New WNBA Apparel Line Leans into League’s Growing Social Activism

    • BreakingT and the WNBPA partnered to raise funds and awareness for the Breonna Taylor Foundation.
    • The company’s latest launch gives fans a way to rep any of the league’s approximately 150 players.

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The WNBA’s simple orange logo hoodie was seemingly everywhere in the days surrounding the 2020 season’s debut. Thanks in part to a concerted campaign that saw 140 of them shipped to the NBA bubble, it became the top-selling WNBA item ever on Fanatics, outpacing the buzzy Seattle Kraken gear debut that coincided with opening weekend as the site’s best seller — and only recently started to trickle back into stock. 

Jamie Mottram, president of BreakingT, sees the sweatshirt as an indicator of an opportunity — an often overlooked one — in creating swag for fans of the W. Demand for the league’s gear exceeds supply, he said, which is where his company enters the equation. 

BreakingT is known for creating real-time sports apparel as soon-to-be iconic moments occur; think José Bautista’s bat flip, which sold over $100,000 worth of shirts its first 24 hours, or the USWNT’s inside-out jerseys in protest of unequal pay. But on Aug. 13, it deviated slightly from that model, dropping the “WNBPA Speaks” collection. 

The line allows fans to purchase a shirt with any of the WNBA’s approximately 150 players’ names on the back, with a front design that reflects the season’s theme.

“You see it often repeated that ‘the WNBA is so important,’ and we believe in that. So we wanted to try to celebrate every single player and also reflect what it is they’re doing this season — dedicating it to racial justice — while meeting this demand that’s out there from the fans,” Mottram said. “And we did it in a way where we collaborated with the [players’ association] and their board of directors on a piece of artwork for the front that’s inspired by the bubble. It’s inspired by what the players are feeling and doing these days.”

Los Angeles Sparks All-Star forward Nneke Ogwumike, a former No. 1 overall pick, called the idea “revolutionary.” She added that the company is “keenly aware that our fans desperately sought gear to rep their favorite players.”

BreakingT has sold shirts repping 115 different players who are in the so-called Wubble. “There’s only 12 teams in the league, so we’re going into the bench,” Mottram says.

The top 10 best-selling players so far are Sue Bird, Candace Parker, Sabrina Ionescu, Layshia Clarendon, Natasha Cloud, A’ja Wilson, Diana Taurasi, Alysha Clark, Diamond DeShields, and Ogwumike.

“We’re at a critical time in our society where unity is so imperative. So it was important that every player across the WNBA has a shirt in this line, bearing this message, to show that cohesiveness and amplify the message,” said Elliot Mack, who led product development on the line for WNBPA licensing agency OneTeam Partners. “BreakingT set an extremely positive example for other brands to effectively integrate social justice and commercial activity.”

BreakingT

While the initial design rolled out on a unisex T-shirt, for its broad appeal, BreakingT will shortly release a sweatshirt in teams’ city colorways — sans names on the back — looking to offer another clean, simple design for fans who perhaps missed out on the orange hoodie.

“You can’t even get those things. So this is kind of a cool alternative to that,” Mottram said. “And in a way that the WNBPA players are participating in.”

That last part is key to BreakingT’s business.

The company has licensing deals with the players’ associations from MLB, NBA, MLS and USWNT in addition to the WNBA, which allow for player-first designs. As part of the agreements, BreakingT can take its “hot market” products from ideation, to a member of its catalogue of freelance designers, to market, in 24 hours — or less — with players’ association approval. 

“They’re the ones that are really providing the inspiration,” Mottram said.

OneTeam — which also represents the commercial interests of athletes in a number of other leagues, including the NFL, MLB and MLS as well as the U.S. Women’s National soccer team — aims to drive commercial business on behalf of WNBA players, rather than the league itself. 

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“But we have a very good relationship with [the league],” the company’s head of licensing Ricky Medina said. “We’re very much like-minded in wanting to lift the players up, raise awareness around the players, in an effort to grow the league. What’s good for the players is ultimately good for the league. … Rising tides lift all ships.”

What’s perhaps most unique about BreakingT’s approach to the WNBA, however, is that it tracks the league at the same level as any of the “big five” in the United States. 

“When Sabrina [Ionescu] gets drafted by the Liberty, we’re dropping Sabrina product that same day, because people are so excited and we’re trying to come up with something creative to capture that moment that a W fan is going to love, that’s different, and fresh, and maybe more appealing than just a plain old jersey or just a plain old logo tee,” Mottram said. “And we do that all the time for the biggest stars, the biggest moments — we’ve been doing that for the WNBPA the last two years.”

OneTeam, which was founded by the NFLPA and MLBPA in concert with RedBird Capital, landed its first licensing agreements with BreakingT for the USWNTPA and WNBPA.

“They’ve put their full weight behind both of those players’ associations and given them a real outlet for their commercial business,” Medina added. “And frankly, it’s our hope that other businesses take notice of the fact that if you invest properly in these players, the fans will follow, and the sales will follow.”

BreakingT has also leaned into the WNBA’s social activism — something the league has been on the forefront of for years. But the players ramped up efforts even further in the Wubble, from creating a dedicated social justice council to publicly supporting the Democratic political opponent of Georgia Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a team owner who has been outspoken against the Black Lives Matter movement. 

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BreakingT and the WNBPA got things started during opening weekend with a partnership to raise awareness and funds for player-chosen nonprofits including the Breonna Taylor Foundation and the African American Policy Forum.

Every player wore a warmup shirt reading “Black Lives Matter” on the front and “Say Her Name” on the back. The design has staying power, too — Steph Curry wore a similar one from BreakingT when he repped the Golden State Warriors at the NBA draft lottery a month later. 

“We followed the WNBPA’s lead on that,” Mottram said “It’s just a small part of a much bigger and more powerful statement that they were making, but we were grateful to be included and grateful to add to it in our way.”

But T-shirts have played a “critical” role in the WNBA’s advocacy efforts since 2016, Ogwumike — the president of the players’ association — says. 

“They have strengthened our efforts, amplified our voices and connected us on and off the court with our fans in ways few other professional sports enjoy,” Ogwumike said. “BreakingT understood the purpose of the 2020 season and our dedication to social justice initiatives and supported our design concept. “

WNBPA Executive Director Terri Jackson had a similar take.

“Jamie and his team, who were already avid fans, took the time to understand the kind of product that would make the players proud,” she said in an email. “Inside the Wubble or outside the Wubble, the W players are once again making a statement. The added bonus: BreakingT makes a quality product that excites the fan base and helps the WNBPA more firmly establish itself in the sports marketing and licensing business!”

BreakingT partners with retail and media outlets to get its products to a larger audience. That could mean a site that covers the WNBA, like High-Post Hoops or Swish Appeal, or a Dick’s Sporting Goods that would have regional appeal.

The company operates like a newsroom — and not by accident. Mottram pioneered the “Mottram Model” of sport-specific blogging in the late 2000s that only recently started to fall out of favor at major outlets like Yahoo Sports, NBC Sports and Bleacher Report. 

Blogging is “just the same thing,” Mottram said, noting that the company developed proprietary software called CrowdBreak that helps it identify social moments before they go viral.

“The data really helps us ‘boil the ocean’ without having a whole news organization and newsroom,” Mottram added. “We have the nose for the story, the kind of knack that you develop as a journalist or as a media content producer.” 

The story — whether it’s for apparel or written media — is key.

“It goes beyond just being able to look at jersey sales, or ratings, or whatever, as an indicator of what’s going to be successful,” Mottram said.