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Tuesday, January 20, 2004
Updated: January 23, 12:16 PM ET
 



WAS THE FIFA PRESIDENT WRONG TO SUGGEST WOMEN SOCCER PLAYERS WEAR TIGHTER SHORTS?


FIFA president Sepp Blatter caused a minor uproar last week when he said women soccer players should start wearing "tighter shorts" to generate more interest in their sport.

There is nothing the WB likes better than a good debate ... especially one that involves a little sex.

Dear Sepp ... just shut up | From Melanie Jackson

I can't lie. I like the way Eddie George looks in his football pants. And damn it if those stripes don't hang just right on Derek Jeter.

But really, I could care less what they're wearing. That's not why I tune in, and I certainly wouldn't be more inclined to watch a sporting event just because George or Jeter were showing off a little more flesh.

Mia Hamm
Mia was shocked when she learned of Sepp's comments.

And yet, FIFA president Sepp Blabber, er, Blatter, proposed last week that women's soccer players wear "tighter shorts," because "more feminine uniforms" might help attract fashion and cosmetic companies as sponsors and probably get a few extra butts in the seats.

Say again?

The notion that skimpier uniforms would attract more sponsors or fans to games is ridiculous. If that's the case, women's college volleyball (a sport where the unis hug every curve tighter than Dale Earnhardt Jr. hugging a turn at Daytona) and swimming (a sport where the athletes practically are naked) would be packing gyms and pool houses across the country. Sure, nearly all the guys at the ESPN.com office in Bristol know who Logan Tom is, but that doesn't mean they ever turned on Fox Sports to watch one of her Stanford volleyball games.

If skimpier shorts had anything to do with a sport's popularity, then why is women's college basketball --based on attendance figures and revenue nationwide -- by far the most popular women's sport in the country? You can't tell me it's because of all those exposed, sweaty biceps. I don't care if it's Diana Taurasi or Vince Carter, with the exception of Karl Malone, most basketball players' shorts are still three sizes too big.

And judging from the TV ratings, no one was tuning in to see if Brandi Chastain would bare it all again in last year's Women's World Cup.

Blatter, however, got one thing right in his press conference last week. "Pretty women," he said, "are playing football today."

And tennis and golf and every other sport. Yes, Serena and Venus Williams show a lot more skin today than Martina Navratilova or Steffi Graf ever did. But like Mia Hamm -- whose good looks surely had something to do with her Gatorade and Pert Plus commercials and going one-on-one with Michael Jordan -- their athletic ability was the first thing people noticed before any of them scored endorsement deals.

In the future, attractive 14-year-old Michelle Wie probably will draw a Kournikova-like fan base. But for now, you tuned into the Sony Open because you wanted to see how she was playing -- not to see what she was wearing. In fact, the only time I've ever tuned in to watch a sport because of what the player was/wasn't wearing was to catch a glimpse at Jordan's latest shoes, Tiger's Sunday best or Rodman's newest dye job. But unless that Nike swoosh is ALL Hamm's going to wear in her next national team game, looks still ain't everything.

The rebuttal from Julie Foudy -- anybody else think she could wind up in the White House someday? -- was right on. Blatter and FIFA, she said, should be focusing on pushing federations around the world to offer more financial support and competitions to their women's programs.

Of course, even Foudy has flaws in her thinking.

"We'll start wearing tighter shorts when (Blatter) starts doing press conferences in his bathing suit," she said.

And that, my friends, would be reason enough to stop watching.

You look? So do we | From Ralph Wiley

Serena Williams
R-Dub: Is this your favorite?

So, Mel, you mean to say in certain aspects of competition, Eddie George punks out Ray Lewis? You mean a man's curvy butt or washboard abs can make a woman go "Hmm" like she's glomming a tight pair of Manolo Blahniks? Well, in the interests of being an asexual amoeba, Brandi Chastain de-topping is just a celebration of athletic achievement. Little else. Serena Williams doing same would be a bit more inspiring. It's a male heterosexual hominid thing -- you wouldn't understand.

Take "A League Of Their Own." Baseball babes were encouraged to play in skirts, to lure in the suckers. Desperation move? Sure, but, unless I'm mistaken, aren't these desperate times for women's soccer? One's first thought is simply this: "Madonna -- Da. Rosie -- Nyet."

Gotta have a plan | From Dan Shanoff

R-Dub is on to something: Among the many flaws in the business model of U.S. women's pro soccer, the refusal to even acknowledge that "sex sells" is one of the reasons -- certainly not the only one -- that men as a consumer group didn't support the league, contributing to the league's failure. Fair? Hardly. Real world? Definitely.

