WNBA superstar Skylar-Diggins Smith illustrates the value of brand-building in women’s sports as players continue to fight for equal pay and representation.
Who is the face of the WNBA?
It’s impossible to choose one woman to represent the entire brand of American professional basketball over its 26-year history. Perhaps that’s why the WNBA still hasn’t confirmed the frame behind their revised 2019 logo, with fans speculating over whether it’s modeled after Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Kiah Stokes or Elena Delle Donne, among others.
Officially, the WNBA logo’s bun doesn’t belong to a particular person, although the amalgamation seems to most closely resemble Diana Taurasi, according to a WNBA Twitter poll.
The logo debate could go on ad infinitum, but there’s a clearer answer as to which WNBA player is the best at brand-building. In that area, It’s difficult to argue that anyone’s got better game than Skylar Diggins-Smith.
A decade ago, the historic Notre Dame point guard was No. 3 in the infamous “Three To See”, the top three 2013 WNBA Draft picks who all went on to have legendary basketball careers. Diggins-Smith began her career in the elite company of Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne, rounding out what might be the most successful top three picks of any draft in professional sports history.
At the time, Diggins-Smith went to the Tulsa Shock, which later became the Dallas Wings. Diggins-Smith played for the organization until 2020, when she was picked up by the Phoenix Mercury in a sign-and-trade deal that sent over multiple 2020 draft picks and a future first-round pick. It was a high cost to pair Diggins-Smith with Griner and Taurasi on the Mercury, but it was easily worth it. In her second season with the team, the Mercury made it all the way to Game 4 of the WNBA Finals before losing to the Chicago Sky.
When Diggins-Smith joined the league, BodyArmor became one of the first companies to invest in her. The premium sports drink fueled her performance, and in 2014, Diggins-Smith gained an equity stake in the company in addition to becoming an ambassador for the brand. At the time, Diggins-Smith described BodyArmor as an “up-and-coming sports drink” like herself, and in the eight years since, the athlete and sports drink have flourished. Diggins-Smith is one of the four athletes featured in the “Edge vs. Everybody” campaign alongside NFL quarterback Kyler Murray, NBA point guard Ja Morant, and MLB right fielder Mookie Betts. The campaign spot aired during Game 2 of the 2022 NBA Playoffs, a series in which Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies are currently leading 2-1.
Skylar Diggins-Smith has transformed her currency on the court into an athlete brand that represents luxe brands like BodyArmor and Puma, lending her face and voice to companies she admires.
“I tried [BodyArmor], I liked it,” Diggins-Smith explained to FanSided. “I started doing these summer camps while I was traveling around the country, and we were kind of going into different markets, and at the time, it wasn’t present in a few of those markets, but I was able to take the product and the team will come out. They’ve always supported me in my career, ever since we started our partnership. People were asking me, ‘What is this? Where can I get this? This is great. We love this product.’”
“[I’m] just seeing the product come full circle — the brand come full circle, rather — dropping all these new products. And now coming around to BodyArmor EDGE, which is essentially BodyArmor but has also some added electrolytes and antioxidants and just a little natural caffeine to kind of give you that extra little ‘edge’, if you will, to get through your day,” she continued. “And somebody like me, always moving around, always traveling, I’ve just got to make sure that I’m energized. I’m a mom, and so it really is a game-changer in the industry, and it’s great now to still be connected with the brand years later and see the creativity with the spot. I think everybody’s really going to love this spot, you know, featuring myself but also Ja Morant, Mookie Betts, Kyler Murray. All those guys were just stars in their own avenue, and when you think about those guys, I mean their stories, they’re always pushing themselves; real passionate players. And I think it’s a real dope concept kind of taking you through this virtual world where we literally have to face all these challenges and obstacles and people kind of get to see our path of being resilient and kind of sticking through. And it really does have a dual meaning of how we are as athletes and with the brand, so I think it’s dope symbolism there and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
In early April, Sports Illustrated’s Madelyne Woods spoke with Diggins-Smith on investing in “the business of herself.” Woods details the trajectory of the basketball star’s career arc and entrepreneurial arc, significantly shaped by the fact that Diggins-Smith “became the first women’s basketball player to land a partnership with multinational athletic wear company Puma.” That is a credit to her team at Roc Nation, the multi-faceted entertainment agency that represents artists like J. Cole and Rihanna as well as athletes like Jaire Alexander, Isaiah Stewart, and Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Diggins-Smith told Woods that this was an ideal fit for her expansive goals as a businesswoman as she sought to connect sports, art and culture. “Basketball is the mecca where pop culture and entertainment intersect. Music, fashion, drama, story lines, all that comes together through sports,” Diggins-Smith said. Diggins-Smith effused more praise for her team at Roc Nation, describing her experience as “blessed.”
