Apr 15, 2024; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Cameron Brink before the 2024 WNBA Draft at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Sports media is currently in uncharted waters when it comes to women’s basketball coverage as women’s sports as a whole are seeing growth and attention like never before. And the 2024 WNBA Draft highlighted yet another area that sports media will have to navigate in order to effectively cover women’s sports: fashion. 

Although the 2024 WNBA Draft class included incredible talent, the fashion choices of these athletes also took center stage in April, to the delight of many fans. Whether it was Caitlin Clark being the first basketball player to attend a draft night wearing Prada, Rickea Jackson’s dual outfit ensemble, Cameron Brink’s eye-catching slit dress, or Dyaisha Fair’s dapper tux, the 2024 draftees showed that they can dress just as cleanly as they can hoop, and fans paid attention as the latest WNBA Draft was the most-viewed on record, drawing 2.446 million viewers, up 307% from last year. 

Many attribute this level of popularity to first-overall draft pick Caitlin Clark who has been the poster star of women’s hoops for the past year. But for Katelyn Hutchison, a Forbes contributor and content creator for World Athletics, there’s another reason the 2024 WNBA Draft was so widely embraced by fans. When athletes showcase personal interests, including the self-expression that fashion and beauty choices offer athletes in the media spotlight, it gives fans a glimpse into their personalities and makes them more than just athletes in the eyes of their followers. 

“Those are some of the things that we hold near and dear and near and dear to us,” explained Hutchison, who was also on the track and field team at the University of Kentucky before earning her Master’s in Sport Leadership this spring. “So the same way that we’re holding our sport near and dear to us and that is what’s giving us success, why can’t these other parts of our lives that we really enjoy also give us success too?”

Apr 15, 2024; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Dyaisha Fair before the 2024 WNBA Draft at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

However, there are some potential pitfalls in this new territory. As sports media adjusts to increasing media coverage around women’s sports, fashion is likely to be another learning curve–if we’ve learned anything from the NIL market, it’s that sports media often reverts to sexist tropes when covering stereotypically feminine topics in sports. For example, Olivia Dunne and Hailey and Hanna Cavinder have all been subjects of questionable articles that center around their conventional attractiveness and “sexy,” feminine-centric branded content, rather than their athleticism. It’s not the fault of the athletes, but rather a blind spot in a traditionally male-dominated industry. 

Female athletes are increasingly pushing back on that norm by leaning into their branding, and as more and more high profile athletes pursue business with fashion and beauty companies–like Chicago Sky draftee, Angel Reese, who declared for the WNBA Draft in an iconic Vogue feature–ethical issues in sports media coverage are sure to arise. It’s easy to imagine an immediate future where sports media reverts to sexist tropes and hyperfixates on what female athletes are wearing, rather than what they are doing on the court. But some athletes like Reese have been strategically building their brands around fashion and beauty companies, and it pays off for them in terms of exposure, profit, and self-expression.

So how can sports media cover women’s sports fashion without falling back into old habits? 

“The best way to go about it in terms of making sure we’re not overshadowing their athletic ability would take learning the athlete and learning what they’re comfortable with,” Hutchison explained. “Maybe Angel Reese might not have an issue if the majority of the time we’re speaking about what fashion endeavors she’s doing or whatever other interesting stuff that she’s doing. I think that it’s kind of just up to the journalists and the people in the industry to really, really pay attention to the athletes that they’re speaking to.”

Reese certainly stands out as a beauty/fashion influencer who has made her brand about basketball as well as her own personal style–who else in women’s sports would announce their professional career with a Vogue feature or celebrate their 22nd birthday with a Met Gala appearance sandwiched between training camp an a preseason game? In addition to her latest feature, Reese has also signed deals with Coach and Mielle Organics as a part of her Bayou Barbie brand, so it’s safe to say that carving out space in these industries is important to her. 

“It’s very obvious and very clear that Angel Reese, in particular, loves to be in a whole bunch of other different stuff when it comes to fashion,” Hutchison said. “I mean, she was like, ‘hey, if you’re all seeing me in more music videos, don’t be surprised because I like to do everything. I want to be the face of many things. I don’t just want my athleticism to be what makes me, me.’”

Plus, if sports media can avoid sexist stereotyping of athletes who choose this route, the payouts for both the brands and the athletes who back them could be lucrative–especially considering how many women tune into sports. Many prominent female-focused brands have taken note of this as of late. After the NFL experienced a huge increase of female viewers last season, they adjusted their Super Bowl ad inventory to feature more female-focused advertisements.

Many female athletes aren’t afraid to express themselves through their fashion and beauty choices before, during, and in-between competitions–and for these athletes, their choices add a touch of swagger and joy to their game.

