As the W.N.B.A. finals between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Minnesota Lynx begin Sunday (3 p.m. Eastern on ABC), the league’s stars still face a yawning gap in income, exposure and endorsement opportunities compared with their male counterparts. Nowhere is that more apparent than the style world, where N.B.A. players seem to carry as much clout as movie stars, but many of the W.N.B.A.’s athletes remain as invisible as key grips.
But that may be starting to change, as players like Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins have emerged as style influencers, and the fashion world slowly embraces a new inclusiveness that defines beauty beyond size 2 waifs from Ukraine.
Without question, however, there’s a lot of ground to cover if the fashion-forward female players hope to catch up to the men.
Mr. Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder is just one of many N.B.A. stars who have become front-row fixtures during fashion week; he has also augmented his eight-figure salary as a creative director for True Religion, the clothing brand, and by designing his own clothing line in partnership with Barneys New York.
Mr. James, who would hardly seem to need more exposure, or income, collaborates with Nike on designs bearing his name. In 2015, he executive-produced the splashy N.B.A. All-Star All-Style fashion show during All-Star weekend that featured six-foot-something fashion plates like DeMarcus Cousins, Klay Thompson and James Harden treading the runway in designer duds for a TNT television audience. Female players, by contrast, are lucky enough to see their games televised, let alone their fashion exploits.
“There are so many cool people in the women’s league that have a good sense of style,” said Cappie Pondexter, a guard for the Chicago Sky. “We talk about it every week — it’s visibility. We don’t have that exposure.”
Undeterred, Ms. Pondexter has made a splash with her fashion company, 4Season Style Management, which provides wardrobe styling, personal shopping, and other services for celebrity clients like the model Jessica White and the singer and actress Teyana Taylor, and which styled the designer Laurel DeWitt’s runway show at the recent New York Fashion Week.
She acknowledged, however, that female players have to work harder than male players to be recognized.
“A lot of those guys, they’re into fashion, but they pay people to go shopping for them,” Ms. Pondexter said. “I don’t have a stylist, I dress myself.”
They also have to deal with the economic reality that they make a fraction of what their male counterparts earn. To supplement salaries that range from about $40,000 to $112,000, female stars often sign with teams in Asia or Europe during the off-season, meaning they are not even in the country to attend fashion events, according to Ms. Diggins, a Dallas Wings guard. (Ms. Diggins, whom Vogue called “basketball’s best dressed woman,” is an exception to the rule, having modeled for Nike and walked the runway at an American Heart Association benefit show at New York Fashion Week last February and at a Michael Costello show two years ago.)
Players who miss out on fashion week miss out on a prime opportunity to promote their league, and their personal brand.
“You look at the N.B.A., it’s the mecca of pop culture,” Ms. Diggins said. “You don’t just talk about ball with those guys, you talk about everything that goes with it: fashion, music, technology. People want to know what the athletes are wearing, what designers they like.” Fashion, she added, “is an opportunity to be seen in a different light, not just in my jersey.”
The marketing potential of fashion is obvious to league executives.
“We are not in the basketball business, we are in the entertainment business,” said Lisa Borders, the W.N.B.A. president. “People don’t follow leagues. They sometimes follow teams. But what they really follow is people. If one of our players is a fashionista, and you are a fashionista, you might follow that individual player because she has the same interest that you do.”
And W.N.B.A. athletes do understand the power of clothes to make a statement: Last July, players from the Liberty, Indiana Fever, and Phoenix Mercury drew league fines when they donned plain black warm-up shirts in support of the Black Lives Matter protests (the league rescinded the fines after widespread uproar).
One impediment to visibility in style circles, players said, was the perception that basketball is a game of sharp elbows and sweat, unlike the more genteel women’s tennis, which has proved to be more fashion friendly. Serena Williams, for example, graced the cover of Vogue in a Rag & Bone sheath dress last year. Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova strutted the red carpet in gowns along with the other celebrities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute gala this year. Eugenie Bouchard “took fashion week by storm,” in the words of ESPN W, a couple of years ago as she mingled with the fashion A-list at shows by Tory Burch and Jason Wu.
“I’d love to see women’s players get to the point where we’re sitting next to Anna Wintour at fashion shows,” said Tiffany Bias, a guard with the Dallas Wings. But there are snags. Among them, she added, “people have that perception: They hear ‘women’s basketball player,’ and think of a very masculine player.”
That basketball, at certain positions, tends to favor large, powerfully built women is also a challenge, one not faced by many male players, like Chris Bosh, another noted N.B.A. clotheshorse, whose willowy 6-foot-11 frame and broad shoulders make him look like a fashion sketch come to life.
As the fashion designer Rachel Antonoff put it: “The typical male athlete’s body is in line with the gender-normative body ideal we all see in movies and fashion. The female athlete’s isn’t. And what a shame. Their bodies are incredibly beautiful, like sculpted works of art.”
Other players cited race as a potential complicating factor. “You look at the W.N.B.A., and a high percentage of the league is African-American women,” Ms. Cash said. “We struggle with a lot, in jobs or in society in general.”
This explanation hit home with some designers, like Becca McCharen of Chromat. “There’s a history of racism in every industry,” she said, “and fashion is not exempt from that.”
Then again, the degree to which race complicates W.N.B.A. players’ attempts to market themselves is part of a “bigger conversation,” Ms. Cash said, particularly since almost all of the prominent N.B.A. fashionistas are also African-American.
What is clear is that the concept of “ideal” beauty in fashion is changing quickly as designers like Ms. Antonoff, Ms. McCharen and Tracy Reese, along with many others, make efforts to include a wide range of body types, ethnicities and gender identities in their shows and lookbooks.
“Individuality is being celebrated,” Ms. Reese said. “You don’t have to be cute and petite, you can be cute and tall, or cute and wide. You can be every color under the rainbow. Already, there are a lot of runway models who are 6-1, so in a lot of ways, the average W.N.B.A. player is a perfect runway girl.”
The recent elevation of Ms. Griner, a 6-foot-8 center for the Mercury, to style influencer may be a case in point.
Despite her androgynous style — or, most likely, because of it — Ms. Griner has attracted mainstream attention in the style media since she attended the 2013 draft, where she was selected first over all, in a white-on-white tuxedo.
During her rookie season, the laconic Houston native signed a deal to model men’s clothing for Nike (“They let me be me,” she said). Elle dissected her work with Ellen DeGeneres’s fashion adviser, Kellen Richards, as she considered a Saint Laurent sweatshirt top with cutoff sleeves for an appearance at the ESPY Awards.
In a 2014 Sports Illustrated interview in which she discussed being gay — a significant disclosure for a league with a loyal following among gay women — Ms. Griner wore a blue gingham shirt, an ivory bow tie and glasses that recalled the neo-Urkel look pushed by N.B.A. players like Kevin Durant and Mr. James, which inspired jokes about the “Nerd Basketball Association.”
While Ms. Griner’s gender-bending style may have confounded the conservative culture of professional sports in another era, today it has made her a candidate for that most elusive title: W.N.B.A. style icon.
The question is whether mere equality with male players is good enough. “When you look up and see what Russell Westbrook has on,” Ms. Griner said, “you say, ‘Let’s push the envelope, too.’”