Behold! An Objective Grading of the Rebel Jerseys for the 2021 WNBA Season

By: Dani Bar-Lavi
Posted: April 21, 2021

WNBA Rebel Jerseys

The WNBA released its full suite of new jerseys for the 2021 season last Thursday, and a storm of discussion on social media followed. According to data from Zoomph, conversations around the jersey designs generated over 69 million unique impressions on various social networks. I’m here to hop into that discussion, with thoughts–and grades–for each of the 12 alternate jerseys in the Rebel series. I generated my ratings based primarily on two categories: aesthetics (how good does this kit look?) and storytelling (what is this jersey trying to tell me, and how successfully does it do so?).

Atlanta Dream: The Culture

The Dream’s Rebel look pays tribute to the city of Atlanta’s hip-hop and rap scene, using “vibrant colors and subtle hints of silver that are symbolic of the platinum and gold records produced by the women of the city,” per the team’s release on Twitter. I love the instinct on the Dream’s part to pay tribute to the city’s Black culture, and, in doing so, embrace their place within it. The design of this jersey eschews more obvious and tacky hip-hop visual tropes (cough) for a vibrant aesthetic that captures the look and feel of Atlanta hip-hop. It’s an added bonus that these jerseys are cold, as Dream owner-executive Renee Montgomery boasted on Twitter. I’ve always loved the robin blue color for the Dream, and this bold take on it, along with the neon gradient down the side, looks incredible.

Grade: A

Chicago Sky: What ceiling?

Chicago’s newest alternate jersey is a nod to women’s empowerment, and is partially inspired by an in-practice quote from team general manager/head coach: James Wade: “They gonna always put a ceiling on what you do,” Wade told the team, “We don’t have no ceiling. We’re the Sky. You cannot put a ceiling on the Sky.”

Combining coach Wade’s inspiration with the classic feminist concept of “breaking the glass ceiling”, the jersey depicts a pane of glass being shattered, in one image capturing both the limitless potential of this team, and the limitless potential of women at large. I adore how this jersey effortlessly advances both a social justice narrative and a narrative about the franchise by using just one symbol for both, it’s great work with visual storytelling. Aesthetically, I’ve heard some complaints that this jersey is ‘too busy’, but I really think it works for an alternate jersey the Sky are probably only going to wear in-game at most two or three times. Jerseys like this are an opportunity to be bold and different, and I think the Sky have done that in a way that still looks really sick. The one thing that I do have to take a couple of points off for is that the ‘glass ceiling’ concept was a little bit hard to understand before reading the team’s explanations, with some thinking it was broken ice over Lake Michigan. 

Grade: B+

Connecticut Sun: Keesusk

The Sun’s Rebel look, or ‘Keesusk’ (‘sun’ in the Mohegan language) jerseys, pay tribute to the Mohegan tribe, a Native American tribe from the land that is now Connecticut. In particular, these are inspired by Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a Mohegan elder, activist, and author. Each symbol incorporated into the jersey’s design is thoughtfully tied into an element of the culture of the Mohegan people–broken down here on the Sun’s Twitter.

[embed: https://twitter.com/ConnecticutSun/status/1380168594269540354}

All in all, I’m very impressed with this thoroughly researched tribute to the Mohegan people, who are the namesake of the “Mohegan Sun” Resort the Sun call home. In American sports, most Native American ‘inspired’ images and logos have drawn from stereotypical, racist imagery and caricature. The Sun break from that problematic history with this design, instead drawing genuine inspiration based on a deeper understanding of a people and their culture. The result is a gorgeous, really thoughtfully made jersey. Also, look how pretty that shade of blue is!

Grade: A

Dallas Wings: “Warhawk”

A lot has already been said about the Dallas Wings’ rebel edition jerseys, which were among the first leaked in last month’s now infamous DICK’s Sporting Goods leaks, dubbed #WNBAJerseyGate by Khristina Williams of Girls Talk Sports. The kit is modeled after the P-40 Warhawk, a biplane built in Texas and flown during WWII by American pilots, including “Women Airforce Service Pilots”, whom this jersey is meant to celebrate. 

