July 22, 2024

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Fashion Trends, Shopping More Joyfully

How the WNBA Tunnel Walk Became a Fashion Marketing Gold Mine

7 min read

At last weekend’s game between the Chicago Sky and Indiana Fever, which featured two of the WNBA’s star rookies, Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, the action started even before tip off.

Clark pulled up to Chicago’s Wintrust Arena wearing a grey Prada shirt dress and black boots, part of her ongoing relationship with the brand, while Reese opted for a brown corset top and miniskirt set sourced from Revolve, paired with matching knee-high heeled boots. Photographers were on hand snapping the athletes arriving ahead of the match up, which ended with the Sky winning a comeback victory in front of a sellout crowd that included Chance the Rapper, actor Jason Sudeikis and WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes.

Angel Reese before a game
Angel Reese’s tunnel walk outfit ahead of the sellout clash with the Indiana Fever last week. The Chicago Sky rookie partners with California-based retailer Revolve to source some of her pre-game looks. (X/Angel Reese)

Tunnel walk outfits have long been a fixation of NBA fans and provided valuable marketing moments for brands. But the unprecedented popularity of the WNBA this season, thanks in large part to a rookie class including Reese, Clark and Cameron Brink, is drawing the spotlight to what the women are wearing as they turn up for games. While seasoned WNBA talent like Skylar Diggins-Smith, A’ja Wilson and Kelsey Plum, as well as younger tastemakers Kysre Gondrezick and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, have put together stylish pre-game outfits for years, players across the board are taking their fashion game up another level. Brands that were slow to embrace dressing WNBA players are now seizing on the opportunity. For example, Clark, the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer (male or female), wore Prada to the WNBA draft in April, making her the first player (male or female) the brand ever dressed for a draft.

“There was still some hesitation even prior to the WNBA draft [in April],” said Mary Gonsalves Kinney, who has styled Brink of the Los Angeles Sparks for over two years. But just two months later, Kinney is now inundated with brands looking to dress Brink for tunnel walks or other high-profile appearances. “Pretty much every major luxury brand is willing [to dress Cameron],” she said, naming YSL, Balmain, Versace, Dior and Prada, along with smaller brands like Christopher Esber, Another Tomorrow, L’agence and Andre Emery.

What’s unique about the WNBA’s style appeal compared to its male equivalent is the broader scope its tunnel walk gives brands of all kinds to get involved via commercial partnerships. Whereas NBA players — and male athletes in general — typically play it safe by sticking to a handful of luxury brands and the usual streetwear suspects, the WNBA’s athletes have worked with a wide range of brands, including beauty brands and womenswear retailers. Ahead of this season, Glossier renewed and extended the scope of its deal as the WNBA’s beauty partner, while P&G-owned Mielle Organics became the league’s textured hair care partner last July — a savvy deal for a league made up of 80 percent women of colour.

It’s no surprise they want a slice of the pie. Stadium attendance for WNBA games is up 156 percent from last season. The official WNBA online merch store has already set a single-season sales record just two months into the season, with sales up over 750 percent compared to the same period last year, according to a report released by the league earlier this month. The unprecedented eyeballs and money pouring into the sport have turbocharged the exposure of the tunnel walk and the style credentials of its star players, who are often looking for brand deals to supplement salaries that are still a long way from the sums typically paid to NBA players.

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“The WNBA tunnel walk has truly evolved into a runway event,” said WNBA creative director Roman King. “Particularly this season, we have seen significant attention from fans and the fashion industry alike on how WNBA players are showcasing their fashion sense, and what ‘fits and brands they’re rocking.”

A Marketing Goldmine

California-based fashion retailer Revolve is among those looking to cash in on the appeal of the league’s high-profile rookies. The company worked with Brink to source her pre-game look ahead of the Sparks game against the Dallas Wings earlier this month, and was quick to partner with Angel Reese upon her entry to the league this season after an introduction was made by former NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade, said chief brand officer Raissa Gerona. The company’s in-house stylist works with Reese to pull outfits.

