Brands just started offering men’s sizes for sports stars like Sabrina Ionescu, Megan Rapinoe, and Jonquel Jones. And fans are snapping them up in droves.
Last November, after months of pent-up demand, Nike released the No. 20 white jersey of a major college basketball star. The entire stock sold out within a couple hours, and emerald green jerseys that dropped in late January on Nike’s website and the college store were gone as quickly. Brian Galicia, a 45-year-old Microsoft employee, had signed up for notifications and immediately bought a jersey for him and his daughter. “I told my friends,” he says, “and then when I looked like two hours later, they were gone.”
That’s how quick you had to be to snag the jersey of Sabrina Ionescu, superstar guard of the then No. 3-ranked University of Oregon women’s basketball team, whose popularity among both women and men shows how the sports jersey has moved beyond traditional gendered lines.
It’s not just dad fans, like Galicia, either. In December, the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Jordan Bell showed off a coveted Ionescu jersey in the locker room tunnel. It’s obvious why everyone from young fans to college men to NBA players want to get ahold of Ionescu swag. Before her senior year at Oregon was disappointingly canceled because of the novel coronavirus outbreak, she was the most popular college basketball player in the country and one of the most accomplished of all time. She collected more triple doubles than anyone in NCAA history, scoring as easily on three-pointers as on running jump shots near the hoop. WNBA star Diana Taurasi said Ionescu “can do anything on the court.” And the late Kobe Bryant, her friend and mentor, tweeted a GOAT emoji at her and called her “the puppet master” for her ability to read and control the game. In February, Ionescu became the first player to score 2,000 points, grab 1,000 rebounds, and record 1,000 assists in a NCAA Division I career.
The sale of her jersey put her in an elite category, too, above even NCAA legends like Sue Bird and Candace Parker: Nike had never before sold the jersey of a women’s college basketball player on its website.
But the increasing popularity of women’s jerseys, especially among men, isn’t just a Ionescu thing. The Celtics’ Grant Williams proudly waved a Jonquel Jones WNBA All Star jersey with two hands while walking to a game in March. Last year, the first time U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team jerseys were readily available in men’s sizes, sales were up 200 percent compared to its last World Cup championship run in 2015, according to Nike. The sales of the women’s national soccer team jerseys marked the highest quantity sold of any soccer team’s jersey on Nike.com in a single season—no doubt in part because they were now available in sizes for the other half of the adult population. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has been offering its jerseys in men’s sizes since at least 2017, and the WNBA, after years listing jerseys as for women, began selling them for men as well in 2016.
During this coronavirus-induced sports hiatus, one of the lone bright spots has been the sale of women’s national soccer team “Four Stars Only” jersey shirts. The players wore their warmup jerseys inside-out at a March 11 game to protest the U.S. Soccer Federation, which had just pathetically argued in a wage discrimination lawsuit that male players carried a greater responsibility than women and “indisputable science” proved their athletic superiority. The inside-out look had the effect of making their warmups look blank, except for the four stars representing their four World Cup victories. The brand Breaking T’s had jersey t-shirts of the “Four Stars Only” look for sale by the end of the game, and they sold out within two hours.
The newly heightened demand for jerseys of women athletes coincides with the 2019 women’s World Cup Final earning better television ratings in the U.S. than the 2018 men’s final, and women’s college basketball attendance eclipsing men’s attendance at several schools, including Oregon, Notre Dame, Mississippi State, and Oregon State. A 2018 study by Nielsen indicated that 84 percent of general sports fans—51 percent of whom are men—are fans of women’s sports.
But selling merchandise of women athletes, particularly for men, breaks new ground. Lindsay Parks Pieper, a professor of sport management at the University of Lynchburg who researches gender in sports, describes the choice to wear an athlete’s jersey as going “all-in” on that person—representing their playing style, their politics, their personality. The many boys who dressed up like women’s national soccer team star Megan Rapinoe for Halloween were portraying an activist who has kneeled like Colin Kaepernick and slammed Donald Trump, in addition to a soccer star.
The jersey is also a statement: Unlike flipping to a game on TV, a man who wears a woman’s jersey publicly recognizes and identifies with a woman athlete. And given Rapinoe and her teammates’ fight for equal pay, the WNBA’s labor victory to earn higher salaries, and Serena Williams’s years of challenging white notions of femininity, that identification implies a justice-oriented message that goes beyond what happens in a stadium. “This is a new frontier for women’s sports,” Parks Pieper says.
The mainstream popularity of jerseys traces back to the 1990s. Leagues and teams cut apparel deals with brands like Champion, Reebok, Nike, and Starter, making jerseys available at malls and big-box stores rather than from the motley mix of third-party vendors that had sold them in the 1970s and 1980s. Hip-hop culture contributed to the growth, too. Tupac was wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey during an infamous dustup with the media after leaving a New York courthouse (he once also sported a Jeff Capel Duke jersey, while posing with Stephen Baldwin). Mýa and Mariah Carey wore Michael Jordan jersey dresses, and Da Brat, Missy Elliott, and Aaliyah regularly wore personalized baseball and basketball jerseys.
But teams and brands were slow to sell jerseys of women athletes, even though the passage of Title IX in 1972 had led to major universities starting women’s intercollegiate teams, and athletes like University of Southern California basketball players Lisa Leslie and Cheryl Miller, among the millions of girls and women who seized Title IX opportunities, had become mainstream stars.
