In the eighties, the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers were as well known for their off-court conquests as their on-court dominance. Players had their pick of the groupies swarming the Forum. Only a small percentage of this massive fangirl population ever found their way to Magic Johnson’s house, the setting for scenes of debauchery worthy of Caligula. The ones who did had to pass a three-part test.
“First, they had to be gorgeous,” writes Jeff Pearlman, an expert on all things Los Angeles and all things basketball, in his book Showtime. “Second, they had to be promiscuously dressed. Third, they had to be willing to…do things.”
The culture of professional sports has changed in the intervening years, and the breed of dedicated sports fan known as the “jersey chaser” has changed with it. The modern sexually aggressive superfan is, more often than not, famous in her own right on Instagram, which has become the hunting ground for women and athletes alike. The successful members of this sorority, who get tickets, free flights, and hotel rooms courtesy of point guards and cornerbacks, communicate with would-be conquests publicly—sometimes very publicly—using a visual shorthand that offers plausible deniability while maximizing exposure. The difference between the women who wanted Magic and the women who want Paul George can be boiled down to one thing: control. The right of conquest now rests with the fans.
According to Charles Gardner, who has managed NBA-loving models for years, women can communicate their openness to new experiences with what they show and what they don’t. If an Instagram account features pictures of airline tickets, bikini-bottom portraits, and shots from the front row, as well as an e-mail address up top, but doesn’t show selfies with makeup artists or photographers, players can infer that a girl has been “flown out” before.
“I’m a booking agent for a lot of girls, and what will happen is that players—well, their agents—will get the e-mail off their Instagram account and ask if a girl is available for a party or an event,” Gardner says. If the girl is both available and single, she may soon find herself checking into a luxury suite.
This may strike some as unseemly, but it’s an open invitation to have sex with rich men who work out a lot—not an unappealing notion.
“Have I seriously dated an athlete? No,” says a thirtysomething social worker who lives in Los Angeles. “But,” she adds teasingly, “I’ve gone out on dates and spent time with them.” The social worker says she’s not interested in a long-term romance. Seeing athletes on the side gives her a way to decompress. “Instagram has made it a lot easier,” she says. “There’s a steady stream of guys in my in-box.”
A veteran sports publicist, who requested anonymity for the sake of her career, estimates that 80 percent of NBA players use social media to find women. As she points out, the app makes it easy for athletes to pursue their extracurriculars by simply scrolling through their phone. No more lingering at the club. It’s like Seamless for sex partners.
Social media also gives women a way to protect themselves—a public forum—and a measure of leverage. Ladies who feel wronged by men with sneaker deals can deliver a crushing economic blow with the click of a mouse. Screen-shotted text messages have a tendency to leak when relationships sour. Intimate pictures appear online. “Women do have more power now because they can put these guys on blast,” the sports publicist explains.
Meanwhile, online forums allow jersey chasers to air their dirty laundry without anyone seeing the name on the tag. When one NBA player’s supposed lack of chivalry disappointed an amorous fan, she took to BallerAlert.com to complain. “He treated me as if I courted him like some nightclub hooker!” she wrote. “After a year of talking, and this? Hell, I would’ve charged a tad bit more and got my money in the beginning if I would’ve known he was going to treat me like a prostitute.”
It is taken as gospel that players and their girlfriends pore over sites like Bossip, Talk-Sports, and Baller Wives, which take a forensic approach to players’ social media accounts and serve as confessionals for postcoital relations. Anonymous comments become accepted wisdom in a hurry, meaning the player probably had an awkward chat with his girlfriend. It’s hard to tell fact from fan fiction.
Because players are, for reasons personal and professional, allergic to this type of publicity, it often makes more sense for them to date within an existing pool of loosely affiliated women. Basketball Wives star Draya Michele is famous for having dated enough NBA players to field a team. Players go out with each other’s exes, because made women have demonstrated an ability to be discreet.
That said, those who make the rounds do tend to raise eyebrows. “I can be like, ‘Dang, I just saw your girl with him, and now she’s at a club with him, and she’s at the club with him’—and this is just in a week,” says a Las Vegas–based model who’s currently dating a high-profile athlete. “I see that type of stuff.”
The new crop of jersey chasers has become so central to NBA culture that players school rookies to make sure they don’t overdo it. “We do a really good job of just laying it out there with advice when it comes to women and partying,” says Andre Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors. “You can have fun, but just make sure you know that this is a job and this is a business.”
That said, many of the women have business goals of their own. Some have leveraged their moment in the spotlight to land reality shows and swimwear lines. And courtside seats aren’t easy to come by.
Photos by Jamie Chung