During last Thursday's TNT games, the NBA tweeted this link to the NBA Store:
I'm a sucker for NBA gear and have a brand-new baby bump I'm trying to accommodate this season, so I clicked. And at first glance, the ad delivers. This is the first banner image you see on the NBA store's website:
But before I could click on it, the banner auto-scrolled to this:
What gives, NBA? I clicked on an ad for people who want to "dress like the pros." I was all set to "shop now" as a "serious fan." But there's this special ladies section for people who want to dress like Alyssa Milano I'm supposed to click on instead? No thanks, guys. I've never seen Kevin Garnett in a fitted burnt-out tee. And while I'm aware of the fact that men's and women's clothes are generally cut a little differently, I still like my hoodies with enough room to accommodate some beer and nachos. After all, everyone likes to feel comfortable watching the game.
But still, no big deal. That just wasn't the page for me, so I scrolled back to the first option for player tees and clicked on that instead. Scanning the first page, though, it was clear that "serious fan" is just code for dudes, and because I'm not a dude, I'm not supposed to want a Mavericks tee that looks like something Chandler Parsons would wear; I'm supposed to want to look like Alyssa Milano.
To a lot of people, this just doesn't seem like a big deal. After all, it's not completely impossible to find women's NBA apparel that isn't super tight or does sort of resemble the gear the players wear, though they often make it pretty challenging. But this is about the message the NBA sends with its marketing, and for so many women who love basketball, it's a really frustrating and demoralizing message: men are serious fans who need serious gear that looks like what the athletes wear, and women should worry more about how they look when they show up to the games.
Athletes are the only people in the world who make seven figures and still have to show up for work in a uniform, and this conformity translates into a pretty important part of the emotional experience for most fans. When it comes to selling stuff to men, the league takes this experience really seriously. In fact, they take it so seriously that they actually changed what the players wear.
The league thought its male fans would feel more comfortable in and therefore pony up more money for jerseys with sleeves, so now players sometimes wear jerseys with sleeves. Players hate them, though, and even if their claims that their play suffers while wearing them don't really hold up, it's a pretty bold move on the part of the NBA, and one that only makes it more frustrating that the league doesn't take its female fans just as seriously. The league is willing to piss of its players if it means their male fans feel more comfortable, but it can't be bothered to throw in more than one token women's Lakers hoodie on the front page when it advertises clothing for serious fans? Why do we get Alyssa Milano instead?
If men's apparel options are about reinforcing that sense of oneness with the team, women's are all about marking the wearer as different from the players, as somehow less hardcore, less serious. The clothes are tight or sequined or pink or... whatever this is:
A version of those shoes once featured prominently in a promotional email sent by the NBA Store. I'm sure they fit with the aesthetic of some female fans, but I received this email because I've previously forked over a good deal of money to the NBA for clothing, usually after a good deal of complaining about my options, and not one item I've purchased should've given them any indication that I'd be interested in these heels. I may be a woman, but I'm also one of the people who want to "dress like the pros," and I've never seen an NBA player wear anything remotely similar (besides, I'm pretty sure only Russell Westbrook could actually pull that look off).
If you think these heels are an exception to the rule, take a look at this season's new offerings at the AAC Fan Shop:
Every item is covered in sequins or cropped or designed in some way to remind me that, as a female fan, my first priority should be looking good.
To be completely clear: I don't think that buying a lacy Dallas Mavericks shirt means that you're not a serious fan. Men and women alike experience fandom differently and the clothing they wear (or want to wear) to express their fandom should reflect that. I'm sure there are women out there who do want those platform heels, just as there are male fans who'd probably appreciate a little more variety in their options, but the NBA has decided that there are two types of fans it wants to market to: serious men and stylish ladies.
And this is a really bad message, one that ensnares female fans in a vicious cycle in which a woman's sense of style and her serious fandom are branded as mutually exclusive. If the tight shirts and sequins do happen to appeal to your sense of style or you cave and buy it because there aren't very many options for the team you support, then you're walking into an arena or a sports bar already branded by the NBA as unserious, as someone whose love for or knowledge of the game is automatically suspect. This isn't a particularly welcoming environment (it's exhausting to constantly hear things like "so your husband's really into basketball?"), and if women don't feel welcome as fans, it's understandable that the league will see its hardcore fan base as mostly men and continue to market its "serious" gear accordingly.
Well, it's sort of understandable. If the NBA were operating a chain of brick and mortar stores, stocking inventory ahead of time with no ability to target the customers walking in, I'd be more sympathetic. But the great thing about selling things on the Internet is that all you really have to show people is a picture of your clothing, and you can organize those pictures any way you want. For the most part, the NBA is a league I feel pretty good supporting. It's certainly not perfect, but it's generally the most forward-looking of the four professional leagues.
But right now, the NBA chooses to organize and promote its clothing in a way that sends the message that women aren't real fans. We are real fans, though, and every female sports fan I know shares these complaints. It's time for a change.