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SEATTLE – What do I have to 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, the home of WNBA Champion Storm.
In sporting goods stores, I looked for a green and gold Storm hat, 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 in the sport.
What I found were stores full of loot from Seahawks, Mariners, and Washington Huskies. I saw eager customers buying hats with the ice blue “S”, which stands for the Kraken, the new NHL team in town. The Kraken’s first game isn’t until next month.
Every time I asked about Storm articles, I was surprised with confusion and surprise. One seller suggested that due to the demand for Russell Wilson jerseys, Storm gear would certainly be left untouched. Another told me she could sell me a Storm bumper sticker, but she wasn’t sure where it was.
Disappointed, I drove to a nearby suburb and found a sports shop in a mall. Here’s an answer to my question:
“Who are the storm?”
In their 21 years of existence, the Storm have been remarkably consistent. You hold four WNBA titles. The first came in 2004. The last in 2020. With the start of the playoffs of this season, which begin this week, the league is once again one of the top four teams and has a good chance of repeating itself as champions.
At the head of the reigning champion are three notable athletes. Jewell Loyd is an offensive spark plug with a game styled after Kobe Bryant who was one of her mentors. Breanna Stewart, the 2018 league MVP, is possibly the best player in women’s football. Sue Bird, one of the few breakout stars in her sport, has spent her entire professional career in Seattle.
These three women helped the United States win the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics. At the opening ceremony, Bird carried the American flag in the athletes’ parade.
These are the Storm.
Yet in the stores I visited last week and on the streets of a city that describes itself as deeply progressive, I saw nothing to suggest that Seattle has a WNBA team, let alone a passion for one .
A commodity is a metaphor, a signpost for something else: cultural capital. They don’t call all of those hats, shirts, jerseys, and sweatshirts “swag” for nothing, and their prevalence – or, in this case, lack of them – suggests something profound.
The signal that is sent when the corridor is so hard to find and so rarely seen? Women remain a minor matter, which hits a team sport, which is predominantly played by black women, particularly hard.
The players notice that.
“You don’t see us repressed as often as we should be,” said Loyd, who was still sweating after a tough workout last week. “It’s almost impossible to find a shirt. We are like a hidden gem. In order to put all this work into something and we are not seen, what else do we have to do? We won championships here and created added value for our city, and yet you can’t find a jersey? “
However, this story has nuances. It’s true, in its 25th year, the WNBA continues to fight for hearts and minds. But after last season, as the league cemented its reputation for excellence and cemented itself as a leader in the struggle for social justice, it is also making progress.
While viewership for most sports is falling in an era of cable television, the WNBA’s national broadcast ratings are rising. Player salaries are also rising, and some of the league’s stars can be seen in national advertising campaigns for large companies. Eight players recently signed deals to represent Nike’s Jordan brand, a number that was once unthinkable. The popular NBA 2K video game competes in a first, enduring star, Chicago Sky’s Candace Parker.
The league has also successfully courted support from companies like Google, Facebook, AT&T, Nike and Deloitte, the professional services company led by Cathy Engelbert before joining the WNBA as commissioner in 2019.
When I interviewed her last week, Engelbert spoke of the need to change and expand the league’s narrative. She praised the devoted, diverse, youthful, and socially progressive fan base. She wants the WNBA to be rated in new ways that go beyond old metrics like Nielsen ratings.
When I mentioned that I had seldom seen Storm gear in Seattle, my hometown, it hardly seemed surprised.
“We have to get better” in marketing and in telling the league’s history, she said. When that happens, the sales of goods will go up, along with its general 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 it.”
The commissioner also highlighted the importance of selling the game, highlighting individual stars and the intense rivalries between players and teams, much like the NBA grew when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird got into that league.
One such rivalry between the Storm and the Phoenix Mercury was seen in full 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 showing off rights between two organizations that have a history of epic clashes. More importantly, the winner would also skip the first round of the postseason.
At this game – played 30 miles north of Seattle as the team’s signature arena was undergoing renovations – I finally found rabid fans wearing their Storm swag. Hats, t-shirts, socks, face masks, sweatbands. A few fans put on green and gold shoes with players’ autographs. Some wore the uniforms of Bird, Loyd, and Stewart from the Olympic team.
In front of 6,000 spectators instead of the 2,000 normally in the temporary home of the Storm, the teams presented a show with flowing, fast-paced basketball. Despite being absent without Stewart suffering from a foot injury, Seattle came out firing. Loyd hit a flurry of mid-range, deep 3-pointer jump shots. On her way to a career high of 37 points, she scored 22 points in the first quarter.
The Storm won 94-85 and delighted an exuberant, fun-loving audience. It was easy to feel the intensity of the team and see how its solid base of loyal and diverse fans drives the WNBA
But outside of these fans, apart from their arenas, the league reflects society and its injustices. All you have to do is walk the streets of Seattle and buy a Storm hat to see this.