“Yeah, I mean, it all really kind of happened organically,” Diggins-Smith said. “I have to thank my team at Roc Nation. I have such an awesome team that I work with, and Jana Fleishman. Everybody over there really just helped me position myself in lanes and things that I’m passionate about and also exploring new avenues, and really trying out things that, as I evolve and as I grow, just trying new avenues and things to see that will stick for me. So it’s been great; it’s been great. I feel blessed.”
Rostering at Roc Nation and representing brands like Puma and BodyArmor allows Diggins-Smith to do something most WNBA athletes are unable to do: maximize their offseason in the United States with the ability to remain stateside year-round.
“Being able to be here in the United States year-round is a blessing, and being able to kind of capitalize and really kind of have that duality of being in the WNBA in the spring and summer and then being able to focus a lot of my time as a businesswoman in the offseason and really just being able to work with different brands,” she said.
Skylar Diggins-Smith has been an anomaly in that regard, as many of the WNBA’s biggest stars have frequently gone overseas to play basketball in the offseason. While the United State may offer the biggest stage for women’s basketball, it doesn’t offer the biggest contracts — salaries range from a “rookie minimum of $60,471 to a supermax of $228,094,” according to Sports Illustrated. This is why many athletes have played overseas in the offseason, most notably in Russia, which has historically offered the most lucrative contracts. The state of Russia’s relationship with the WNBA is now fraught as the country continuously detains Brittney Griner, the Phoenix Suns phenom who is a teammate and close friend of Diggins-Smith. In a detailed report, SI’s Howard Megdal illustrated how Griner’s detainment is shaping the future of the WNBA: perhaps clubs will finally begin to play their players to keep them in the United States year-round like Diggins-Smith.
As one of the top players in the league, Diggins-Smith is slated to earn $227,900 in 2022, but Woods reported that Diggins-Smith brought in “close to $2 million this year from her WNBA salary, award money and endorsements.”
As a rookie on a club option, Ja Morant earned $12,119,440 this season alone — and considering what he’s done for the Memphis Grizzlies this year, that seems underpaid in comparison to what superstars typically earn in the NBA. Diggins-Smith led her team through the NBA Finals last year, yet the decorated nine-year WNBA veteran earned 1.8 percent of what Morant earned in 2021-22.
Diggins-Smith has become the face of many brands, which amplifies her voice as she comments on inequity in women’s basketball. She appreciates how every investment in her is an investment in women’s sports; an active step in the right direction. When the spotlight is on her, Diggins-Smith uses those moments to shine a light on underrepresented voices. As a mother, her motivation is one of love and hope: she wants to tackle problems today so her kids don’t have to face them later in life.
“It’s been awesome to be a part of — it’s great to see more and more brands continue to invest in women’s sports, and the messaging there of equality, especially when it comes to parity in sports and just the world period and really fighting for coverage,” Diggins-Smith said. “[I] kind of indirectly stepped into wearing some of these pants… [It’s] under a microscope in the W, if you will, but it’s something that I welcome. I love having this platform and not just curating spaces where I can speak, but also where people who feel like they don’t have a voice have spaces to speak for themselves. And so it’s the organic kind of [way that I] stepped into this kind of role and tried to embrace trying to make a difference, even if it’s just for problems that my kids don’t have to face.”
But being tasked to find an answer to it all is difficult, because the answer as to how to make women’s sports a just landscape for female athletes is a complex one. The $75 million WNBA capital raise underscored that women’s basketball is worth the investment, an important step when it comes to developing any sports franchise. But for a franchise to truly flourish, a culture of fandom must be built — and that often means television deals. The WNBA is going to see 25 games nationally broadcast in the 2022 season. The Los Angeles Lakers had 42 national broadcasts in 2021-22 alone. Diggins-Smith highlights that the athletes need investment in every regard, including brand sponsorship and media coverage.
“Honestly, you know what? If I knew the answer to some of these questions, I’d probably be the president,” Diggins-Smith said.
