Friday, August 22, 2008

Christine Brennan - My Olympic Hero

I'm sure most of us feel like we've been hit by an Olympic-sized 18-wheeler for the past 2 weeks with the barrage of media around the Games. In the spirit of keeping this blog fresh, I'd like to be able to comment on the Games without boring you with the same details you've been hearing from fresh-faced Bob and his NBC crew every time you turn on the TV.

I will admit that I hadn't even heard of Christine Brennan before a few weeks ago. But apparently she's been around for a while, and she's kind of a big deal. The nut shell of her life: she is considered one of the pioneers of women in the sports reporting world. She got her journalism degrees (B.A. and M.A.) from Northwestern, then went onto become the first female sports writer for the Miami Herald. She moved to the Washington Post in 1985 (this is all compliments of Wikipedia) and then she blew up on the scene and started broadcasting for all sorts of major media outlets. She landed a sports column at USA Today, wrote some books, and now she's considered one of the most influential women in the sports media field. Not too shabby, Ms. Brennan.

I decided to check out her Olympic blog and I have to admit, I am totally in love with her. Why? Because her posts are informative, relevant, and everything that NBC has failed to draw attention to in their narrowly focused broadcasts. She's covering her 13th, yes, 13th consecutive Olympic Games. She covers all the topics that I actually want to read about, and she makes her posts concise and easy to digest.

Here are a few of my favorite posts over the past few weeks. Every single one of them is worth a read. For real.

IOC washes away softball for no good reason
Rising soccer stars romping into hearts of fans
Chinese long to embrace Games if only their government would let them

And one that relates to my previous post about women's gymnastics (I LOVE this post):
A gymnastics final for the ages

Even after watching all the nail-biting events and goosebump-producing races, this woman still tops all the athletes as my personal Olympic hero this year.

Enjoy the reading.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Olympic Update

I couldn't help but do a quick post today after watching the Olympics last night--in particular, women's gymnastics and men's and women's swimming.

There are a few items I've been considering that I want to put down in writing.

The first one has to do with doping. As I sat there watching Michael Phelps and his team absolutely destroy the world record in the 4x200m freestyle race, I felt a rush of excitement and support. Their time of 6:58.56 was 4.68 seconds faster than the previous record (also set by U.S. men in 2007). I had never seen such a huge lead in a swimming event. At one point, the commentator even noted that the camera had to pan back and forth between the U.S. swimmers and the rest of the field because the lead was so great that the swimmers would not all fit into the same camera frame. The accomplishment was amazing to watch, and I was proud of the U.S. men!

And while I was grinning from ear to ear watching their victory, my smile faded as I thought to myself "These guys just aren't human." It occurred to me that elite sports in this day and age are plagued by doping scandals. The athletes undergo enormous amounts of testing throughout the year, however you have to wonder if some of them slide under the radar. I believe that athletes like Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong may just be "inhuman"...maybe every-so-often, nature actually does produce those unique bodies that outperform fellow human beings in "inhuman" ways. But for the rest of the field, I wonder if they feel that they must resort to performance-enhancing drugs just to keep up.

An ex-UC Berkeley swimmer, Jessica Hardy, tested positive during one of her tests leading up to the Games and eventually withdrew from her spot on the US team, unable to mount a huge legal defense in the week and a half she had before events began in Beijing. We have heard so much about the messy world of performance-enhancing drugs in men's cycling, but I don't remember hearing as much about these issues in women's sports. As I watch the Olympics and witness the pure love and passion for sport that these athletes possess, I am completely endeared by their trials and tribulations. But I have also grown more weary as I realize that these athletes are desperate for success, and some will do whatever they have to do (illegal or not) to achieve their goals. I can only hope that most of whom we see on our screens are competing through legitimate means.

Another topic that came to mind was the vast difference between the women's U.S. and Chinese gymnastics teams. I was literally biting my nails and sitting on the edge of my seat as I watched these girls throwing their bodies into picturesque cartwheels and back flips on a 4 inch slab of wood, or spinning madly around an elevated bar, suddenly freezing in perfectly executed handstands, then spinning around again to launch their bodies to a bar 5 feet away. The events were riveting, and the rivalry between the U.S. and China, both as gymnasts and as political nations, was palpable.

I want to provoke you to think about the differences in how the two teams were formed, and how that process reflects the culture in which these girls were raised. NBC commentators noted that many of these Chinese athletes were literally plucked up from their daycare centers at 3 years of age and entered into rigorous gymnastics training programs. After spending their entire childhoods in the gym, they appear 12 years later on our TV screens as the poised, graceful, and often-far-too-small athletes competing for gold medals.

Then there's the U.S. team, with girls whose bodies at least appear to be much "thicker" (though still tiny), and who seem to smile just a bit more than their Chinese counterparts. They have gone through their own rigorous training for years, but they happened upon their sport in a much different manner. Many probably chose to head to the gym and learn how to do somersaults when they were toddlers, then developed a passion for the sport and stuck with it until they achieved their Olympic dreams.