“We’re always on the lookout for emerging talent, keeping a close eye on both college and professional athletes,” she said.

Being associated with top WNBA talent gives brands a way to reach their large and growing fanbases. Reese has a combined following of 7 million across Instagram and TikTok, while Clark has 2.6 million and Brink counts 1.7 million. Reese’s recent post showing off a pre-game Alexander Wang bodysuit and Chanel sneakers sourced from Revolve, whose account she tagged, fetched half a million likes, while Brink’s post of her recent tunnel walk outfit was viewed over 750,000 times on TikTok. The posts generated $488,000 and $300,000 in Media Impact Value (a metric which measures the value of media coverage across the internet) respectively, according to Launchmetrics.

Cam Brink in the tunnel
Cameron Brink was a WNBA standout this season both on court and in the tunnel, before her rookie campaign was cut short by a knee injury. (Sydney Boldonaro)

Brink, whose stellar rookie season and dreams of representing Team USA at the Olympics this summer were ended by an ACL injury last week, was a consistent standout in the tunnel. Her outfits have included a Diesel denim dress paired with a tiny black Chanel bag and matching cowboy boots, a cutout Balmain blazer with pinstripe suit trousers and a basketball-style clutch bag, and a white New Balance tennis mini skirt and crop top.

Brands also benefit from their products being shared across the dedicated style pages and soaring number of content creators who obsess over WNBA player fashion. Instagram accounts like WNBA Tunnel — set up by PR specialist and former college basketball player Velissa Vaughn — share daily behind-the-scenes tunnel walk content, while older platforms like League Fits, which previously focused on NBA style, have upped their coverage of the WNBA.

Vaughn only launched her WNBA Tunnel page in May after posting a viral video of Kelsey Plum’s outfit for the opening game night of the season. The account already has over 28,000 followers.

“The WNBA tunnel has a unique allure,” Vaughn said. “People tune in for the nice streetwear looks or the girls showing off their femininity, but also to watch them slamming someone to the floor while getting a rebound on the court an hour later.”

An Opportunity for Everyone

The WNBA itself is leaning into its players’ fashion and beauty interests and the attention around the tunnel walk. King, the WNBA creative director, pointed to long-running content series such as “WNBA Kicks” and “The W in Designer” on the WNBA app and its social channels as evidence of how it platforms the sport’s cultural appeal and helps speak to audiences beyond sports fans.

Kelsey Plum pre-game in the tunnel walk
Sydney Bordonaro works with several players — including WNBA legend Kelsey Plum — sourcing and styling their pre-game outfits. (Sydney Bordonaro)

Brand deals are also important to the league’s elevation of red carpet moments such as the WNBA Draft. Both Glossier and Mielle Organics were present in the “Glam Room” at the hotel where the players stayed ahead of the draft. Glossier artists did makeup for Clark, Reese and Brink, said the brand’s chief executive Kyle Leahy.

“For a long time there’s been a false narrative that sports and beauty shouldn’t mix,” Leahy said.

As players and teams increasingly become known for their style, it’s likely more brands will look to them as ambassadors. In May, Good American tapped Reese for a denim campaign aimed at taller women, while women’s workwear brand MM LaFleur signed a long-term partnership with the New York Liberty last year.

Vaughn sees the tunnel walks as a clever way for players to market themselves for commercial deals to supplement their salaries. Instead of $70,000 a year, she said, they could make that much in a quarter with the right partnerships.

It’s also bringing business to stylists who are styling players’ pre-game looks and helping them build relationships with brands and publicists. Sydney Bordonaro, for instance, has worked with Brink, Plum, Rae Burrell and several others since getting her first WNBA client in 2021.

“It’s unbelievable seeing the difference between this season and just a few years ago when I started out,” she said.


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