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So Long, White Shorts: Here’s Why the NWSL’s Uniform Pivot Matters

  • The league’s new kits are part of a growing trend to adapt women’s sports to women’s bodies.
  • Sports science is catching up to the many ways the menstrual cycle impacts female athletes, from hormone changes to higher injury risk.
Sep 3, 2023; Seattle, Washington, USA; Orlando Pride forward Ally Watt (11) and Orlando Pride forward Julie Doyle (20) enter the stadium before the game against OL Reign at Lumen Field.
Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports
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When ABC captures the first kickoff of the NWSL season at CPKC Stadium on Saturday, we’ll be watching the first match in a stadium built specifically for a women’s professional sports team.

It’s not the only first for the league this year.

It’s also the first year of a record $240 million media-rights deal with ESPN, CBS, Amazon, and Scripps, which has trickled down to historic player contracts. And it’s the first time all NWSL teams are ditching white shorts entirely, signs of a growing movement in women’s sports that is affecting everything from uniforms to training methods.

“We’re living through an era where pro women’s sports are really taking off, and people are realizing there’s a business case to be made for tailoring products and certain practices to women,” Meghann Burke, a former pro player and the executive director of the league’s players association, tells Front Office Sports.

This switch isn’t happening because of MLB’s alarming uniform fiasco with see-through pants, designed by Nike and Fanatics. Every woman knows it’s risky to wear white on your period, even to a get-together with friends. So wearing white on the biggest stages of sport seems extremely dicey, especially when it’s so easily avoidable.

The Orlando Pride became the league’s first team to get rid of white shorts last season, following a number of English teams the year before. Several Women’s World Cup teams switched to dark bottoms last summer, and even Wimbledon relaxed its all-white dress code to allow dark colors underneath skirts. In February, Nike unveiled new kits for all 14 teams in the NWSL, none of which included white shorts.

Burke, who remembers having conversations on this topic with teammates as a preteen, says the fix seems all the more trivial given the advanced technology used to elevate athlete performance, from GPS to heart monitors to lighter fabrics.

“There is no competitive reason for white shorts,” she says. “I would argue that getting away from white shorts is actually helpful to performance because it eliminates that factor of being self-conscious if you’re on your period.”

The menstrual cycle is a problem for female athletes that goes beyond aesthetics. A recent study found that professional female soccer players are “significantly” more at risk of injury in the phase right before getting their period, and that more research is “urgently needed” to more accurately understand the link between periods and injuries, and how to prevent harm.

Only 6% of sports science research is based on female athletes, according to Washington Spirit VP of performance, medical, and innovation Dawn Scott, one of the leading voices in women’s sports for training women as women. (She formerly spearheaded sports science innovation for the U.S. women’s national team.) That leads to a huge gap in knowledge for medical professionals working in women’s sports. Research shows that women have two to eight times more ACL tears than men due to the way they land from jumps, their often wider hips and thinner ACL tissue, and how changing hormones during their period impact their knees.

Scott works with her players to make changes based on their menstrual cycle—tracking their food, sleep, temperature, and hormones to respond to symptoms like bloating, fatigue, mood changes, and lower back pain.

“[You] give the player the optimum support for them to be the best version of themselves,” Scott tells FOS.

Scott and Spirit players credit owner Michele Kang for making investments across her three football clubs, dedicating staff to women’s health, sports science, and nutrition in addition to typical roles like physical therapists and strength coaches.

“I think we’re very—you know what, I was about to say ‘lucky,’ in a sense, but for me, that’s how female athletes should be supported,” Scott says.

Burke says that players originally raised the issue of changing the color of their shorts, which the NWSLPA supported, and she credits Nike and the NWSL for being receptive—specifically, the women leaders who understood the request.

“You don’t need someone to explain it to you or do a PowerPoint presentation on why we should just not wear white shorts,” Burke says. “This is why diversity of thought and experience is important in business.”

Nike also designs jerseys for the WNBA, whose players still wear white shorts. Burke says WNBPA executive director Terri Jackson reached out to her asking how the NWSL ended its white shorts era. Jackson told Burke she and her players have been working on this for years.

“I’m hopeful that Nike can be receptive to the WNBPA and their demands to try to make the same change in the WNBA,” Burke says. “I have a hard time seeing how it’s any different.”

Nike declined to comment to FOS on introducing white shorts in either the NWSL or WNBA.

On International Women’s Day last week, Molson introduced the “See My Name” campaign, sponsoring jerseys for the brand-new PWHL. The Canadian brewery placed its logo above the numbers, where the nameplate is traditionally sewn, and moved the last name lower to be visible past a ponytail or braid.

“The hair covering the names on the backs of the jerseys was something that we decided as a team really was impeding the visibility and the ability for these amazing athletes to get the recognition they deserve,” Molson’s marketing director Kara Fitzpatrick tells FOS.

Fitzpatrick says she hopes the PWHL will consider permanently moving last names on jerseys in the future.

And it’s not just uniforms. Footwear is one of the most important pieces of equipment for any athlete, and is particularly crucial for soccer players. It seems obvious, but only in the last few years have designers finally started to release more soccer cleats and basketball sneakers made for women’s feet rather than “shrinking and pinking” a men’s design. Women’s feet typically have narrower heels, wider balls of their feet, higher arches, and carry pressure differently. 

Adidas first introduced a cleat based on these factors in 2016, followed in 2020 by Ida Sports, a company focused on making women’s cleats. In 2021, Puma started selling women’s fits with different weights and in-steps, and last year introduced the first women’s specific cleat, which is when Nike also joined the trend.

Says Burke: “It’ll be really interesting to see what other changes come down the pike over the next five to 10 years as people really start to listen and think about what it means to respect and follow women’s sports.”

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