Tuesday, March 10, 2009 Updated: March 12, 3:46 PM ET
The Selling of Candace Parker
By Allison Glock ESPN The Magazine
Candace Parker is beautiful. Breathtaking, really, with flawless skin, endless legs and a C cup she is proud of but never flaunts. She is also the best at what she does, a record-setter, a rule-breaker, a redefiner. She is a woman who plays like a man, one of the boys, if the boys had C cups and flawless skin. She's nice, too. Sweet, even. Kind to animals and children, she is the sort of woman who worries about others more than about herself, a saint in high-tops.
It is this unprecedented combination of game, generosity and gorgeous that has Team Parker seeing miracles. They believe with all their collective heart that their 22-year-old, 6'4" stunner with the easy smile and perfect, white teeth will soon be the most recognized woman in American sports.
Never mind that she plays in a league that is, shall we say, turnstile-challenged.
Parker, her handlers attest so frequently that it has become a tic, will transcend her sport. She will be a bigger Mia Hamm, a more accomplished Danica Patrick. Patrick is nowhere near the best in her field, but she doesn't need to be, because she is hot enough to pose for Maxim. While that works for her, Parker wants more. She wants to be a champion, too, like Maria Sharapova, who earns upward of $25 million a year -- the most of any female athlete -- of which only a small fraction comes from playing tennis. Parker won't be satisfied until she is a household name. "I wouldn't mind being the female MJ," she concedes. "I want to have major crossover appeal."
Ah, yes, crossover, the marketing money shot, the ability to use God-given talent, in this case basketball, as a platform for international celebrity. To be like Tiger and LeBron and Beyoncé. A one-namer. Parker's goal is to be not just the best but the most well-known, a touchstone on the cultural landscape. "But I can't do it all in one year," she says.
Certainly not this year. In January, Parker revealed that she is pregnant with her first child. It was a shock to her, her sponsors and her WNBA team, the Los Angeles Sparks. She found out right before she was to venture overseas to play pro ball during the American off-season -- a common practice for the best WNBA players. It was rumored that her Russian club, UMMC Ekaterinburg, was going to pay in excess of a million dollars for four months' work -- an uncommon amount for even the best WNBA players. "I was surprised," Parker says of the pregnancy. "But everything happens for a reason. It will be exciting to have my child share my career and to remember what I was like when I was young." She falls quiet for a few long seconds. "I'm not worried about it," she says finally. "I have nieces and nephews. Of course, Shel [husband and Timberwolves big man Shelden Williams] and I joke that we can't send this one home."
Getting pregnant was definitely not part of the Team Parker plan. But Candace has decided it is God's plan. So what if the WNBA was counting on her to reinvigorate, if not rescue, the enterprise? So what if Russia and, more important, a slew of U.S. advertisers were waiting to capitalize on her fresh face and unsullied history? "I was lucky," Parker says. "I didn't start to show until after my commercials were shot."
The making of an icon is never easy. So much depends on public whim. Will they love her? Envy her? Buy a double cheeseburger because of her? It's all X factor and Q rating. Likability. Sex appeal. Parker, says her team, is the total package, an advertiser's dream: attractive yet benign enough to reflect any fantasy projected upon her. Like Jordan before her, Parker is a cipher of sorts, nothing outsize or off-putting. Nothing edgy. Nothing Iverson. Aside from being an athletic freak, she's normal. You could imagine her hanging out at your family barbecue. This matters; if Parker seems like a down-home gal, a possible friend, then it's a short step to trust, and with trust comes a willingness to buy what Team Parker is selling.
Jim Gatto, head of global sports marketing for Adidas -- which is releasing Parker's player-edition shoe, the TS Ace Commander, in 2010 -- sees her as an athlete who inspires women at all levels. "She was in our 'Me, Myself' campaign," he says of the all-us-girls-are-in-this-together promotion. "We thought we could build stories around her. She has global reach." Gatto says Adidas has been tracking Parker her whole career. "She always fit the brand values: authentic, inspirational. And not just from a basketball standpoint."
McDonald's agrees. An ad for the chain (with Dwight Howard) has her fist-bumping and grinning as she holds a bag of golden-arched goodness. A hip male greets her with a simple "Candace," as if she were one of the guys, albeit with flat-ironed hair and pink lipstick. In her Gatorade spot, she shares time with superstars Jimmie Johnson and Serena Williams, even though her own pro career isn't yet a year old.
"Everything is clean about her," says Aaron Goodwin, Parker's agent. Goodwin wants it known that he pursued Candace with the same ferocity he did LeBron, making her the only female athlete who has received such attention from him. It's been reported that the deals he made for Parker with Adidas and Gatorade could fall in the range of $3 million to $5 million annually -- not the $100 million he got for LeBron, but not bad. "It just has not happened before for women," Goodwin says. Especially African-American women, especially women who play team sports. "Women in tennis, golf -- they're easy to sell. Team sports? Forget it." "How is she going to become a household name? It isn't going to be from basketball. She needs to leverage her platform. Like, go on Dancing with the Stars."
