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‘Women are changing the game’: The WNBA’s fashion evolution

The intersection of fashion and sports gives athletes room to carve out their own identity, serving as a cultural arena that connects women’s sports to the mainstream.

No professional women’s sports league has exemplified that truth more than the WNBA. Since 2018, social media accounts like MadeForTheW and LeagueFits have highlighted the lifestyle and fashion choices of today’s biggest WNBA and NBA stars, bringing the sports culture into everyday conversation.

As interest in the WNBA continues to grow, so does the spotlight on players in the league, who are rapidly emerging as style influencers.

“A trendsetter is someone who is able to influence others based on their own unique style,” says Chicago Sky guard Diamond Deshields. “Trendsetters are leaders and individuals who stretch the boundaries of what fashion is. Trendsetters are risk-takers.”

Players such as Brittney Griner, Cappie Pondexter, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Sue Bird and Tamera “Ty” Young have solidified their place among the most fashionable athletes in the 25-year history of the league. And behind them, a new wave of WNBA athletes who use fashion as a vehicle to drive cultural change is on the rise.

Diggins-Smith became one of the most marketable female athletes in the country during her collegiate career from 2009-13, leading Notre Dame to three consecutive Final Fours and two straight championship appearances. In that time, she redefined the meaning of on-court swag through the spark of the #HeadbandNation movement.

From middle schoolers to professional athletes, fans everywhere mimicked Diggins-Smith’s on-court look. The popularity it generated even led to Diggins-Smith receiving her own headband line.

“I don’t think people will really appreciate it [maybe until I retire], but I definitely know what I brought to the table as far as culture,” the Phoenix Mercury guard said on the “Kickin’ It with Khristina” podcast. “You know, the whole social media craze was starting right about when I was in college. I was one of the first athletes to benefit from that type of platform and to be recognized in that sense.”

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Tie headbands made a comeback in the NBA around that time, though it was short-lived. In 2019, the NBA banned “ninja-style headwear” after teams raised concerns regarding its safety and consistency.

Since Diggins-Smith entered the WNBA as the first overall draft pick of the Tulsa Shock in 2013, she has signed endorsement deals with companies like PUMA and BODYARMOR Sports Drink. Last month, the five-time WNBA All-Star padded her on-court resume, winning a gold medal with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics.

Although Diggins-Smith could not profit off of her name, image and likeness while in college, the cultural impact her fashion choices made can be seen in today’s basketball trends. From A’ja Wilson’s signature durag to Tea Cooper’s influence on social media, today’s rising WNBA stars know all about creating their own hype.

“Just being a woman in the WNBA is a beautiful thing,” says Cooper, a second-year guard with the Sparks. “Women are changing the game as a whole.”

Creating visibility through fashion partnerships

Experts have found that less than 1% of sponsorship money goes to women’s sports.

For Dearica Hamby, being a part of Jordan Brand’s WNBA roster meant setting the tone for what future brand deals in women’s sports could look like.

“The women that are signed to Jordan Brand aren’t typical faces of the WNBA,” Hamby says. “I think it’s cool that they’re branching out and looking deeper to women that are just different and doing different things.”

Jordan Brand made history when it partnered with 11 emerging WNBA players, the largest group of endorsees from a women’s sports league in company history. In addition to Hamby, the roster now includes Cooper, Maya Moore, Kia Nurse, Asia Durr, Satou Sabally, Aerial Powers, Crystal Dangerfield, Chelsea Dungee, Arella Guirantes and Jordin Canada.

New brand partnerships with players have only expanded the WNBA’s influence on fashion.

During the 2021 virtual WNBA Draft, designer Sergio Hudson created a custom look for No. 1 pick Charli Collier. Hudson, who dressed former First Lady Michelle Obama at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration, told WWD: “There needs to be a shift because these women deserve as much attention and fanfare as their male counterparts.”

Three-time WNBA All-Star Liz Cambage has carried that mantle on and off the court.

The Las Vegas Aces center holds the WNBA single-game record for most points in a game with 53, among other accolades from her five-year career in the league. She’s also leveraged social media to advocate for mental health and body positivity while building her modeling career.

Cambage has been featured in Playboy and on the cover of Elle Australia. Recently, she became the first professional athlete to endorse Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty lingerie brand.

Fashion activism

The WNBA was at the forefront of pushing for social justice long before it was popular to do so.

