SEATTLE — What do I’ve to do round right here to purchase a cap that reps one of the best crew in ladies’s basketball?
That’s what I used to be considering final week as I walked the streets of downtown Seattle, dwelling 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 possibly a duplicate of the crew’s new black jerseys, something that might showcase my love for one of many premier groups in sports activities.
What I discovered had been shops crammed with Seahawks, Mariners and Washington Huskies swag. I noticed keen prospects shopping for caps affixed with the ice blue “S” that represents the Kraken, the brand new N.H.L. crew on the town. The Kraken’s first sport isn’t till subsequent month.
Every time I requested for Storm merchandise, I used to be met with bewilderment and shock. One salesperson steered Storm gear would certainly sit untouched due to the demand for Russell Wilson jerseys. One other advised me she might promote me a Storm bumper sticker, however she wasn’t positive the place it was.
Disillusioned, I drove to a close-by suburb and located a sporting items retailer in a mall. Right here my query was answered with this:
“Who’re the Storm?”
Of their 21 years of existence, the Storm have been remarkably constant. They maintain 4 W.N.B.A. titles. The primary got here in 2004. The final in 2020. Because 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 superb likelihood of repeating as champions.
Main the reigning champions are three athletes of exceptional distinction. Jewell Loyd is an offensive spark plug with a sport customary after Kobe Bryant, who was considered one of her mentors. Breanna Stewart, the league M.V.P. in 2018, is probably one of the best participant within the ladies’s sport. Sue Chicken, considered one of her sport’s few breakout stars, has spent her total skilled profession in Seattle.
These three ladies helped the US win the gold medal on the Tokyo Olympics. On the opening ceremony, Chicken 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. crew, 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 dearth of it — speaks to one thing profound.
The sign despatched when gear is so laborious to seek out and so hardly ever seen? Girls stay an afterthought, which hits particularly laborious for a crew sport performed predominantly by Black ladies.
The gamers discover.
“You don’t see us repped as a lot as we must be,” Loyd advised me, nonetheless sweating after a tough apply final week. “It’s nearly unimaginable to discover a jersey. We’re like a hidden gem. To place all of this work into one thing and we’re not seen, what else do we’ve got to do? We’ve received championships right here and introduced worth to our metropolis, and but you’ll be able to’t discover a jersey?”
There may be nuance to this story, although. True, in its twenty fifth yr, the W.N.B.A continues to battle for hearts and minds. However after final season, when the league burnished its repute for excellence and solidified itself as a frontrunner within the struggle for social justice, additionally it is making inroads.
Whereas viewership for many sports activities is declining in an period of cable tv cord-cutting, the W.N.B.A.’s nationwide broadcast rankings are on the rise. Participant salaries are climbing, too, and a number of other of the league’s stars characteristic in nationwide promoting campaigns for giant firms. Eight gamers signed offers just lately to signify Nike’s Jordan Model, a quantity as soon as unthinkable. In a primary, one enduring star, the Chicago Sky’s Candace Parker, fronts the favored NBA 2K online game.
The league has additionally efficiently courted backing from corporations reminiscent of Google, Fb, AT&T, Nike and Deloitte, the skilled providers agency helmed by Cathy Engelbert earlier than she moved to the W.N.B.A. in 2019 to function its commissioner.
After 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 desires the W.N.B.A. valued in new ways in which transcend previous metrics like Nielsen rankings.
After I talked about I hardly ever noticed Storm gear in Seattle, my hometown, she hardly appeared stunned.
“We have to do higher” at advertising and marketing and telling the league’s story, she mentioned. If that occurs, gross sales of merchandise will rise, together with total recognition. “I imply, everybody ought to know who Sue Chicken is,” she mentioned. “She occurs to be considered one of our family names, however we don’t have sufficient 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 Chicken got here to that league.
One such rivalry, between the Storm and the Phoenix Mercury, was on full show on Friday evening.
It was Seattle’s last regular-season sport. Each 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. Extra 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 crew’s typical area is being renovated — I lastly discovered rabid followers sporting their Storm swag. Caps, T-shirts, socks, face masks, sweatbands. Just a few followers donned green-and-gold sneakers with participant autographs. Some wore the uniforms of Chicken, Loyd and Stewart from the Olympic crew.
Earlier than 6,000 spectators as an alternative of the two,000 sometimes on the Storm’s short-term dwelling, the groups placed on a showcase of flowing, fast-paced basketball. Regardless of being with out Stewart, who’s nursing a foot harm, Seattle got here out firing. Loyd hit a barrage of midrange leap photographs and deep 3-pointers. On her technique to a career-high 37 factors, she scored 22 within the first quarter.
The Storm received, 94-85, delighting a boisterous, fun-loving crowd. It was straightforward to really feel the crew’s depth and to see how its agency base of loyal and numerous followers powered the W.N.B.A.
However exterior of such followers, away from its arenas, the league mirrors society and its inequities. All you could do is stroll the streets of Seattle and store for a Storm cap to see that.