And yet Team Parker believes, in part because Candace is already delivering for the Sparks. LA's season ticket sales were its highest since 2005; twice as many were sold after draft day as before. Home attendance was up 10% for the season, and road crowds were three times bigger for the Sparks than for other WNBA teams. The WNBA's TV ratings finished up 19%, and Parker's jersey is by far the league's best seller.
"Talent drives attention," says WNBA commissioner Donna Orender. "Candace is a player both girls and boys want to be around." Then the subject of Parker's pregnancy comes up, and Orender sighs. "It's the miracle of life, and it doesn't always happen on your time schedule. That's how it goes, you know?" She laughs. "Parker will come back -- and we'll have one more fan."
Orender says that while Parker is the anchor of the league, the woman they are all counting on, she has never complained about the pressure. In fact, Parker may have had her first and only crisis of confidence a few years back -- at age 7, to be exact. "She was so upset," recalls mother Sara of her youngest, the only girl among three siblings. "She said, 'Marcus is so smart he's going to be the best in school, and [Raptors guard] Anthony is so athletic he's going to be the best in sports. What am I going to be?' And I said, 'Candace, you're going to be able to do it all.' "
Parker has always been unflappable, an ocean of calm, the by-product of clear intention and unprecedented success. "I remember when we played at DePaul," says legendary Lady Vols head coach Pat Summitt. "Candace was maybe 12, and she came up to me to get a picture. I remember looking up at her and thinking, Wow! When she walked away, I said, 'Who is that?' She was mature beyond her years."
Parker's ambitions are large, but they don't broadcast that way. There is nothing crass or needy about her, nothing vulgar. She comes from a place of quiet confidence -- in herself, in life, in God. Parker knows in the end that everything will be just fine, as it always has been. "I knew my decision," she says, again referencing her pregnancy, the inconvenient timing never far from her mind. Parker admits that she was worried about sharing the news with her sponsors and team, worried about letting them down. "I knew people would have positive and negative reactions to it," she says. "But I've been a people-pleaser my whole life. I needed to get over that." (She's showing signs; Parker squelched all talk of diaper ads early on.)
She insists that her sponsors are uniformly happy. "Adidas told me they were going to sell more baby clothes," she says. But just to be sure, Goodwin went on the offensive, asking what sort of message it would send if Candace were penalized for her biology. "Male athletes don't get dropped when they father kids," he says. True enough, but they also don't lose precious game time and visibility or spark Internet blog wars about the definition of feminism. Goodwin sniffs, says he is thrilled for his client, but then he threatens under his breath to kill Shelden. "You know, because I can't kill her." He laughs a small, hard laugh. "Seriously, though, it's all good."
The important thing, everyone agrees, is to get the basketball player back on the court. "No C-section, that's the biggest thing," Parker says. "I'm stubborn. I've been through knee, ankle, shoulder injuries. I feed off of doubt, people telling me I won't be able to come back. We'll see about that." She says she's training hard, prepping to play as soon as July, two months after her due date. The dedication pleases Team Parker very much.
"Basketball is calming to me. Whenever anything goes on in my life, I go shoot. As long as I can shoot, I'm okay." And the baby? "The baby will be along for the ride, with me on trips, at the court." She sighs. "You don't hear about male players doing that, do you? Women, we just have to balance more things. It's harder for us. That's just the way it is." She offers a weary smile before adding, "For now."
Parker does demand a lot from herself. She insists on making her own way. "I just want to be who I am," she says. And who is that? Parker carefully considers her answer. "I'm very sensitive," she ventures shyly. "Not many people know that. I don't like to show my emotions. I may go behind the door and cry, but I'm not going to cry in front of anybody."
Can't say the same for her coach. "Yeah, I cried a little when I got the news," says Michael Cooper. "We need her on the floor." Cooper knows full well what his team will be missing. "She's like no other woman player," he says. "Her game is truly like Kobe's. She has the moves, the action. She's slinky. Her hands are huge. She palms a men's basketball."
All of that helps Parker stand out on the court. The question is: Will that ever matter elsewhere? "We're trying to get T-Mobile," says Goodwin. "Cover-Girl? That's a natural fit for her. But Candace is in a sport people don't pay much attention to. How do I get them to pay attention? It's a vicious circle."
When you are the first, there is no measure. You are the measure. It is your face in the little box, the representation of a complete concept, the manifestation of an idea. There are no rules to follow, no well-worn path to tread. There is just you, hacking through the brush, forging ahead. And so it is for the modern female athlete. See: Candace Parker.
With Candace on board, Sparks home attendance rose 10%, and their road draw was three times that of other WNBA teams.
Yes, there have been plenty of women before her. Other history-makers and path-forgers. But none like Parker. Because Parker is competing with the boys. Not on the basketball court -- although some might dare to dream -- but in the arena that really counts in American sport: making bank. And so far she has been able to do it by selling her game, not her body. "She's already setting new standards," says fellow player Tina Thompson. "She's opening up doors a female player hasn't been through before. She isn't making LeBron money, but she is drawing those sorts of contracts. And it is only the first year of her pro career."
