When I went to the 2022 WNBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago, the floor was covered in orange and black. But this year, there was something special about the jerseys this year.
42 was the magic number across each player’s back. From Candace Parker and Nneka Ogwumike to Skyler Diggins-Smith and Rhyne Howard, every woman on the court wore the name of Brittney Griner proudly in support of the detained player. Their confidence was unmatched and their energy was positive yet competitive, which was all the makings of a highly-anticipated game between the best players in the league. As they represented Griner’s number in their respective team colors, this was the moment when I knew that the Nike brand was truly in support of not only female athletes – but women, period.
“Nike has always been foundationally all about innovation,” Nike Vice President of North America League Partnership, Sonja Henning told ESSENCE. In fact, the global sportswear brand is so invested in creating not only proper athleisure wear for their athletes but creating a safe space for their players, that former WNBA players had been recruited to become part of the Nike corporate team as part of the brand’s Women in Nike (WIN) program. “Nike, part of the innovation push and why we’re always pushing the edge is to constantly say, what can we do? What can we provide you that’s going to help you be at your best from a performance standpoint?”
As described on the official WNBA site, the WIN program was founded in 2019 as a pipeline for retired WNBA players to pursue a career in Nike’s corporate sector to help develop their post-career skills through working cohorts over the course of two years. Through the WIN program, not only are former players able to creatively consult on the imagery, marketing, and production of the product, but they’re able to be hands-on from beginning to end.
“They’ll see a line and their input will be based on their own life experiences and the things that they know to be true based on their relationships with athletes, their relationships in the community, their global experience,” Henning, who is also a former WNBA point guard, continued. Moreover, the conversion rate from cohort to full-time jobs is nearly 75% with the alumni base between 85-90% Black women. “It’d be similar to having a workshop with your teammates. Now you have a whole new perspective based on this one teammate’s life experience that she’s sharing with the group.”
With their added life experience, WNBA players are able to see themselves – and serve themselves – in the pieces they create for the Nike brand from marketing, product, operations, and everything in between. The program is not only inviting a table for Black female athletes to sit at but having them construct the table and the chairs from the ground up with everyone sitting around the perimeter having a well-deserved voice.
Henning continued, “What I know to be true, not only are we changing their individual lives, which includes generational lives because these are women and mothers and sisters and aunties and all those things but also for the Nike employment base. For all these folks to see instead of thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a unicorn’ when they see a strong Black female, it’s like, no. The message is, and there’s even more, we just have to go and get them.”
Amongst those strong Black women who are championing comfort, safety, and style for female athletes in basketball, as well as other sports, is WNBA Athlete Nepheesa Collier. As an active athlete, she defines the term “look good, feel good” as putting in a bit more effort than normal, even on the days when she doesn’t feel like herself. “Especially these past few weeks when I’ve had my baby, I just feel like I’ve been in such a slump,” the Minnesota Lynx player told ESSENCE.
“My hair looks crazy, my outfit looks crazy so getting dressed up always makes me feel a lot better. Even if I can just fix my hair for the day, it makes me feel a bit more put together.”
As a new mother, athlete, and now one of the faces of the Nike Maternity Collection, she recognizes the importance of looking good and feeling good as a means to an end for good performance, especially on the court. “I think the game is like 70% confidence. If you think the ball’s going in, it’s going to go in – and it’s the same off the court. If you’re feeling good, you have this certain aura and presence about you,” Collier added.
Collier praised Nike for doing a “really good job” when it comes to comfort and confidence in the way she looks and feels in her body. “Not only do they offer such a wide variety of sizes, [but] they offer different styles that look good on different body types. They do a really great job of including everyone no matter what your size or what you look like.”
When asked about what advice she would give to young athletes about exuding confidence through fashion and style, she noted that individuality and authenticity is key. “I would say to find their own style, find what works for them,” she said. Collier admitted that her personal style is “still evolving” as she figures out her fashion preferences, but encourages newcomers to experiment every now and again. “It’s [about] being open and being able to put yourself out there to try on new things. Maybe you don’t think this is going to look good, but you try it on and you love it.”
As a former athlete herself, Henning acknowledges the importance of feeling good in and out of uniform. “I absolutely believe ‘look good, feel good’ affects athletes. When you think about ‘look good, feel good’ on the court, whether it’s your footwear, the shorts, the top – when everything feels good, then you can just focus on being your best as an athlete,” she added.
“You’re not pulling down your shirt, trying to fix your bra, all that noise and chaos just takes away from being your best. Some folks need color and that pop of color gives them energy. At any point when they need that energy, they can just say, ‘I’m good. I got it.’ I absolutely would say it’s a real thing.”