On July 9, 2016, then-Minnesota Lynx players Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts in solidarity with Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Black men who were killed at the hands of police.

That night, four off-duty police officers who were working the team’s game against the Dallas Wings walked off the job.

Players’ activism in 2016 helped set the tone for the 2020 WNBA season, which the league dedicated to social justice after protests across the country following the murder of George Floyd.

At the suggestion of Aces forward Angel McCoughtry, the WNBA allowed its players to wear Breonna Taylor’s name on the backs of their jerseys. Taylor was fatally shot in March 2020 after police officers used a no-knock warrant to enter her Louisville apartment.

“The goal is also to create a relationship with the families of who’s name the athlete has chosen. This is a way to use our platform to be a helping hand during these trying times,” McCoughtry wrote in an Instagram post. “Silence is an ally for EVIL and when sports resume WE WILL NOT BE SILENT.”

Later in the 2020 season, the Atlanta Dream, led by Elizabeth Williams, wore “Vote Warnock” shirts in support of Rev. Raphael Warnock during his campaign for a Senate seat in Georgia. The players’ public endorsement played a role in Warnock winning the election in a January runoff and unseating former Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, who had criticized the Black Lives Matter movement in a letter to WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert before the season.

“Our team was in a really unique position in 2020,” Williams says. “Of course, our league’s focus on social justice was the priority, but we were forced to make a decision when our former owner made statements denouncing BLM.”

Loeffler has since sold her stake in the Dream, with majority owner Larry Gottesdiener, Renee Montgomery and Suzanne Abair assuming control of the organization in February.

“Rather than just ignore it, we wanted to double down on our social justice platform,” Williams says. “There was no better way to combat her words and ideals [than] by reinforcing the importance of voting to make the changes we wanted to see. It just so happened that she was an appointed U.S. Senator. Once we were connected to Rev. Warnock and heard what he was about, supporting him was a no-brainer. Reproductive rights, women’s health, voting, criminal justice reform — all issues that mattered to us and our league.

“The best part about all of it was that all of the WNBA players were right there alongside us. The impact we made far exceeded our expectations. Hopefully Sen. Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff can continue making the necessary changes related to social justice even more with a now Democratic senate.”

Like Williams and the Dream, WNBA players in recent years have used fashion to raise awareness of social, political and human rights issues.

Breanna Stewart: During the Seattle Storm’s ring ceremony in 2019, Breanna Stewart made a bold statement by wearing a shirt that read:

“Abortion is: a human right, a constitutional choice, a personal choice, health care, lifesaving, gender equality, owning your own body, not a crime, not up for debate.”

Amanda Zahui B.: In 2019, then-New York Liberty center Amanda Zahui B. was spotted wearing a T-shirt courtside that read: “No Humans are illegal on stolen land.”

Originally from Stockholm, Sweden, Zahui B. is open about using her platform to shed light on immigration reform.

“I always speak my truth,” the Los Angeles Sparks center says. “People are kicking people out of countries and saying that they can’t live here or go back to where they came from. But like, they built this country on stolen land. It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s just a reminder that people have to look at themselves in the mirror and realize this is the truth.”

Natasha Cloud: The WNBA Players Association teamed up with BreakingT to create the “W Wears Orange” T-shirt campaign and spread awareness of gun violence, with proceeds from the shirt going to the Everytown For Gun Safety Support Fund.

In 2019, Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud took a stand herself after visiting Hendley Elementary School in Southeast D.C., where a staff member told her three bullets had penetrated a front window.

“School should be a safe space for our children,” Cloud says. “Children from lower economic areas especially are already put at a disadvantage because of the oppressive systems set in place in this country. If they can’t even feel safe going to school they won’t.”

Shortly after her visit, Cloud staged a media “blackout” until Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and a D.C. councilmember Trayon White Sr. responded. Cloud also partnered with Everytown.

“If kids don’t go to school, they don’t get an education. If they don’t get an education, they have to find other means to provide for their families,” she says. “Other means typically lead to mass incarceration and/or a graveyard.”

After Floyd’s death in May of last year, Cloud announced her decision to skip the 2020 WNBA season and use her platform for social justice.

“So why do I fight? Our children deserve to be safe,” she says. “They deserve an education. They deserve to be able to see themselves in a different light than what has been painted before them. They deserve a future. They deserve their lives.”

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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