The hope is, where Parker goes, other women will follow. "She could change the dynamics of women's sports," Thompson theorizes. "If they watch because of her, they'll see the rest of us." The burden of altering the entire course of women's professional athletics, of rewriting the rules of economic allocation, doesn't faze Parker: "In eighth grade, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a big picture of me on the sports page. I realized then there were expectations."
Not everyone, though, is so sanguine. "For Candace, it is going to be very difficult," says Tom George, Octagon's senior VP of athlete and property marketing. George signed Sheryl Swoopes in 1994, before there was a pro league, and he remembers all the questions about whether it was a sound business decision. "The best player always has value," he says. "But what made Sheryl sing for us was she won the gold medal in Atlanta." Then Swoopes got pregnant, and George ran with the news. He put her on magazine covers in a jersey with her belly showing. He made sure that every time someone was looking for a famous mother for a campaign, she was on the short list. Even so, success was limited. "For Swoopes and for Candace, there is not a very large market out there," he says. "There is no automatic name recognition." Octagon no longer reps WNBA players, nor do they recruit them. "I'd take Candace," George concedes reluctantly. "But only because she was an Olympian. And she's pretty, which helps."
Neal Pilson, a former head of CBS Sports, also sees trouble ahead for Team Parker. "Marketing female athletes has hurdles that marketing men does not," says Pilson, now the head of Pilson Communications. "Most sports viewers are men, and the people who attend women's sporting events, 65% of whom are female, aren't the ones watching events on television. It's a complicated challenge." Pilson also can't get past the tree-falls-in-a-forest aspect of Parker. "Serena and Venus have moved beyond tennis," he says, "but they are African-Americans in a popular, mostly white sport. Candace doesn't have that advantage."
Maybe not, but Marj Snyder, chief program and planning officer at the Women's Sports Foundation, thinks times have changed. She figures we've at last reached a point of critical mass. "Enough folks watch women's college ball. They know Parker is a star," Snyder says. And our culture loves its stars, be it Lance Armstrong or the next American Idol.
Fifteen years ago, Snyder visited Nike and heard the marketers talk about not being able to make role models out of women athletes. "I thought, Jeez, you made a role model out of Charles Barkley," she says. So today Snyder has no trouble picturing Parker as a next-level Mia Hamm. "Hamm did great stuff for soccer, but hey, what she really did is get up there in the same commercial as Michael Jordan. If Candace is doing the same ads as the male players, that elevates her. An audience is built."
The key, say marketing experts, is securing long-term promotional commitments and national outlets that will keep her in front of the American audience. "How is she going to become a household name?" George asks. "It isn't going to be from basketball. She needs to leverage her platform. Like, go on Dancing With the Stars." "Candace can be like Mia Hamm, but bigger."
There are other avenues available to women athletes, avenues that involve waxing. "Women athletes are more likely to be marketed as sexy than as competent," says Mary Jo Kane of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "And many women go for it. These athletes are smart. They know what sponsors want."
Time was, women athletes were seen as class acts. Stateswomen and achievers. Type A girls you'd want to bring home to meet Mom and Dad. Now there are Olympians in Playboy, nuding it up. Something (mercifully) you don't see Phelps or Yao doing. "It is the best and the worst of times," says Kane. "People like Candace are getting more coverage. But they are also forced to be sexy babes."
Team Parker has so far avoided the cheesecake route. They have higher aims. They want the all-American money, and the all-American money comes to the athletes people love, not the athletes people want to sleep with. Besides, Parker is just not that kind of girl. "Candace is wholesome," says Snyder. "I can't see her showing up in Playboy. Plus, she has sparkle. Amazing athletes come and go. But the one with sparkle is the one who wins out."
In Sacramento last fall, before news of the pregnancy and before Shelden's trade to Minnesota, Parker sat courtside as her husband's Kings took on the Lakers. Every few minutes a fan -- grown men, mostly -- approached. They sought not autographs but photos. Parker cheerfully obliged, posing by their side as if she were at a prom.
A Los Angeles TV reporter swung by with his crew. Parker sat up straight and smiled. "We're here with the best female basketball player of all time and the face of the future, Candace Parker!" She talked about her heart belonging to LA, her newfound fame, her hopes for the season. The interview ended, and Parker immediately slid deep into the back of her seat.
The contest was a hot one, with the Kings actually beating on the Lakers. But Parker paid limited attention, busying herself with her Sidekick, specifically with a game called Bubble Breaker, the object of which is to group same-colored bubbles
together. "I'm up to 824!" she said excitedly.
Around her, the crowd stood. Parker focused on her own game, connecting dots, competing only with herself. "You can't ever win this thing," she said at one point in mock frustration. "But it doesn't stop me from thinking I can, you know?"
Candace Parker keeps on trying, believing somehow that she will be the one who beats the machine.
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