From concept to realization, I cannot get behind these jerseys. It’s hard to know where to start with them. Visually, we have the baby puke green with a bright orange collar for some reason(?), and then has that big old awkward star right in the middle there. With a lack of any branding or colors from the team’s usually colorway, it’s also fairly difficult to know that this is a Dallas Wings jersey at first glance… not great from a marketing standpoint. In terms of the jersey’s narrative concept, I can kind of almost appreciate the instinct to pull from women’s history and, to quote the team’s release, “[showcase] women as fierce and relentless in the pursuit of victory”. But I feel there are ways to accomplish both of these goals without furthering the militarization of American sports, which is ultimately all I see when I look at this. Nothing about it screams ‘women in the military’, it just screams ‘military’ and ‘baby puke’. 

UPDATE:

WNBA journalist and influencer Jasmine Baker took to Twitter on April 14th to explain some further problems with this jersey that I wasn’t aware of when I was dishing out my grades. Baker explained in her post that a “simple Google search” shows that qualified African American women were intentionally excluded from the W.A.S.P. program.

Following these tweets, the Dallas Wings and Nike have reportedly pulled the jersey, cancelling customer orders and pulling the jerseys off the shelves at retailers. There are no further details on whether another design will supplant it, nor has the team made an official statement on the jerseys being pulled at this time.

Grade: F

Indiana Fever: Stranger Things

The Fever’s alternate jerseys are a nod to Netflix’s Indiana-set sci-fi drama Stranger Things, incorporating the show’s iconic red font as well as lots and lots of spooky blood. I seem to be fairly alone on this, but I’m not a huge fan of this one. A highlight of the new batch of jerseys has been sponsor patches becoming less prominent, so an entire sponsored content jersey kind of sticks out to me, and not in a good way. It’s an odd choice amidst the other rebel edition jerseys, which generally speak to women’s empowerment or the culture and history of the team’s city. I tried to evaluate this purely visually and step away from the context, but even then, the blood splatter vibe just feels like something you would see on a teenager’s custom NBA2K jersey

I’m happy the Fever got that Netflix money, though. Also that video of Teaira McCowan with a sword was amazing.

Grade: D

Las Vegas Aces: “Ace of Diamonds”

The Aces’ Rebel jersey design is one of the most simple in the collection, a black jersey with golden trim and a grey on black ‘Diamond’ pattern on the stomach, separated from the black field by a diagonal line. The result is a very classed up jersey that calls to mind the black suits, card games, and gambling of Las Vegas, the Aces’ home. According to the WNBA Twitter, as well as a team release, the jersey is supposed to celebrate “the desert city’s larger-than-life personality,” referring to the design as opulent. 

This is where my issues with this look begin and end: The jersey is neither opulent nor larger than life, and in my opinion, fails to capture Las Vegas as such. It looks really good, and gets a lot of points on pure aesthetics, but the imagery and subdued color choices simply don’t capture the flashing lights, loud noises, and bright hues of the Sin City as it exists today. Even the gold color isn’t as decadent as it could be. The design is also supposed to resemble an ‘Ace’ playing card, which I struggle to see a bit. Overall, the jersey falls short from a storytelling and concept perspective, but that’s almost counterbalanced by how dang good it looks. 

Grade: B

Los Angeles Sparks: City of Stars

The Sparks’ new alternate jersey design “embodies the boundless brightness of the City of Angels,” per the WNBA’s Twitter. Or, in layman’s terms, it’s supposed to look like Los Angeles at night, with the bright yellow striking against the jersey’s black base, and a really sweet star/spark detail running along the side, reflecting both the bright lights of the city and the many ‘stars’ that inhabit it. 

Visually, this is really stunning. The star detail along the side, the choice of typeface, the bold gold color against the black, it all comes together so well. On pure aesthetics, this jersey is one of the best of the Rebel collection. It does lack the depth of storytelling and theme present in some of my other favorites from this collection, but I kind of respect the Sparks for just going for a clean aesthetic with a simple concept behind it. What bothers me more, and what I cannot ignore, is how similar these jerseys are to the Lakers’ Black Mamba jerseys. It’s a great design, but I’d love to see Nike and the WNBA use these alternates as an opportunity to deepen the Sparks’ unique brand identity more in the future.

