For Sale by Owner
How much should female athletes reveal in the name of self-promotion?
This column appears in the October 19 Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Weeks before this magazine hit mailboxes, the media wrote about the photographs contained in its pages. Since reporters hadn't seen so much as a stray Polaroid, the stories ranged from the speculative (Will she? Won't she? We think she did!) to the judgmental (How could she?). The common thread: They were writing about the women.
When Ron Sirak, executive editor at Golf World, heard that three members of the LPGA Tour had posed for the Body Issue, sans appropriate golf attire, he wrote a piece asking whether this was the kind of attention the Tour wanted.
Sirak worried that, by posing nude, Sandra Gal, Anna Grzebien and Christina Kim would put the spotlight on their sexuality instead of their sport. This is women's golf, remember, the conservative stepsister to the PGA, the same folks who once refused to sell Natalie Gulbis' swimsuit calendar in their merchandise tents, demand be damned. How would the suits react to three of their athletes laying it bare? "We support them," said LPGA chief communications officer David Higdon, indicating that the Tour was inching toward accepting a long-held truth in marketing: Beauty sells.
"Although many women's league execs seem loathe to admit it, the biggest audience for their sports is men."
Sirak predicted that Gal, Grzebien and Kim will face some heat for their photo. He was right. Like Gulbis and model-turned-LPGA-member Anna Rawson, the trio will be the talk of message boards and chat rooms. The media will ask them if they believe they can be both role models and sex symbols. Because none of these women have won a major tournament, they will be chastised for promoting their looks without earning the right to do so. These questions will follow them, the way they will follow the other women in this issue who've chosen to bare all in an effort to promote a healthy, athletic body ideal. Not that they were deterred. "Other magazines show anorexic women and celebrities like Paris Hilton," Gal says. "This is about showing off our athleticism and how fit we have to be to play at this level."
No matter the reason, a female athlete's willingness to flaunt her beauty is a marketer's dream. After all, sports -- including women's sports -- are an industry run by and geared toward men. "The vast majority of the audience for sports is male," says Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports who now works as a television consultant to the LPGA (whose audience is estimated to be 57% male), WTA (60%) and WNBA (66%). Execs figured out long ago that the sell for women's sports (great athletes who are great-looking) is different from that for their male counterparts (great athletes in great games). While pundits talk about what is fair and right, arguing that women deserve more airtime and advertisers are too shallow, their words fall on deaf ears. In the real world, ratings and ticket sales -- demand for the product -- drive all.
The marketing of sports is no different from the marketing of movies, music, underarm deodorant or Under Armour. But the women's leagues that struggle, such as the LPGA, which is down to 27 events this year from 34 in 2008, and the predominantly female-run WNBA, cling to the idea that, because women have fought long and hard to even the playing field, they've moved past the need to use sex appeal to sell their game. "Since the inception of our league, we've presented talent first," says WNBA president Donna Orender. "Our players have incredible appeal based on their athleticism, passion and personalities." And yet the league's regular-season ratings have remained largely flat in recent years, hovering around a .2, in part because the WNBA is repeating the mistake that women's pro soccer made earlier this decade: The folks in charge look around the bleachers and market a wholesome image to the few thousand fans they see (women, children, families) instead of a more provocative and potentially compelling message to the many thousands they don't (men). "The women and kids in the stands are not watching on TV," Pilson says. "There's the potential to reach many more men watching from home."
And what's the quickest way to get a man's attention? Some leagues, namely the AVP and WTA, have embraced the idea of selling skin. "Part of what makes pro beach volleyball special is the beautiful nature of the sport," says Jason Hodell, CEO of the AVP. "We have the beach, the sun and amazing athletes who are fit and tan. Our current ad campaign takes advantage of that." The ads, most of which feature close-ups of male and female players' butts, abs and shoulders, are meant to draw fans to the beach and to their TVs. Once their attention is grabbed, the theory goes, the action will keep them there. The most widely talked about ad features a close-up of a female backside covered by a bikini bottom the size of a Post-it note. (We'd expect nothing less from the first sport to establish maximum uniform sizes.) The owner of that rear-end? A model. The AVP doesn't hide this. Nor does it run from the fact that the woman responsible for the campaign, Kristine Lefebvre, VP of business development and legal affairs for the AVP, posed naked for the June 2007 issue of Playboy.