“I don’t know. So when you ask us these things, it’s something I think about often because I’m passionate about the league and growing the league and obviously, you mentioned the new capital raise of $75 million. Just like I said, not to be redundant, but continuing off a brand showing, putting with their money where their mouth is, if you will, when it comes to investing in women’s sports. I say this all the time, like, we’re not where we want to be. We’re not we’re not where we used to be. I think we can acknowledge strides that we’ve made and while also continuing to push and challenge that glass ceiling and breaking through in our industry. But even what I’ve seen with the NCAA women’s tournament, the women’s Final Four, the coverage there and then the numbers, these NIL deals, and you see the value that women’s athletes bring to the table, and these brands are recognizing it. I think, like you said, we’re on the brink of turning the corner and this wave, and hopefully we can continue to sustain it and push through that as well.”
Although the endorsements, investment and potential contract expansions are slow to build, the admiration and respect from fellow ballers in Phoenix is already there. Devin Booker and Chris Paul sat sideline as the Mercury battled the Chicago Sky last October as avid Mercury fans. The synergy between the Suns and Mercury isn’t something all NBA/WNBA teams experience: not every city has both. When Diggins-Smith was drafted to the Tulsa Shock, she said her team “didn’t even have a weight room.”
“We do have a lot of guys that lean in, if you will, and I only can speak about my experience with the Suns,” Diggins-Smith said. “It’s only 12 WNBA cities, and not all of them have partnerships with their NBA counterparts or even have counterparts in those cities. So it’s been great to be a part of the Suns organization and see them leaning in as far as we had new facilities built for us, new practice facilities built for us, and it’s no different. We come in, we can work out whenever we want to, we have everything that we need, but it’s really great to see the support from the Suns for this franchise. That’s the experience that I can speak of since I’ve been here in Phoenix, and also doing some work with the Suns on the other side, with the broadcast team, being an in-game analyst and other things. My experience with the Suns personally, even with the players, the crossover with the players — Devin Booker, Chris Paul, DeAndre Ayton, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson — all of those guys front row at all of our playoff games last year in the Finals, and now they do a good job supporting the brand, bringing the kids, so I can really speak from that experience with those guys.”
“I mean, from an executive level. I’m sure there’s other things that could be done,” Diggins-Smith continues. “But I don’t know if I have those answers. But I really do appreciate being a part of the Mercury/Suns organization and just being with people that get it and who, like I keep saying, are investing in women and in what we’re trying to do.”
Although Diggins-Smith is a relative newcomer to the Phoenix Mercury, her teammate Brittney Griner has been with the organization since they drafted her in 2013. That 2013 WNBA Draft marked an iconic moment when a nebula of future WNBA stars occupied the first three picks. Griner was No. 1, Elena Della Donne was No. 2, and Diggins-Smith was No. 3. The “Three To See”, as the prospects were called at the time, went on to have some of the most illustrious careers in the league’s history — and that’s only nine seasons in. Diggins-Smith has known Griner since the center played for Baylor, when Griner was making school history in Waco and Diggins-Smith was making school history at Notre Dame. Though the pair haven’t shared an WNBA Championship together (yet), Griner and Diggins-Smith brought home Olympic gold in 2021.
“Yeah, it’s amazing,” Diggins-Smith said as she reflected on the careers of Griner and Della Donne. “Those are living legends, as I said, and future Hall of Famers, Olympians, and just two iconic people in sports period. Especially when it comes to women’s basketball, two of the best to ever pick it up, and who would have known?”
“I’ve known them since we were in our teenage years, just hearing about them,” Diggins-Smith continued. “Elena being in Delaware, and BGB in Texas. They were amazing from the time they picked up a basketball, and so to now see it come full circle where I’ve had the opportunity to cross paths with these women so much… I’m a huge supporter of both of them.”
“I have a relationship obviously, BG and I, and our history there, and so it’s just been dope to see it kind of come full circle,” said Diggins-Smith. “And to see everybody kind of thriving still in their own avenues, in their own lanes, and really in their own paths. And that’s something that, watching the draft, you kind of see when you look back on it, everybody has a different path to how they get to where they are. Even all of us who started from similar places, we were able to navigate through a lot of adversity and still are navigating through it.”
The Three To See have come far since 2013, with Skylar Diggins-Smith the face of elite brands and the voice of women’s basketball, Griner the incredible champion that Americans long to bring home, and Della Donne a two-time WNAB MVP and 2019 WNBA Champion. As much adversity each has faced on their path to stardom, each woman has changed the game in the past decade, with Diggins-Smith forging a unique path as one of its most dynamic, multifaceted faces.