When Phoenix Mercury rookie center Brittney Griner decided to come out as lesbian this April, all she expected was to be true to herself, and maybe to be an inspiration for other young lesbians in the world of sports.
What she didn’t expect was to see sales of her basketball jerseys skyrocket. According to WNBA retail figures, Griner is topping the league in jersey sales, and is credited with doubling TV household ratings for ESPN2, plus attendance and other merchandise sales.
"A lot of people are tuning in and watching our games and coming to our games," Griner told the Associated Press. "When I go into a sports bar some of the people I wouldn’t think would watch women’s basketball are there watching. There’s definitely more awareness."
Griner, who wears number 42 in honor of Major League Baseball’s first black player, Jackie Robinson, has led the WNBA in jersey sales since the start of the 2013 season, She now tops three other rookies who together, outsold the Minnesota Lynx’s Maya Moore, who had led jersey sales for two seasons.
As the number 1 pick in the WNBA draft in April, Griner is part of the "3 to See" -- rookies Skylar Diggins of the Tulsa Shock and Elena Delle Donne of the Chicago Sky -- who claimed the top three spots. Out Minnesota Lynx player Seimone Augustus is also on the list, at No. 7. Griner joined Augustus as starters for the Western Conference WNBA All-Star game on July 27.
"For years we’ve heard that athletes risk their livelihood by coming out publicly," said Outsports publisher Cyd Zeigler, who broke the story last week. "But the fact that the sales of Brittney Griner and Jason Collins jerseys are skyrocketing shows that one, people will still buy your jerseys even when you are an out LGBT athlete, and two, that they might be even more likely to buy your jerseys, because it’s a new way to support these athletes. For years we have though of sexual orientation as something divisive, but it has become something that unites people."
The Associated Press interviewed Griner, Delle Donne and Diggins, and the topic of bullying was part of the discussion. Griner said she was "picked on for being different" while also acknowledging that she is a lesbian.
"Just being bigger, my sexuality, everything," she told the AP. "I overcame it and got over it. It’s definitely something that I am very passionate about. I want to work with kids and bring recognition to the problem, especially with the LGBT community."
Zeigler said he was unsure as to whether the surge in jersey sales was due to Griner coming out, her superior playing skills, or a combination of the two.
"Brittney is not just an out lesbian, she’s instantly an all-star, she’s going to be starting in the all-star game, she’s the most visible player over the last two years in women’s basketball -- there are just so many factors that figure into her jersey sales," said Zeigler.
He noted that the recent support of out athletes like Griner and Collins were not random occurrences, but the result of years of work to raise awareness about LGBTs in the world of pro sports.
"I think that this indicates the continuing shift in the world of professional sports that we have seen over the last 10 years," said Zeigler. "I think we are just now seeing how much it’s changed."
As for Griner, she was just pleased to see that she was a hit with the fans.
"That’s humbling," Griner said. "Just to know I have so many fans out there buying my jersey means a lot. It means I’m doing something right."
According to league retail figures, the top 10 WNBA jerseys sales so far this season are:
1. Brittney Griner - Phoenix Mercury
2. Skylar Diggins - Tulsa Shock
3. Elena Delle Donne - Chicago Sky
4. Maya Moore - Minnesota Lynx
5. Candace Parker - Los Angeles Sparks
6. Diana Taurasi - Phoenix Mercury
7. Seimone Augustus - Minnesota Lynx
8. Tamika Catchings - Indiana Fever
9. Nneka Ogwumlke - Los Angeles Spark
10. Becky Hammon - San Antonio Silver Stars
From our media partner EDGEWinnie McCroy