NWSL's new Nike kits laying foundation for commercial growth

Published on: 01 March 2024

Open Extended ReactionsFor the 2024 NWSL season, Nike took over the kit design process for the league's 14 teams and, for the first time ever, is releasing all new primary and secondary kits for every team in the league in a single season. Courtesy of Nike/NWSL

For the first time in the National Women's Soccer League's 11-year history, every team kit for the new season will be brand new. The feat is the product of an overhauled design process with longtime partner Nike that has team sources around the league optimistic about creating more customized kits in the future.

Each of the 2024 primary kits for the league's 14 teams is a bespoke design meant to bring to life local culture and storytelling. All 14 secondary kits are new, too, and each looks similar in design as part of a leaguewide theme around "the strength of the collective," according to Nike.

The new design process gives teams equal access to customization options that allow them to be bolder than they have been in an otherwise bland decade of league merchandise. Several of the 2024 primary kits achieve their goal, from San Diego Wave FC's bold orange, pink and turquoise kit -- meant to mimic the city's idyllic sunsets over the Pacific Ocean -- to the Orlando Pride's kit covered in oranges, a nod to the region's robust citrus industry.

Love or hate the final designs, the league has finally moved on from the embarrassing monotony of its early years, when teams looked like local youth clubs with mostly red or blue stock templates and all-white alternate kits. Nike has eliminated white shorts completely this year, citing players' concerns about visible period leaks. White kits are no longer required by the NWSL as they were in the past, just "light" and "dark" options as per FIFA regulations.

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There are finally stories to tell around these kits -- and stories sell. The new kits are about fashion and professionalism, which all relate back to business for a league attempting to sustain growth by attracting new fans. Fashionable kits reach more than just soccer fans; they become grassroots marketing to everyone.

"How do you create that ultimate item that, if you're visiting a city like New York or L.A. or, for us, Orlando or wherever, how are you creating something that people are going to buy to represent that city but also represent the team, too?" Katie Eaton, the NWSL's vice president of consumer products, told ESPN. "Obviously, people are fans of them on the field, but [we're] also creating lifestyle brands."

The new process is one that teams began 18 to 24 months ago, which is now the amount of lead time needed to turn initial concepts into final physical products; teams are already finalizing their 2026 kits -- which some team sources say will include third kits for the first time in league history.

Team sources around the NWSL describe a collaborative process with Nike, in which they present ideas and Nike's design team helps bring them to life. It begins as an intake form and a discussion about high-level objectives and evolves into rounds of digital design and experimentation. After about two years, printouts and digital renderings finally come to life on mannequins and then players and fans.

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Julie Haddon, the NWSL's chief marketing and commercial officer, first saw the jerseys in person recently at the LeBron James Innovation Center at Nike's global headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. Even after months of final reviews on screens, seeing the collection of colors and custom designs in person moved her.

"To then turn around and see all of these on actual models, the actual see-touch-feel, it was sort of breathtaking," Haddon told ESPN. Like the league's new championship trophy made by Tiffany & Co., the kits are a sign of the league "leveling up," Haddon said.

In the past, much of the kit design onus was on individual teams, a system that created great inconsistencies in level of detail from team to team. The Portland Thorns, who are based a short drive from Nike's headquarters, were the first women's team in the world to get a unique visual identity from Nike and have long had more detailed kits (including the polarizing 2023 white kit).

Teams like the North Carolina Courage have traditionally been stuck with plain kits, which went to the extreme last year with an all-white kit that even zapped the club's badge of its colors. Fast forward to 2024, and the Courage have a bold blue primary defined by floating triangles. Those aren't there at random from some designer's obsession with geometry; they represent "The Triangle" area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh and Durham. Sure, there's plenty of marketing jargon in all of this, but there's clear progress in the attention to detail.

Racing Louisville FC leans into its local horse racing history for the second straight year -- ahead of the Kentucky Derby's 150th anniversary -- with a lavender-and-white argyle pattern inspired by the traditional garb of a jockey. The Chicago Red Stars, who have long had some of the most creative kits in the NWSL, will boast a bright blue-and-white geometric pattern representing the convergence of the city's neighborhoods.

Nike, which is the only on-field apparel partner the NWSL has ever had since it kicked off in 2013, now treats the NWSL like its biggest global club and confederation partners. That includes offering the company's most advanced technology -- DRI-FIT ADV -- and marketing. Nike's lifestyle campaign to launch the 2024 NWSL kits is reminiscent of how the brand rolls out kits for World Cups and its largest global events.

The San Diego Wave's 2024 primary kit represents a horizon line where the ocean meets the sky, which Nike says represents different communities coming together for a shared vision. Courtesy of Nike/NWSL

Eaton calls 2024 a "foundation" to growing the commercial appeal of NWSL kits nationally and globally -- a concession that there is still room to grow. The unifying theme of the secondary kits still evokes memories of templates with their similar gradients, a necessary evil of resetting the entire process. All the secondary kits will be replaced next year with bespoke designs to establish new, two-year kit cycles on par with global standards.

Going forward, teams will get new primary kits and secondary kits in alternate years, meaning each team will get a new kit each season, a cadence that never formally existed before. Teams will wear their new primary kits in 2024 and 2025. Secondary kits will reset again next year and be worn in 2025 and 2026. There could be some exceptions; the Washington Spirit are in the middle of an impending rebrand and could get a full reset, for example. There's also the issue of expansion, which is why Bay FC and Utah Royals FC are wearing disappointingly plain jerseys, including Bay FC's black-and-white that hardly even feature the team's real colors. Those franchises were only officially accepted into the league last year, too late in the process to create anything highly customized.