Marketing, after all, has its own rules. And the athletes and leagues that understand how to combine achievement with savvy PR reap the rewards. In recent years, some of the biggest success stories have come from women's tennis, where Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are as prosperous off the court as they are gifted on it. They both know that with rapt audiences eyeballing them in outfits that leave little to the imagination, players don't need to try hard to sell their beauty. So they use the stage to craft their own images. Serena, as she does in this issue, promotes her body as an instrument of empowerment, sending an appealing message to big brands like Nike, Gatorade and, most recently, Tampax. Sharapova sells polish and refinement, making her a magnet for high-end sponsors like Cole Haan, TAG Heuer and Tiffany & Co. (As such, she repeatedly turns down offers from Playboy. "We don't want to associate her brand with sex," says her agent, Max Eisenbud.) It's hard to argue with either approach: Each woman earns more per year in endorsements -- an estimated $22 million for Sharapova and $14 million for Williams -- than Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Kobe Bryant.
But raking it in can come at a price. In 1999, Anna Kournikova, then 18, won her first Grand Slam doubles title at the Australian Open, and went on to finish the year as the No. 1-ranked doubles player in the world. In 2000, she climbed as high as No. 8 in singles and, never one to be shy about her body, parlayed her success on the court into revealing magazine covers and lucrative endorsement contracts. By the time she retired from the WTA in 2003, she had slipped to No. 305 in the world but was bringing in an estimated $10 million annually off the court. Since then, she has served as a spokeswoman for K-Swiss, Omega and Adidas while working tirelessly to raise money for children's charities like the Boys & Girls Club and St. Jude. But you probably didn't know about her philanthropy because, despite being a former Top 10 player, Kournikova can't shake her reputation as the girl who cashed in on her looks. She was never the best singles player in the world, but she was certainly the single most famous. And that rubbed people -- primarily other female athletes -- the wrong way.
"Women take more criticism than guys, but it doesn't come from men," says Will Demps, a former NFL safety who's also a model. "I got heat from teammates for modeling, but it was always joking around. When women do it, it's 'She's too sexy. She went too far.' " That's because when a male athlete shows his body, it's seen as masculine; male fans barely notice, even when faced with Tom Brady's suggestive Stetson ads or David Beckham in his underwear. But when a woman shows off her body, it's seen as sexual. And women who want to believe female athletes can pay the bills with wins alone have no choice but to sound off.
"It's a very contradictory time," says Linda Blum, a sociology professor at Northeastern University. "On one hand, women having opportunities to market their bodies represents their achieving a new role as respected athletes who are in control. But those opportunities can also be seen by some to reinforce old-fashioned, negative ideas of women as sex objects."
In the end, it can simply come down to a competitor's mindset. "Most athletes think, 'If I do this and this, I will win -- and if I win this much, I should have earned this much money and fame,' " says Tom George, a senior vice president at Octagon, the athlete management and marketing firm. "But marketing is not a linear projection." If it were, Martina Navratilova, who won 59 Grand Slam titles, wouldn't have had to settle for racket and sock sponsorships while Kournikova still makes millions in endorsements. Annika Sorenstam would've been a big name long before becoming the winningest female golfer in history. And beach volleyball's Holly McPeak, who retired in May with 72 tournament titles, an Olympic medal and five league MVP awards, would be the biggest name in her sport. Instead, there's a good chance you read that last sentence and thought, "Holly McWho?"
"I was the best in the world, but never the most famous in my sport," McPeak says. "It kicked sand in my face. The beautiful model got the attention. To this day, people think Gabby Reece is the best who ever played. She was bigger than volleyball, and I don't blame her for it. But if you are the best in your sport, and the hot girl with average talent gets all the attention, that is frustrating."
It's part of the game, though, and the game has gotten tougher. A struggling economy means fewer ad dollars, and fewer ad dollars means companies are more discerning about who they select to pitch their products. That puts a premium on pretty in a sports world that sees genetic beauty as an unfair advantage, the equivalent of donning an LZR Racer or taking steroids. We laud the good fortune of Michael Phelps' flipper feet and Lance Armstrong's VO2 max, but bemoan Kournikova's good looks. "There's resentment toward those who gain without sacrifice," says Reece's husband, Laird Hamilton, the surfer and American Express pitchman (featured on page 106). "If you're great at a sport, people think you earned it. But when you're genetically gifted to be smarter or better-looking, people feel you haven't paid your dues." And that goes against the nature of sports.
Or does it? Sports, like life, aren't fair. Anyone who's been benched for the coach's son knows that. But it's a lesson that applies here, because the marketing of sports isn't fair either. And the athletes who accept that fact and figure out how to use it to their advantage are the names and faces people remember. "To be marketable is to be memorable," says Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard, who has no qualms about showing off the killer body that helped her win seven Olympic medals. "Some people will remember me for my swimming, and some will remember me for my Playboy shoots. But either way, they will remember me."
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.