Don’t be misled by the WNBA’s top 10 jersey list

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Ahead of the first round of the 2021 WNBA Playoffs on Thursday night (schedule here), the WNBA announced that sales on WNBAStore.com were up 50 percent over last year. For supporters of women’s sports, it’s good news and a clear sign that fans are interested in celebrating and investing in the league.

As part of its press release, the WNBA shared a list of the top 10 player jerseys since the start of the 2021 regular season:

  1. Sabrina Ionescu, New York Liberty
  2. Sue Bird, Seattle Storm
  3. Diana Taurasi, Phoenix Mercury
  4. A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
  5. Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm
  6. Candace Parker, Chicago Sky
  7. Skylar Diggins-Smith, Phoenix Mercury
  8. Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics
  9. Maya Moore, Minnesota Lynx
  10. Liz Cambage, Las Vegas Aces

This list should reflect the jerseys that fans want to buy. But does it?

The answer to that question is complicated.

The problem with the WNBA’s top 10 jersey list

The first issue with the WNBA’s top 10 jersey list? Availability and selection.

There are 144 players in the WNBA, but fewer than 20 currently have “ready to ship” jerseys available in the WNBA’s official online store.

Within that group of 20, only some players – like Sabrina Ionescu and Breanna Stewart – have both youth and adult jerseys versions available for sale.

If you’re looking to buy a jersey belonging to a player outside of that group of 20 – meaning any of the WNBA’s 120-plus other players – you’re going to need to submit a custom order.

That much larger list of names features many of this season’s top performing players, including Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles, and Jewell Loyd. Even Jonquel Jones – who on Wednesday was named AP Player of the Year – doesn’t have a Connecticut Sun jersey available on the WNBA’s store, though she does have an All-Star jersey for sale.

RELATED: Jonquel Jones named 2021 WNBA MVP

A source at the WNBA confirmed that custom jerseys count towards the top-10 ranking list, so long as the order is consistent with the player’s current team. But custom orders are often less desirable because they take longer to ship, cost more money, and aren’t available in youth sizes.

If you’re a fan of the Seattle Storm, you could spend $99 on a Breanna Stewart jersey that ships out immediately. But if you want a Jewell Loyd jersey? That custom order will cost you $129.

If you’re a fan of the Minnesota Lynx, the only player with a “ready to ship” jersey on WNBAStore.com? That’s Maya Moore, who hasn’t herself worn a Lynx jersey since 2018.

And if you want to buy for a jersey for a young New York Liberty fan, Sabrina Ionescu is your only option. Custom jerseys aren’t currently available in youth sizes.

The options at Dick’s Sporting Goods are somewhat more robust than the WNBA’s store, and will likely increase even further after a new multi-year marketing partnership with the WNBA was announced on Wednesday. And some WNBA teams, like the Minnesota Lynx, offer a larger variety of pre-made jerseys in a separate online store.

But purchasing a jersey from the Lynx or Dick’s wouldn’t boost a player’s ranking on the top 10 list, which according to the WNBA press release, is “based on WNBAStore.com sales.”

WNBA’s top jersey list shows racial bias

In the hours since the WNBA released its top 10 jersey list, plenty of headlines have celebrated Ionescu’s No. 1 spot on the list – often without the authors digging into the factors at play.

This is especially concerning given the role that racial bias plays in the composition of the top 10 jersey list. While over 80 percent of WNBA players are Black, half of the women on the list are white, including four of the top five.

Earlier this year, PhD student Risa Isard and Dr. Nicole Melton published research on the role that race plays in media coverage of WNBA players. They found that, during the 2020 WNBA season, regular season MVP A’ja Wilson received half as much coverage as Ionescu, who played in three games before getting injured.

Their research also found that, on the whole, white players received twice as many media mentions as Black players – a fact that Paige Bueckers noted in her ESPY acceptance speech in July.

While the media outlets that Isard and Melton studied showed clear racial bias, the WNBA – in its own press releases – did not. In an op-ed for the Sports Business Journal, they wrote: “The WNBA’s press releases in 2020 only showed a bias toward scorers. The more a player scored, the more often press releases mentioned them.”

And yet, different guidelines are clearly being used to determine which jerseys are included in the WNBA store. Otherwise, the league’s leading scorer in 2021 – Tina Charles – would have a ready-made jersey available for purchase.

Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum and all of it compounds with time. Media mentions lead to marketability. Marketability, in turn, likely plays a role in jersey availability and selection, which then leads to jersey sales. Rinse and repeat.

It’s clear that the system is broken. Until it’s fixed, let’s stop promoting a flawed list that stands to do more harm than good.

(Author’s note: to learn more about Isard and Melton’s research, watch this interview they conducted with Bria Felicien, founder of the Black Sportswoman.) 

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC