SEATTLE — What do I’ve to do round right here to purchase a cap that reps the perfect workforce in ladies’s basketball?
That’s what I used to be pondering 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 may exhibit my love for one of many premier groups in sports activities.
What I discovered had 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.
Every time I requested for Storm merchandise, I used to be met with bewilderment and shock. One salesperson recommended Storm gear would absolutely sit untouched due to the demand for Russell Wilson jerseys. One other instructed me she might promote me a Storm bumper sticker, however she wasn’t positive the place it was.
Disenchanted, 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 high 4 groups and stand probability of repeating as champions.
Main 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 considered one of her mentors. Breanna Stewart, the league M.V.P. in 2018, is presumably the perfect participant within the ladies’s sport. Sue Hen, 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, Hen 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 arduous to search out and so not often seen? Ladies stay an afterthought, which hits particularly arduous for a workforce sport performed predominantly by Black ladies.
The gamers discover.
“You don’t see us repped as a lot as we must be,” Loyd instructed me, nonetheless sweating after a tough follow final week. “It’s virtually inconceivable to discover a jersey. We’re like a hidden gem. To place all of this work into one thing and we aren’t seen, what else do we’ve got to do? We’ve gained championships right here and introduced worth to our metropolis, and but you may’t discover a jersey?”
There may be nuance to this story, although. True, in its twenty fifth 12 months, the W.N.B.A continues to battle for hearts and minds. However after final season, when the league burnished its fame for excellence and solidified itself as a frontrunner within the combat for social justice, it’s also 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 scores are on the rise. Participant salaries are climbing, too, and several other of the league’s stars function in nationwide promoting campaigns for giant companies. Eight gamers signed offers 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 firms corresponding to 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.
Once 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 previous metrics like Nielsen scores.
Once I talked about I not often noticed Storm gear in Seattle, my hometown, she hardly appeared shocked.
“We have to do higher” at advertising 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 Hen 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 extreme rivalries amongst gamers and groups, akin to how the N.B.A. grew when Magic Johnson and Larry Hen 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 remaining 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 vital, 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 enviornment is being renovated — I lastly discovered rabid followers sporting their Storm swag. Caps, T-shirts, socks, face masks, sweatbands. A number of followers donned green-and-gold footwear with participant autographs. Some wore the uniforms of Hen, Loyd and Stewart from the Olympic workforce.
Earlier than 6,000 spectators as a substitute of the two,000 sometimes on the Storm’s non permanent house, 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 pictures and deep 3-pointers. On her option 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 simple 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.
However outdoors of such followers, away from its arenas, the league mirrors society and its inequities. All it’s worthwhile to do is stroll the streets of Seattle and store for a Storm cap to see that.