars, has spent her whole skilled career in Seattle.
These three girls helped the United States win the gold medal on the Tokyo Olympics. At the opening ceremony, Bird carried the American flag within the parade of athletes.
That’s who the Storm are.
And but within the shops I visited final week and on the streets of a metropolis that touts itself as deeply progressive, I noticed nothing to point that Seattle has a W.N.B.A. workforce, not to mention ardour for one.
Merchandise is a metaphor, a signpost of one thing else: cultural capital. They don’t name all these hats, shirts, jerseys and sweatshirts “swag” for nothing, and the prevalence of it — or, on this case, the shortage of it — speaks to one thing profound.
The sign despatched when gear is so laborious to search out and so hardly ever seen? Women stay an afterthought, which hits particularly laborious for a workforce sport performed predominantly by Black girls.
The gamers discover.
“You don’t see us repped as much as we should be,” Loyd informed me, nonetheless sweating after a laborious follow final week. “It is almost impossible to find a jersey. We are like a hidden gem. To put all of this work into something and we are not seen, what else do we have to do? We’ve won championships here and brought value to our city, and yet you can’t find a jersey?”
There is nuance to this story, although. True, in its twenty fifth year, the W.N.B.A continues to battle for hearts and minds. But after final season, when the league burnished its status for excellence and solidified itself as a chief within the struggle for social justice, it is usually making inroads.
While viewership for many sports activities is declining in an period of cable tv cord-cutting, the W.N.B.A.’s nationwide broadcast scores are on the rise. Player salaries are climbing, too, and a number of other of the league’s stars characteristic in nationwide promoting campaigns for big companies. Eight gamers signed offers not too long ago to characterize Nike’s Jordan Brand, a quantity as soon as unthinkable. In a first, one enduring star, the Chicago Sky’s Candace Parker, fronts the favored NBA 2K online game.
The league has additionally efficiently courted backing from firms comparable to Google, Facebook, AT&T, Nike and Deloitte, the skilled companies agency helmed by Cathy Engelbert earlier than she moved to the W.N.B.A. in 2019 to function its commissioner.
When I interviewed her final week, Engelbert spoke of the necessity to change and amplify the league’s narrative. She hailed the devoted, numerous, youthful and socially progressive fan base. She needs the W.N.B.A. valued in new ways in which transcend outdated metrics like Nielsen scores.
When I discussed I hardly ever noticed Storm gear in Seattle, my hometown, she hardly appeared stunned.
“We need to do better” at advertising and marketing and telling the league’s story, she stated. If that occurs, gross sales of merchandise will rise, together with total reputation. “I mean, everyone should know who Sue Bird is,” she stated. “She happens to be one of our household names, but we don’t have enough of them.”
The commissioner additionally singled out the significance of promoting the sport by highlighting particular person stars and the extraordinary rivalries amongst gamers and groups, akin to how the N.B.A. grew when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird got here to that league.
One such rivalry, between the Storm and the Phoenix Mercury, was on full show on Friday night time.
It was Seattle’s closing regular-season sport. Both groups had certified for the playoffs, however a lot was on the road, together with bragging rights between two organizations which have a historical past of epic clashes. More necessary, the winner would additionally get to skip the postseason’s first spherical.
At that sport — performed 30 miles north of Seattle as a result of the workforce’s typical area is being renovated — I lastly discovered rabid followers carrying their Storm swag. Caps, T-shirts, socks, face masks, sweatbands. A number of followers donned green-and-gold sneakers with participant autographs. Some wore the uniforms of Bird, Loyd and Stewart from the Olympic workforce.
Before 6,000 spectators as an alternative of the two,000 usually on the Storm’s short-term house, the groups placed on a showcase of flowing, fast-paced basketball. Despite being with out Stewart, who’s nursing a foot damage, Seattle got here out firing. Loyd hit a barrage of midrange soar pictures and deep 3-pointers. On her strategy to a career-high 37 factors, she scored 22 within the first quarter.
The Storm gained, 94-85, delighting a boisterous, fun-loving crowd. It was straightforward to really feel the workforce’s depth and to see how its agency base of loyal and numerous followers powered the W.N.B.A.
But outdoors of such followers, away from its arenas, the league mirrors society and its inequities. All that you must do is stroll the streets of Seattle and store for a Storm cap to see that.