Consider LSU sprinter, Alia Armstrong, the self-proclaimed “Rhinestone Queen” who regularly embellishes her track singlets, face, and hair with gems that shine as brightly as the hardware she wins. There’s also Florida State catcher, Michaela Edenfield, whose artsy in-game makeup looks have drawn attention not only to her artistic talent, but to the quality of the products used–and the same can be said for hoopers like Last-Tear Poa, and the Cavinder twins, who post pre-game “get ready with me” videos that guide followers through their pregame beauty routines before taking the court. 

It’s popular content, and Hutchison adds that fashion and beauty brands that are backed by athletes in particular can demonstrate the durability of these products when they’re used on the field of play–and these products don’t have to be flashy makeup or eye-catching lashes to have an impact on fans.

This is one of the reasons Hutchison believes in the positive impact fashion and beauty brands can have on women’s sports—plus, she’s seen similar deals go down in professional women’s track to the benefit of the brands and the athletes.

On the business side, athletes are typically most known for their brand deals with athletic companies, and shoe deals in particular. For example, first-overall WNBA Draft pick Caitlin Clark just signed a mammoth $28 million shoe deal with Nike after signing with the Indiana Fever. But thinking outside of the box offers fans a glimpse to not only the athletes’ athletic capabilities, but to their personalities.

Another benefit of athletes branching out to nontraditional markets is fan engagement. Female athletes as a whole excel at building relationships with their fans via social media and NIL, and fashion and beauty brands offer these athletes additional pathways to connect with their fans because many female sports fans use the same products or are looking to add new products to their wardrobes and/or beauty routines. 

“It’s another avenue and another opportunity to continue to grow your brand,” Hutchison explained. “And I feel like that’s what makes athletes more popular when people can see athletes as not just somebody who’s more athletically gifted than them. People like to latch onto something and attach themselves to their idols when they know there’s something that they might have in common.”

Increased media coverage for women’s sports is almost always a good thing–but in a league as diverse as the WNBA, social norms can also hamper coverage of athletes who don’t dress in stereotypical feminine styles, even when these women are incredibly fashionable, like Dyaisha Fair, who attended the WNBA Draft in a black tux and a red bow tie or Paige Bueckers, who came to support her teammates sporting an all-white suit. In covering these athletes, Hutchison suggests doing away with gendered expectations in fashion and treating their outfits the same as the more feminine looks around them–if the athlete wants attention on their fashion choices, that is.

“Women who don’t dress particularly feminine, they also look really great,” Hutchison said. “If they had that fit and a guy put it on, you would think it looked great. So I think that, you know, it would just be more about letting those political and social views go and just be like, ‘Hey, this person…they got that sh*t on. They look great. They got on their outfit. We need to talk about this. Where are they getting it from? What are these colors and things mixed together? Why does it look good?’ It’s really just about talking about it [with the athletes] honestly.”

Through self-expression, female athletes are controlling sexist narratives and choices that have been imposed on them for quite some time and sports media must support them in this endeavor if the industry wants to provide these athletes with high-quality, multifaceted coverage, honoring the choices of these women the entire time–especially with historic context in mind.

Women’s sport uniforms in particular has been a topic of controversy that nearly always centers around a lack of choice for female athletes–women’s teams have often been subject to revealing or over-sexualized uniforms, as was the case of the Norwegian handball team who fought against their federation who fined them for refusing to comply with their bikini-style uniform requirements and won. Or the German national gymnastics team, who pushed back against overly-sexualized leotards by debuting a unitard-style uniform at the Tokyo Olympics.

More recently, a revealing women’s track singlet designed by Nike for the U.S. Olympic track team went viral for all the wrong reasons, and the backlash from both athletes and the public was fast and severe–all signs of positive momentum for the autonomy of female athletes to wear what’s best for them on the field of play. There’s nothing wrong with female athletes choosing to wear more revealing uniforms–which often provide benefits like heat control–or not. The element of choice here as well as in off-the-field fashion is key. 

Importantly, Hutchison is noticing a trend in coverage and attitudes about fashion and beauty in sports: although covering these topics can be daunting for an industry that’s not used to it, athletes are holding their own when it comes to controlling the narratives that surround them. Sports media must take note and honor the autonomy of female athletes moving forward. Like many narratives surrounding women’s bodies, when it comes to sports coverage–whether it’s the physical coverage of female athletes’ bodies or the media’s coverage of how they prefer to express themselves–women’s choices should be of paramount importance.

“It’s definitely a very difficult line to walk,” said Hutchison, of such coverage. “[But] I think we’ve kind of learned from all of that and [female athletes are] taking control in their own personal way.”  

About Katie Lever

Dr. Katie Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Global Sport Matters, Sportico, Extra Points, Forbes, and other outlets. She is also the award-winning author of Surviving the Second Tier, a dystopian novel about the dark side of the college sports industry, available on Amazon. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.