Mel, you make solid points, but you too easily dismiss/ignore "The Kournikova Factor"; everyone readily agrees she's a terrible player, yet she's arguably the most popular female athlete in the world, *precisely* because of her sex appeal. Women's tennis hasn't exactly shied away from playing off its players' looks.

Look at the LPGA, making a concerted -- if controversial -- effort to up its "hottie" quotient, understanding Shanoff's Mother of All Male Marketing Equations: "Hotties (H) X Eyeballs (I) = Money ($)," also known as "HI$."

Today's math | From David Schoenfield

Dan -- did you learn that equation at Harvard Business School?

Let me propose a few others:

Serena + boobs falling out of her shirt = bigger ratings (especially in the Wiley household and that of an editor I once worked with who suggested that was the only reason to pay attention to a certain tennis match).

Britney Spears
See, Britney is already familiar with "football."

Britney Spears + playing soccer naked = return of the WUSA.

Michelle Wie + breaking up Tiger's engagement = highest ratings ever for the Masters.

Anna Kournikova + mud wrestling = Super Bowl counterprogramming special, 2007.

Of course sex sells, whether it is shampoo commercials, beer ads, MTV, "men's magazines" or sports.

But that doesn't make it acceptable for the head of FIFA to make his "suggestion." Heck, maybe old Sepp should make a trip to the home state of ESPN -- a state that has an amazingly rabid, out-of-control fixation on the UConn women's hoops team.

A team, by the way, which does not wear tight-fitting shorts.

Re: Today's math | From Eric Neel

Right, the suggestion is "unacceptable," but there seems little doubt it's also pretty effective. It has people thinking and talking about women's soccer again. Some folks are rightly defending the sport on its merits, others are inevitably getting caught up in, er, visualization exercises, but ain't nobody ignoring it outright right now.

Sex sells, but sex doesn't always sell | From Patrick Hruby

Sex sells. But not uniformly. Otherwise, all of us would be reading Penthouse for the articles, sipping Miller Lite (limited edition Catfight longnecks) and eagerly awaiting next week's episode of NBC's "Coupling."

With that in mind, let's forget about appropriateness -- whatever your opinion, the Fox network will eventually cross that Rubicon, so who really cares? -- and focus on the bottom line. Specifically, would tighter shorts, skimpier tops or even playing in thongs and pasties actually create sustainable interest in women's soccer? Or any other sport, for that matter?

Heather Mitts
Would Heather Mitts be a more viable billboard with tighter shorts?

Short answer: It depends. Long answer: It really depends. (Snide answer: It hasn't done much to sustain interest in Lil' Kim.) First of all, sex appeal is fluid. No pun intended. Some fans, undoubtedly, would delight in the sight of a topless Heather Mitts. Others -- and you know who you are -- would prefer to see her shoeless. And a sizable group would rather check out her boyfriend, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback A.J. Feeley.

So who's to say that scantily clad female soccer players would generate enough revenue to pay the stadium electric bill, particularly in an already overcrowded sexual marketplace?

Besides, a sports league that peddles sex appeal risks self-marginalization -- getting stuck in a no-man's (or woman's) land where both its athletic and sexual wares are woefully watered-down. Short of staging on-field threesomes, women's soccer will never measure up to, say, a Vivid DVD. Likewise, the lovely Anna Kournikova is no match for tennis players who can consistently avoid placing their second serves into their own service box. Try to be all things to all people, and you end up getting trounced by more focused competitors.

Truth be told, sports leagues can't force sex appeal, any more than the rest of us can. The best they can hope for is serendipity, eye-catching athletes who also happen to be eye-catching. And since the eyes in question belong to a varied bunch of beholders, even that only goes so far. I mean, I never picked up the Katarina Witt issue of Playboy. Why on Earth would I watch her figure skate?

Melanie ... you're wrong | From Robert Lipsyte

You lost me at hello, Melanie. You like to look at Eddie's butt and the drape off Derek's Jeter but you think there's something smarmy about Blatter tightening the soccer unis? Sports is sex. No question that women athletes should be afforded the same respect and opportunity as men, but sports is as much about fantasy as it is about hardcore performance.

Male athletes are sold as hetero-studs, all those pumped, scowling, 'tude and tat pictures set the crapulent buffalo wings on the couch aquiver. Same deal with women, who apparently, even in these L-Word times, have to be presented as -- at least theoretically -- available. Dan's right, the LPGA helped itself both with men sponsors and women fans by hiring "the Image Lady" to pretty up the players. The WNBA ran a lot of promos with players in lipstick or with babies and boyfriends for the same reason.