 Grade: B+

Minnesota Lynx: First Avenue

The Lynx’s new alternate look pays tribute to Minneapolis’ music scene, and to First Avenue, an iconic nightclub and music venue in Minneapolis, perhaps most famously associated with Minnesota’s most legendary musician, Prince. This jersey takes a lot of visual cues from the venue it’s inspired by, from the unique music staff design connecting the “Minn” text, to the striking black and white color scheme, to the pattern of stars representing First Avenue’s iconic Star wall, filled with the names of the most famous acts that have performed there. The jersey is visually stunning, striking out in a unique direction with its visuals and storytelling while still clearly being a Minnesota Lynx uniform. The decision to honor an iconic Minneapolis landmark is a great use of this redesigning opportunity. Bonus points for the connection to Prince, who was himself a huge Minnesota Lynx fan, He actually hosted their post-championship party at his house back in 2017.

Grade: A

New York Liberty: Equality

Something I really adore about the New York’s “Rebel edition” jersey is how much this design trusts the iconicism of the Liberty franchise’s unique brand. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here, simply adding a sleek copper finish to the team’s classic, distinguishing seafoam green, and, subbing out the team’s name for the term “equality”. Thematically, the jersey is of course meant as a broad statement against social inequities such as sexism and racism; while also, of course, drawing inspiration from the Statue of Liberty and the ideals it embodies with the colors (the statue was originally copper in color) and the torch detail.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the Liberty continue to earn this “equality” jersey through specific social justice-related team programs and commitments. But for now, this look makes a clear statement while doing a great job of bearing the torch (hehe) for one of the W’s most legendary brands.

Grade: A 

Phoenix Mercury: X-Factor/From The Ashes

The Mercury’s new alternate look pulls double duty, paying tribute to the team’s fans (nicknamed the ‘X-Factor’, hence the highlighted X), while also incorporating imagery inspired by the mythological bird from which the city of Phoenix draws its name. The phoenix-esque flames on the jerseys’ side somehow avert being cheesy and actually look really cool. Whoever at Nike designed this jersey looked straight at the cliche of ‘slap some flames on the side’ and went for it and pulled it off. The flames are so freaking cool. I love the flames so much. The reworked logo also is really dynamic, and the decision to incorporate the ‘X-Factor’ into this jersey design as the WNBA prepares to welcome fans back into arenas after last year’s Wubble season–tying back into the imagery of the mythical phoenix, and themes of rebirth.

Also, again. Look at the cool flames.

Grade:

Seattle Storm: Protest

The Storm Rebel design lands solidly in the same “I’m not sure what this is supposed to represent on first look” category with a few of the other designs. Upon further research (looking at the WNBA’s Twitter), the jersey is meant to celebrate Seattle’s “lineage of political engagement”, and I can kind of see that. You’ve got the protest sign stencil in “Seattle” and the worn look on the distressed graphic. The same Tweet states that the “swoop-like sash” across the front is meant to represent “female empowerment”, which…sure? Aesthetically, I’m not a huge fan of how this one comes together. The block stencil ‘Seattle’ is a bit awkward, and the distressed graphics feel a bit dated. The black with the grey slash is really sweet, though, and I like the little highlight of green just on the swoosh. Overall, though, some of the choices don’t play right both visually and in terms of storytelling.

Grade: C+

Washington Mystics: Rise

The Washington Mystic’s “Rise” jersey pays tribute to several moments in the fight for womens’ equality, such as the passing of the 19th amendment, which gave some women the right to vote, and the 2017 Women’s March–the organizers of which were consulted in the design of the jersey. 

This design was among the first leaked during #WNBAJersey Gate, and were fairly poorly received at the time, owing largely to the fact that Mystics star and former MVP Elena Delle Donne’s last name was misspelled on the back of them. The jerseys certainly look better than they did in the first pictures of them to go public, the color of the ‘sash’ clearly cherry blossom pink instead of the weird orange-red it appeared to be in the leak. I actually really like the color palette in a vacuum, but have the same issue I had with the Wings’ rebel look–nothing about this screams ‘Mystics’ to me, between the colorway and the lack of a team or city name on the jersey. The idea of incorporating the actual text from the 19th amendment is interesting, but the realization of it falls short for me, it’s a little bit awkward and not well incorporated into the rest of the design. 

Furthermore, the choice to draw inspiration from the suffragette movement is somewhat troubling. As others have pointed out, the 19th amendment only granted the right to vote to white women, with many key figures from the early suffragette movement being either apathetic or outright hostile to the fight for the rights of black women. The Women’s Marches, though clearly important, have also been accused of centering white, cisgender women. The Mystics have acknowledged some of these issues on Twitter, they do ultimately distract from the message of empowerment for all women that the Mystics are hoping to achieve with this jersey.

Grade: C

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