(Photo by Bill Healy)

The Sky Guy, mascot of the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, wears a rainbow boa to mark the WNBA’s LGBT appreciation day in a game against the Tulsa Shock. (Bill Healy/Only A Game)

Beginning the last week in May and continuing for more than a month, the best-selling item across all NBA platforms was a simple white t-shirt decorated with a rainbow colored basketball. The top right corner of the shirt displayed the WNBA logo.

Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, tracked the sales.

“I am a fan of the WNBA, but even I’m surprised when it is able to surpass the NBA, you know we live in a culture where the men are supposed to be king and they’re supposed to always be king,” Zeigler said.

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Fans stand for the t-shirt toss at the WNBA Pride game. (Healy)

Zeigler says in the early years of the WNBA, executives held back room conversations about how to avoid becoming known as a “lesbian league.”

But teams needed to sell tickets, and they weren’t picky about who they sold them to. Back in May of 2001, the Los Angeles Times reported on a first-of-its-kind partnership between the L.A. Sparks and a West Hollywood-area lesbian social club. The newspaper asked, “Was this a bad move for the Sparks? Would this send a signal to mothers to discourage their daughters from attending Sparks games? Or was this courageous and innovative, pinpointing a group with disposable income and an interest in sports?”

Cyd Zeigler attended the next Sparks game to see for himself.

“I looked at the fans and it was a lot of families, and I talked to various fans who said in 2001 – I guess it was – that they didn’t care. The vast majority of fans don’t care that they’re sitting next a lesbian couple, they just want to go to a game.

Partnerships between teams and LGBT organizations are now common. This May, the WNBA announced that it would become the first sports league to celebrate LGBT Pride during a nationally televised game.

At that game two weeks ago between the Chicago Sky and the Tulsa Shock, the Sky Guy, Chicago’s aviation themed mascot, wore a rainbow boa. A couple of players wore rainbow colored shoes. Sky fan Chris Woodard admitted that rainbows aren’t exactly a new sight around the league.

“I have a Mystics t-shirt that’s a rainbow and that must be 10 years old,” Woodard said. “Of course, sometimes a rainbow’s just a rainbow. But it’s very impressive that they took that step, I think. Very impressive.”

That anything at all was different on that Sunday afternoon was lost on some fans. Bryce Jones-Leonard, a veteran of at least ten Sky home games, didn’t even seem to know what it meant when he was told that he was attending the WNBA Pride game.

“Oh yeah, my spirit is up for that,” he said. “Just ready to see this win!”

Pat Griffin, professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts, says many of the WNBA’s Pride events haven’t been as visible as they could have been.

“When you think about how public and how visible campaigns have been for breast cancer, for example, in women’s sports – I mean, everything is pink,” Griffin said.

Griffin is the author of Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport. She says the WNBA’s campaign is a good start, but it should have come a lot sooner.

“You have to look at the WNBA in the context of sexism in sport as well as homophobia in sport because all women’s sports leagues really have to struggle for their share of the media attention,” she said. “It’s been very challenging for them to take on anything that they perceive as potentially controversial, that might affect the bottom line.”

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Molly Holmes (left) and Cara Vandermyde with their three-month old son Hank. (Healy)

Griffin says the league is finally feeling comfortable enough to “cash in” on larger changes in society regarding marriage equality and civil rights. And cashing in is exactly what the league is doing.

After the game, Tulsa Shock power forward Glory Johnson showed reporters her rainbow colored shoes, provided by Nike.

In today’s WNBA it’s sometimes hard to draw the line between marketing ploy and social justice movement. But, at least for Cyd Zeigler, drawing a line misses the point.

“I just don’t care if Barack Obama is pandering to the LGBT community and ends up supporting equality for it or the WNBA wants us to buy tickets and jerseys and so they’re doing the same,” Zeigler said. “I don’t care. As long as kids today and tomorrow grow up in a world where they realize they can be the president of the United States or a professional athlete, I really don’t care what their motives are. They’re doing the right thing.”