Rebecca Lobo, the mid-90s superstar at the University of Connecticut, says her college jersey was never for sale. In 1992, some 40,000 women played Division I sports, compared to 80,000-plus now. Fans could buy jerseys of male college athletes at campus stores and through mail-order catalogues, but the closest anyone got to dressing in her No. 50, she says, were young fans whose “parents had taken them to Michael’s, and they got a Sharpie and made a shirt.” The first time she remembers seeing any jerseys of women basketball players for sale was in the run-up to the 1996 Olympics.
In 1997, the newly-launched WNBA released jerseys for three athletes on each team (Sears and J.C. Penney partnered with the WNBA to sell them—it was a different time). Men didn’t wear the jerseys, but Lobo distinctly recalls seeing boys at games. “I remember even as a 24-year-old thinking wow, like this kid is going to grow up looking at girls a little bit differently, if he’s looking at me differently and wearing my jersey,” she says.
Nike was also selling U.S. soccer jerseys for the 1996 Olympics and 1999 World Cup and promoting Mia Hamm. Marla Messing, the president and CEO of the 1999 World Cup, says she was under pressure to market heavily toward the mythical suburban soccer mom who drove her kids to practice and games in her minivan, with a cooler of orange slices. She insisted that the World Cup target the soccer dad, too. Its campaigns emphasized the bonding potential between fathers and daughters watching soccer together. “That soccer dad and target marketing we did for that was actually incredibly impactful,” says Messing. The strategy, she says, contributed to men embracing women’s sports for the first time on a wide scale and sharing the experience with their children (Kobe Bryant provided a public example of this evolution with his pride in being a “girl dad” and his devotion to his daughter Gianna’s basketball career).
Those kids, including the boys who dressed like Hamm and Lobo, are now adults. And the popularity of jerseys continues to rise—Nike sells three-to-four times more NFL jerseys annually than Reebok did in the early 2000s, and the NBA releases popular new alternative jerseys every year. Yet the decision makers at leagues and brands have remained skeptical of the women athletes they are supposed to be helping to advance. ESPN broadcaster Julie Foudy, a women’s national soccer team player in the 1990s and early 2000s, recalls that she and her teammates regularly questioned Nike and U.S. Soccer about why their apparel wasn’t more available. “They would almost laugh at you and say there’s no market,” Foudy recalls.
Nike did not offer women’s national soccer team jerseys in men’s sizes until the 2015 World Cup. The brand feared that people who saw men in the women’s jersey—with stars above the US insignia to represent World Cup championships—would somehow think the less-decorated men’s team had won the Cup. And in 2015, those jerseys were scarcely available and discontinued in men’s sizes less than a month after the team’s title. Women’s national soccer team stars, realizing they haven’t been compensated or marketed on par with their popularity level, started their own brand, re-inc.
Despite a summer with record jersey sales of women athletes and repeated requests from Oregon fans, the 2019 college basketball season seemed poised to begin with no Ionescu apparel available—until Ionescu got involved. Like Foudy and other women’s soccer players, she had to lobby for herself and her teammates. On November 5, she tweeted “Why is Nike not making Oregon WBB jerseys yet!?!? I’m running out of excuses.” The first response featured to her tweet was from a fan saying, “men’s sizes too please.”
Her No. 20 jersey went on sale about a week later, along with women’s team jerseys of Connecticut, Tennessee, and North Carolina. “This is an historically great basketball player,” says Shea Serrano, author of Basketball (and Other Things), and a Ionescu fan. “When Sabrina came out and said, ‘Why does this not exist yet’ we all sort of knew they had to make one now because Sabrina was saying it.” (Nike said it had planned to release Ionescu’s jersey regardless of the tweet but declined to answer specific questions).
Serrano bought the Ionescu jersey as soon as it became available in November, wearing it to a book signing in Portland. “People were excited,” he says. “It’s a sign of respect. I think ultimately that’s what having a jersey, wearing a jersey is.” The message is deeper for Oregon fan Henry Ammann, who last April started an online petition asking Nike to sell Oregon women’s team jerseys. “As a man, I’m proud to represent the fight for equality not just in sports but the workplace and life and every other aspect,” he says.
Foudy saw the need for Ionescu’s tweet as another instance of the sports industry disregarding the obvious desire for women’s team apparel. To her, the sight of a boy or man in a woman’s jersey just feels natural: “My son used to rock a [Abby] Wambach jersey back in the day and [Megan] Rapinoe jerseys,” she says. “And it’s cool.” And even with Ionescu and women’s national soccer team jerseys for sale, the shortages indicate the brands and leagues are still lagging behind fan interest. “I don’t know why there’s such a hesitation, if it’s an unconscious bias or just an unwillingness to accept this is a market we’re not tapping into, and I love that we’re seeing that there’s another side to it,” she says.
Nike has another opportunity this month to meet the rising demand of women’s sports fans. The virtual WNBA Draft is scheduled for April 17, and Ionescu will likely be the No. 1 pick of the New York Liberty, placing the biggest women’s basketball star in the biggest market. Even as a pandemic has put professional sports on pause, men are already anxiously waiting to buy her pro jersey—and hoping it won’t sell out in two hours again.