In late December 2019, Eb Jones was in her Sydney hotel room when her cellphone started buzzing incessantly. Jones, then the WNBA’s head of content and influencer strategy, was on vacation. She thought someone in her family had died.
But more than 7,000 miles away Kobe Bryant was giving one of her ideas new life. On Dec. 29, Bryant appeared at a Mavericks-Lakers game in Los Angeles in an orange hoodie with the WNBA’s white silhouette logo printed on it. Gianna Bryant, the retired NBA star’s 13-year-old daughter, was by his side.
Friends of Jones started texting her and tagging her on Instagram in photos of Bryant and his daughter. “I couldn’t go back to sleep,” Jones says. “And the rest of that day I was literally on a high. I just kept thinking, Kobe wore the hoodie.”
That 50% cotton, 50% polyester hoodie has become far more than a blasé, league-branded article of clothing. Last December, the Sports Business Journal named it the “Best Fashion Statement of the Year.” It is the best-selling WNBA item ever, and it coincides with a period of digital growth for the W. Since the start of the 2020 season, the league has seen an increase in its digital footprint, gaining more than 275,000 followers across its social media platforms, and an increase in average actions per post across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Ratings for the WNBA Finals were also up 15% from 2019.
“It came at a time when people wanted, and needed, merch and wanted something better for the league,” Jones says. “If you’re wearing the WNBA orange hoodie, it’s because you believe in what the league stands for. It’s because you want to support these women or because you just want to keep Kobe’s legacy going. Whatever it is, it’s a pure intention.”
“I think it became a symbol of support for women and women’s basketball and working women in professional sports and the determination and dedication of the W players,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert says.
Heading into its 25th season, the league is hoping to build on the renown a simple sweatshirt helped create.
Jones had arrived at the WNBA in February 2019, tasked with trying to grow the brand recognition of the league. She sought to get photographers in every WNBA arena to capture players walking into games, documenting the same minifashion shows that are commonplace in the NBA. She wanted to showcase personalities and help players create more prominent platforms off the floor. That May, Lorelei Wall, then the WNBA’s head of marketing, also told her to run point on finding a new signature item and heading up an influencer campaign.
That June, Jones scoured the WNBA store to try to find an item to put money behind. She wanted something that was inclusive, and that everyone could buy and wear. Three items, including the fire-orange hoodie, caught her eye. “It was a simple design that looks good on everybody and was gender-neutral,” Jones says. Still, she had reservations. “The orange hoodie was calling my name, but I was like, ‘It’s a hoodie and we’re a summer sport. Nobody is gonna wear a hoodie in the summer.’ ”
Until they did.
Las Vegas in the summer is not exactly the ideal place to debut a sweatshirt. With average July high temperatures easily clearing 100°F, being outdoors is largely akin to baking in an oven. So ahead of the 2019 WNBA All-Star Game, Jones tried to “trick” herself, in her words, into believing the hoodie would be a perfect item to give away. “I was thinking of all these scenarios in my head to try and justify why the orange hoodie was the one,” she says.
In the lead-up to the showcase, she had sent it as part of a gift package to teams across the league, noting that she wanted to make the sweatshirt its signature item. She fed it to celebrities like Gabrielle Union, Robin Roberts, Charlamagne tha God and Vivica A. Fox, all contacts of hers who were already supporters of the W. And she gave it away to fans at events.
But it wasn’t until Aces star A’ja Wilson wore it while injured and watching courtside at a game vs. the Sun later that August that players around the league saw it prominently displayed. “And that’s what started the frenzy,” Jones says.
Throughout her year and a half at the WNBA, Jones became the league’s “bag lady,” a term she uses endearingly. She brought merchandise to the All-Star Game in Las Vegas and 100 hoodies to NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago, leaving the city empty-handed. In October 2019, Bryant took a meeting at the WNBA office in New York City, where Jones handed him three bags of swag for himself; his newborn, Capri; and the rest of his family. She never thought he’d wear the league’s signature piece.
When Bryant donned the hoodie at the Lakers-Mavericks game, sales of the pullover spiked. After his and Gianna’s sudden deaths in January 2020, it popped off again. The image of Bryant wearing the WNBA hoodie with Gianna courtside became plastered across stories on the relationship between the two of them and his passion for women’s basketball.
“It was just a fan thing before he wore it,” says Jones, who is no longer with the WNBA and is now self-employed as a social media and marketing consultant. “But when Kobe wore it, it became a fashion statement.”
Interest in the hoodie surged yet again last summer as ESPN worked with the W to seed the NBA bubble with the more than 140 pullovers. Players like LeBron James and CJ McCollum, two longtime public supporters of the W, wore it, and NBA teams used their social media accounts to help promote the beginning of the league’s season. Other stars across sports like four-time major tennis champion Naomi Osaka sported it, as did Saints All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas.
This spring, the league unveiled a distinguishing 25th-season logo, featuring an orange silhouette next to the roman numerals for 20 and four tally marks with a line through them. It also put out a new hoodie, this time in black, with the anniversary logo on it, as well as new jerseys, to commemorate the occasion. Amid all these initiatives, Engelbert still sees room to grow the individual profiles of teams and players.
“It also highlights [that] we need to elevate these rivalries and get people to know who our teams are, what cities we’re in,” she says. “To me it’s an indication that we have to work harder at elevating our team recognition and I think, you’re gonna see in the 25th season some real progress on that.”