Why good kits matter for the NWSL's business

This kit refreshment is about business as much as it is fashion.

The more detailed process to create bespoke designs is a sign of increased investment in the league from Nike. In late 2021, the NWSL announced an extension -- reportedly through 2030 -- with Nike that the league called its "most substantial agreement in history." It promised that "specific focus will be placed on elevating performance through research in footwear and apparel innovation, and growing engagement by highlighting athletes both on and off the field."


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A recent study by Grand View Research valued the global licensed sports merchandise market at more than $33 billion, with North America representing the largest market. Historically, the NWSL contributed negligibly nothing to that figure, but in the past two years the league has significantly overhauled its overall branding -- a league rebrand is expected next year -- and licensed merchandise. Women's sports at large represent a significant growth opportunity in the market given their historical neglect by retailers.

Accessibility matters, too. Fans might just be able to find their favorite NWSL jerseys now, too, unlike in the past when few were produced.

"This is the largest number of jerseys going into market than ever before and more available, accessible in more retail locations than ever before," Eaton said.

Third-party retailers like Soccer.com and Dick's Sporting Goods will sell Nike's entire NWSL kit collection. Previously, only select NWSL teams could be found at national retailers, mostly online. Dick's Sporting Goods, which is the largest sporting goods retailer in the United States with more than 800 physical locations, will largely carry kits for the local in-market team at physical locations, Eaton said.

That will include more player products, too, meaning fans in San Diego should be able to walk into the store and buy a Wave jersey off the rack with forward Alex Morgan's name and No. 13 already printed on it. Or fans in New York and New Jersey could purchase a jersey of reigning champion NJ/NY Gotham FC with Crystal Dunn's No. 19 on it -- another first for the league. Like the NBA, a large segment of NWSL fans follow players first and teams second.

Crucially, the presence of these kits in brick-and-mortar locations, and on major retailers' websites, allows NWSL teams and players to be discovered by new or casual fans, which are the audiences the league must acquire if it is to sustain its growth. Fashion-forward kits are the perfect vehicle. Haddon knows from her five years as an executive at the NFL that avid fans and casual fans are two different segments of equal importance.

The Chicago Red Stars' 2024 primary kit features a patchwork design that Nike says represents the neighborhoods of Chicago coming together. Courtesy of Nike/NWSL

"What is interesting is a lot of fans of the NWSL are drawn to the culture of the league and the energy of the league and the fashion-forward content that is out there with the players," Haddon said. "So, I think there's a lot of excitement around the way we're building new audiences together. We're bridging the audience of the current avid fan with the future fan."

Inventory of women's team's kits has been a problem globally for years. Rising popularity in the women's game has created a demand for merchandise that recently took manufacturers, including Nike at times, by surprise. In 2019, U.S. women's national team kits became Nike's best-selling soccer jersey, men's or women's teams, in a single season. The only problem was it took a long time for fans to receive their orders because the company didn't anticipate demand.

Nike and other manufacturers -- plus FIFA itself -- were better prepared for the 2023 World Cup, but demand sometimes still exceeds expectations. England goalkeeper Mary Earps won the Golden Glove at the 2023 World Cup, but nobody could buy her jersey. Nike made it available for sale after Earps complained publicly, and Earps said it sold out in a day. (Eaton says NWSL goalkeeper jerseys will be available for purchase later this spring, after the field-player jerseys launch.)

Lifestyle clothing is a way for NWSL to further tap into casual fans. Eaton pointed to last year's partnership with the brand Wear by Erin Andrews, which produced NWSL team jean jackets, as one example. New, bigger licensing deals are expected this year.

The North Carolina Courage's 2024 primary kit features a motif of triangles, a nod to the Raleigh metro area where the Courage play, which is known as The Triangle. NWSL/Nike

Teams have bought into the business opportunity of merchandise. Bay FC designed its entire brand identity -- a baseball-style "B" reminiscent of the "D" logo for MLB's Detroit Tigers -- based on the likelihood that it would become a global fashion statement beyond soccer, like the New York Yankees' "NY" hat. Team owners and new signings alike walk around wearing varsity letterman-style jackets with Bay FC's "B" on them in hopes of sparking a hip fashion trend. The team's kits should eventually follow suit, once they have enough lead time to design them for future seasons.

All these initiatives are about building out the NWSL as a major sports league, which is the overarching objective of every league business decision right now, from a record media rights deal to new facilities. Haddon describes the objective using the term "unmissable entertainment," a phrase which could equally be heard in NFL board rooms.

Kits are the most prominent item in that merchandise effort. Players wear them on the field, fans wear them in the stands and -- if all goes to plan -- locals will wear them on the streets. The NWSL and Nike envision a world where someone is wearing the Wave's jersey at a beachside party, or Orlando's vibrant orange jersey at a downtown club on a Friday night. Tapping into wider local communities will take time, but with kits that finally make statements, the objective looks more achievable.

"It's part of our strategies to build our brand and grow and engage our fans," Haddon said. "So, I would say absolutely, it's important that we're able to not just create the great product for the players on the pitch and the fans at the games, but the fans who are going to be seeing it on four different broadcast networks. If you want to be able to buy it, the findability is going to be important."

Source: espn.co.uk

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