OPINION: MARKETING OF WOMEN'S SPORTS NEEDS TO REWARD ACHIEVEMENT
By Al Mattei
The magazine photo has a tall, supple, long-haired figure running across the frame, and large corporate logo is displayed on an article of clothing she is wearing.
The magazine is from October 1995, and the person in the photo is not a model, but an athlete: Gabrielle Reece. Outside,, the magazine in question, proclaimed her "Ubergirl," a figure whose athleticism and beauty made her a marketable figure for corporate America.
Oh, and she plays a pretty mean game of beach volleyball, too. While her off-the-beach activities have been legendary -- television, modeling, commercials, and an autobiography -- her achievements on the sand have not been well-scrutinized.
Few have ever noticed that Reece played in the relatively low-rent four-woman beach volleyball circuit, far from the crowds, international prestige, pay scale, and potential Olympic glory of the two-woman game. Reece has never won a major competition outside of four-player volleyball.
Fast-forward to 2000. Reece joined the two-woman tour in a faint hope for qualifying for the Sydney Olympics. Failing that, she posed nude for Playboy Magazine. She has even hopes for trying for an LPGA golfer's tour card.
There also exists a tennis player has enough clout to quash all other websites using her name and likeness, has a television commercial for an investment company, and has plenty of endorsement dollars to invest.
The player, Anna Kournikova, is tall and blonde, and has legions of fans -- mainly males -- logging onto her website (www.annakournikova.com, natch) and many more downloading photos of her on thousands of fan websites.
For all the attention, Kournikova has never won a singles title on the WTA Tour. Not one: instead, she won a pair of ITF titles in 1996, just after turning professional.
What's going on here? Wasn't the ascendance of women's athletics in America supposed to signify a sea change in the way women were regarded socially and athletically -- as more than just a pretty face?
In a time when women's sports have been growing with incredible exposure and awareness to the average Americanyou would think that winning was supposed to count for something. For every Gabrielle Reece and Anna Kournikova raking in money and publicity, there are enough Holly McPeaks, Liz Masakayans and Martina Hingises who have to wonder, "What am I doing wrong?"
The marketing of women in sports is a troubling puzzle. People who want to promote a sport or a product face a challenge of a public that believes that women in sports is little more than a novelty.
It is an attitude which is borne out in ways large and small. One female sportswriter bemoans the fact that the number of hits to her publication's website betray the cyberpublic's overwhelming interest in men's sports.
Then, there is the college campus that recently had a wild celebration (blocking a major highway, tearing down of football goalposts) for a regular season win by the men's basketball team. Perhaps two of the groups not participating in the celebration were the school's women's lacrosse and field hockey teams, neither of whom had such celebrations for their championships in the previous calendar year.
Marketers, therefore, have to find different ways to get their message across. At times, sex has been the seller. Female jockeys have bared all in Playboy as early as the 1970s. Men's magazines like Gear and Maxim published semi-nude photos of Olympians. There has been severe debate about the U.S. swim team's decision to pose nude behind a strategically-placed American flag for Sports Illustrated.
There was a foreshadowing of Playboy's involvement before the Reece spread. A volume called "Sexy Girls In Sports" published photographs of various women athletes in various states of undress. The magazine had at least one unintended consequence: a college tennis player had her athletic scholarship revoked because she accepted money for the photo shoot.
Meanwhile, Reece and Kournikova smile and flip their hair for fashion photographers and the paparazzi. Brandi Chastain has gotten more than her 15 minutes of fame for her match-winning penalty kick in the 1999 Women's World Cup -- not only because of the result, but because of her wild, shirt-waving celebration afterwards.
Even in the marketing push of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), looks have been a key factor. Since the start of the league, the same three or four players have been in most every advertisement: Rebecca Lobo, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes, and Cynthia Cooper. All are telegenic, with smiles measured in kilowatts.
Sure, all of them have good game; heck, Cooper is the league's two-time MVP. But many who cover the league believed that one of the WNBA's small-market stars -- Yolanda Griffith of Sacramento -- was more deserving of the 1999 award than the more-visible Cooper, whose Houston Comets team appeared on network television far more times than the Monarchs.
But it also turns out the Comets have swept the first four WNBA championships. Perhaps winning does count for something.
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