The WNBA’s No. 1 pick from the most-watched league draft in a decade and a half. One of the most exciting prospects ever to go pro. Jersey sold out online within an hour. All in all, that makes for a pretty good day for Sabrina Ionescu. But as ESPN’s Sarah Spain pointed out, something is amiss.
The headlines make great promotion for Ionescu and the WNBA. “Sold Out!” certainly makes people think the player and league are gaining in popularity. It clearly demonstrates a high demand. And it isn’t the first time Ionescu has made this kind of wave. Or at least a jersey with her name on it has. When Nike finally made her Oregon jersey available for purchase, it also sold out in a minuscule amount of time. The headlines are great and attract eyeballs. But what it doesn’t do is get jerseys in the hands of all the fans who want them, at least not for a while. The solution on the Liberty shop? T-shirts.
One has to ask if it has to, or should be this way.
Because Nike’s recent track record on this sort of thing, merchandise of women athletes, isn’t glittering. In fact, you only have to go back about nine months. That’s when they were caught woefully flat-footed for the demand of U.S. Women’s National team jerseys in the aftermath of their fourth World Cup triumph.
Nike doesn’t make their apparel made-to-order. However, companies like Fanatics do, which Nike recently subcontracted to make their NFL jerseys for fans. So Nike essentially tries to guess or estimate how much they will need beforehand. But it seems when it comes to women athletes, they either have no idea what they are doing, or are deliberately diving at the absolute lowest end to create more demand. It’s hard to say.
When the U.S. Women’s National Team hoisted the trophy, according to Cailtin Murray of Yahoo!, Nike only had 1,000 four-star jerseys ready to go. Anyone who had been paying attention to the record TV ratings and mere conversation about the team last summer could have told you that was merely a drop in the bucket for what would be needed. More likely a droplet in that drop in the bucket of demand. Fans waited months for their jerseys afterwards.
And sure, creating that sort of backlog creates headlines and buzz, but how many sales were lost with customers who simply didn’t want to wait or shell out money for a product they had no idea when it would actually arrive? How many went the knockoff route, which doesn’t get back to the players themselves? Moreover, how much money did that cost the U.S. Women, who just happen to be in a fight with U.S. Soccer for equal pay? It’s doubly annoying for a group of women that took charge of their own licensing just two years ago. As Murray pointed out, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, 15,000 jerseys were sold. But in the period of months until they were ready to do so again, did Nike and the USWNT miss out on more than that?
Ionescu, and the WNBA players union is out some money here as well, depending on how many Liberty and Ionescu fans were also turned off by a wait time for their new jersey. The new WNBA CBA calls for a 50-50 split of revenue, depending on certain other commissions being met (though that doesn’t start until 2021). At $110 a pop, that’s $55 per jersey not sold thanks to the initial shortage. Not being a national phenomenon as the USWNT was means that 15,000 figure is almost certainly high, but that 1,000 example is probably low as well. How many they reclaim with preorders and when the jerseys are ready again is a question only Nike can answer, and they haven’t done so to us as of yet. Neither the Liberty or the WNBA Players Association responded to requests for comment on the subject either.
Maybe Nike thinks the roar of being able to yell “sold out” from the roof top of their Beaverton headquarters will cause future sales to rise. Creating a sense of urgency is never bad for business. But here is also some advertising or branding being missed out on here. After all, seeing people walking around Manhattan and Brooklyn in Ionescu jerseys is great for the Liberty, the league, and Ionescu. Those who got their jerseys still can and will, but it feels like they could be even more visible.
Perhaps Nike nailed this number. Perhaps getting to proclaim “Sold Out In An Hour!” is better for business long-term. Perhaps a non-significant number won’t be turned off by wait-times and pre-orders. It’s just that Nike’s recent history on this sort of thing doesn’t suggest this is a genius plot of some kind.