I'm not sure about tight pants, but Blatter's attempt to get the Allure crowd aboard makes sense to me. Ultimately, it will be women, gay, straight, teens and groups of moms on a night out, who can make a league work if the sport makes a real effort to woo them instead of trying for the dateless jerks who have one hand on the remote.

Lip ... you're wrong | From Alan Grant

Lip,

I think you missed the point on Melanie's opening comment. While it's OK to notice how someone's butt looks in their uniform, it's altogether different to base one's athletic value solely on the shape of that butt. Sepp Blatter's proposal accomplished one thing -- it devalued the game and those who play it.

Jeremy Shockey
Face it: for many guys, Jeremy Shockey is a picture of masculinity.
But I agree with you on your last point. It is pointless to sell women's soccer to the "average" male sports fan. Let's face it, the average male sports fan, the one with one hand on the remote, doesn't care for women's basketball, women's golf, or any other sport played by chicks. He digs sports like football because of the requisite, like you say, "fantasy" which accompanies the game. He wants to believe all those guys are one step removed from savage beasts and they're doing things he could never do. And that's fine with him because those men aren't really men, you see. Male athletes are a rare strain of athletic creature whose physical prowess (at least to him and his buddies) is the very definition of masculinity.

But on the subject of women's sports, I think the fantasy is altogether different. That same average male sports fan doesn't want to turn on his TV to see some chick perform a vicious crossover dribble, go to the hoop, score, and give another chick a pound. This is something he could never do himself and I think it makes him very, very uncomfortable.

But if those same women are close to naked, he feels better about himself. He may not become a fan of women's sports, but if he sees physically desirable women running around with little clothing, he's less threatened by their athletic skills because bare female flesh helps to maintain that "vulnerable" quality which (for him and his buddies) is the very definition of femininity.

Sex? Or advertising? | From Chuck Hirshberg

Melanie, I won't lie either: athletes, male or female, just don't shake my love bone very much. I've met too many of 'em. It always astonishes me to learn that they have litters of children all over the country, because their personalities ought to be the most effective form of birth control imaginable. It's obvious to me, for instance, that 15 minutes of tortuous pillow-talk with Anna K. would be way too high a price to pay for a night of sexual ecstasy.

So I couldn't care less how female athletes dress. And I'm sure you're right: Blatter sounds like a real nincompoop.

And yet, I wonder if this whole sad controversy isn't less about Blatter's nincompoopery, and less about sex, than it is about the corrupting influence of advertising. Seriously, I doubt Blatter really believes any male goon will skip an episode of "The Man Show" to see women play soccer, no matter how they dress. My guess is, Sepp is thinking something like this: "What was it that changed the NBA from a marginally profitable amusement into a multinational financial juggernaut? The shoe industry! Billions of dollars in shoe advertisements. So maybe some industry could do the same for soccer. Let's see now, shoes are taken; what else could we sell? Headbands? Kneepads? Goalie gloves? I know: Lip gloss! Sportswear! Girlie stuff!"

Nincompoopery? Yes. But that's the sort of thing that inevitably happens when sports go corporate. Here's a typical case: I once had a long interview with Orel Hershiser, about the Meaning of Life. Orel went on and on about this close friend of his named Jesus Christ. Boy, did Orel love Christ. I believed then that he was sincere, and I believe it now. Nonetheless, when Orel won the World Series almost single-handed, what were the first words out of his mouth? "All glory to Jesus Christ, who died for our sins." Right?

Nope. The first words out of Orel's mouth were: "I'M GOING TO DISNEY WORLD!"

I wonder how much it would have cost Disney to get him to say it in his underpants.

The more things change ... | From Gerri Hirshey

Larry Miller
Hmm, maybe the short-shorts aren't such a good idea ...

It's been years since I got thrown out of the Rangers' press box at Madison Square Garden by a chivalrous buffoon of a security man who decided "the language you hear in there is not suitable for a lady reporter."

And yet ... and yet ...

Here is Sepp Blatter and his ilk, with that foolproof equation: chicks plus skin equals more paying male rumps in the seats. Or, as James Brown put it so succinctly in his classic, "Hot Pants," she's gotta use what she's got to get what she wants.

If this is indeed sound marketing, the reverse should apply. Put baggy-pantsed NBA players back in the wee satin shorts worn by the Stilts of Yore and pump up the female fan demographic.

Nah.

I remember Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins in those drawers. You don't wanna know from it.

Hey, at least we're talking soccer | From Melanie Jackson

Hmm. All good points, but Neel really hit it on the head: Soccer, regardless of the reason, is making another appearance at the water cooler. That, to me, is a very good thing. Mission accomplished.

This just in ... | From David Schoenfield
Looks like we've been debating the wrong topic, 'Cats. This just crossed the wire (I kid you not):