Credit: Ming Smith/Jordan Brand
Nike and Michael Jordan release portrait series spotlighting WNBA players
Last summer, during an unprecedented sports season that left many stadiums empty during the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the US, public interest in WNBA (the women's national basketball league) appeared to be on the rise. Ratings for the WNBA finals were up 15% during a year when sports viewership tanked across the board, according to Sports Media Watch.
Now, during the 25th anniversary of the WNBA, Nike's Jordan Brand has released a new creative project seeking to give even more visibility to the game and the women who play it.
Photographed by Ming Smith -- the first Black female photographer to have her work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York -- and styled by i-D magazine's global fashion director Carlos Nazario, the black-and-white images feature nine WNBA players (including two-time WNBA Champion Jordin Canada, All-Star Kia Nurse, and 2019 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield) and former NBA superstar Michael Jordan, all dressed in formal attire.
It's a rare recent campaign for Jordan, as well as for WNBA players who continue to earn less than their male counterparts (this includes brand sponsorships). It also comes off the heels of the news that Seattle Storm player Breanna Stewart has become the first WNBA player in a decade to ink a deal for her own signature shoe, through a partnership with Puma, according to NPR.
"We've seen our entire culture shift these past few years and we are entering a new era for the game," said Jordan Brand president Craig Williams over email. "We wanted to capture this powerful moment in time to champion our WNBA family who share our commitment to putting our community first."
Last summer, a number of WNBA players used their platform for activism. In July, Atlanta Dream players publicly declared their support for Black Lives Matter, and the entire WNBA season was dedicated to Breonna Taylor and the "Say Her Name" campaign. Then, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police in August 2020, the Washington Mystics filed onto the court wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with his name, as well as bullet markings.
At the same time, Jordan Brand and Jordan announced a $100-million-dollar pledge to the Black community and will continue to invest into initiatives for Black girls and BIPOC artists, which will be unveiled at a later date.
"The world needs female voices, and we can't ignore that or else we're not growing," Jordan said in a press statement, signaling his intent to "giv(e) women a platform to amplify their voices, which influence, inspire and push culture forward."
'On the verge' of the mainstream
Jordan's partnership with Nike in 1984 introduced the first Air Jordan sneaker to the world and became an athletics brand worth billions. Currently, the Jordan Brand family has more than 20 NBA members on its roster, and has included Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler and LaMarcus Aldridge. In 2011, Maya Moore became the first WNBA player to sign with the brand, and 10 more have followed, including three players announced this week: Chelsea Dungee, Arella Guirantes and Aerial Powers.
With more games broadcast last summer than ever, WNBA is "right on the verge of just mainstream huge popularity," former WNBA All-Star Rebecca Lobo told CNN in May.
Still, pay lags in the women's game. This year, the WNBA reached a collective bargaining agreement that would bump up the average compensation to just under 130,000. In stark comparison, NBA rookies take home just under $900,000 during a season, with the average player making nearly 7.5 million.
"We're ultimately playing the same game that men do," Canada said in a press statement. "We play it the right way, we're very exciting to watch, and I think we're starting to get people to change their perspective on women's basketball. We're not where we want to be quite yet when it comes to getting the respect we deserve, but we're taking steps in the right direction and continuing to grow the game."
Nurse echoed those same sentiments, discussing the legacy she wants to leave behind through her career.
"We have a responsibility to make the WNBA and basketball as a whole a little bit better for the next generation of female athletes," she said in a press statement. "Because that's what the people did before us, so that we could come in and have what we have."
Update: After publication of this story, Jordan Brand released a revised statement regarding the details of its investment into initiatives for Black girls and BIPOC artists. The article has been updated to reflect the new statement.
The Jordan photographs will be on view at Nicola Vassell Gallery in New York from June 29 to July 2 in the pop-up show "Here for a Reason."