I see China producing its athletes in a vast national machine, where the love for the sport is often eclipsed by the pressure to succeed. The US athletes face their own pressures to achieve greatness, though they do not often look as though the weight of 1.2 billion fellow countrymen is weighing them down. They seem to respond to their own internal expectations and suffer much more personal failures, while the Chinese athletes seem to look to the faces of the crowd to gauge their self-worth.

In the sports industry in the U.S., athletes can easily lose sight of their pure love for their sport as heavy endorsement deals and salaries require an increased sense of responsibility and "work." But I can't help but think that the Chinese athletes take on this burden at such an early age that they may never get to experience that same love for their sports as U.S. competitors. This may be a reflection of the political and national goals instilled by each country in its citizens, where China focuses on being "one of many that collectively make up The Republic of China," while the U.S. encourages individualism and personal fulfillment.

These are thoughts that came to me as I watched and I have not filtered them in the hopes that I will stir up the pot and ruffle some of your feathers as you think about the nature of the Olympic games and what they might actually mean to the athletes whose careers are on the line...

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Olympics are here!

I'm sure we'll all be glued to our TVs tonight to watch the opening ceremonies. At least the first 5 hours of it. Then we'll channel surf while they wind their way through the alphabet of countries entering the stadium. We'll switch back in time to see Team USA come in, and then we'll watch the last 5 hours of the event. Bring it!

This post will be a top 10 list of the Olympics--Top 10 being a wide assortment of things. Observations thus far, commentary on China as a host, female athletes to watch, and a couple other juicy tidbits. We'll start at 10 and work our way down to numero uno.

Olympic "Top 10"

Commentary and Observations first...

The fact that these games are in China has raised a whole HOST of issues. Human rights are top on the list. China's human rights track record (Tibet, internal workers' rights, support for the Sudanese government, etc) is a hot topic. The Olympic torch route had to be changed or shortened a number of times, and the flame even had to be extinguished in Paris for security concerns. But the torch did make it to the summit of Mt. Everest...though this was basically a huge political move by China to assert its dominance over the highest peak in the world, which happens to lie on the border between Tibet and Nepal...

Oh, and Team USA chose Sudanese-born Lopez Lomong (track and field) as their flag-bearer for the Opening Ceremonies.

The air quality in Beijing. It's hard to ignore a huge cloud of goop hanging over the city when the world's most elite athletes are flying in to compete. Who will wear masks? How controversial will it be? I'll just say that I hope the athletes make a statement about the air quality there. I'd ask them to do the same in L.A. because I think global warming is something we should all confront. It's not a pointed political's bigger than that.

Team USA basketball takes on Australia on August 5th, 2008. Aussie Penny Taylor comes away with a huge black eye (from Tina Thompson) and the whole Aussie team claims that the US squad was a bit too physical and they feared injuries to their players. Emotion ran high for the Americans who are 3-time defending Olympic champs, but missed their chance at the 2006 World Championships as the Aussies took the gold. Don't worry--USA pulled off the 71-67 victory, but I think there are some emotional bruises, too, after that one.

USA Soccer vs. Brazil, July 16, 2008. In what was called a "pre-Olympic friendly" between the two teams, a collision with Brazilian defender Andreia Rosa left Abby Wambach with a broken tibia and fibula in her left leg. And that's kind of a big deal. Why? Because Wambach is the best women's soccer player in the world right now--or at least the leading scorer for the US team. They will really be hurting without her, no doubt.

Why in the WORLD are these women's teams playing each other right before the Olympic games?!?! Of course they should be fearful of injuries...your worst nightmare is what happened to the US soccer team. Losing your best player (or ANY player) from your roster just weeks or days before the Games begin is devastating. I seriously question whoever put together those schedules for women's soccer and women's basketball.

Athletes and Events you shouldn't miss...

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, beach volleyball
Misty May has pretty much dominated the beach scene for the past decade, first with teammate Holly McPeak, now with Kerri Walsh (since 2000). They're incredibly fun to watch, and they're gonna win it all.

Shawn Johnson, gymnast
She's 16 years old and only 4'8". Small but mighty, you might say. She's favored to have one of the best showings for the US squad.

Dara Torres, swimmer
41 years old
5th Olympic Games
When she won her first Olympic gold in 1984, 26 of this year's 42 member swim team hadn't even been born yet...she'll be swimming in the 50m freestyle.

Team USA Softball
I'm going to be honest, I haven't done all my research on this team. But I do know that they're favored to win. They're going for their 4th consecutive gold medal (and they've won 6 world championships to boot). Try to catch at least one of their games because it will be softball at its finest.

Team USA Basketball
This is a dream team like you can't believe. Candace Parker and Sylvia Fowles are two WNBA rookies who will dominate the Games. They're joined by a crew of seasoned veterans, like Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Lisa Leslie, and Diana Taurasi, who will trounce their opponents. The Aussies might be the only team to give them a run for their money (with WNBA Seattle Storm star Lauren Jackson helping out the team from Down Under). Try to watch every game you won't be bored. Ever.

A few more facts for you:

- In 1996 at the Atlanta Games, 34% of participants were women.
- In 2004 in Athens, 41% of participants were women.
- In 2008 in Beijing, the IOC has added Women's Steeplechase and Women's Sabre Team Fencing to expand participation of female athletes.
- Some female athletes will be required to undergo "sex tests" to confirm their sex if it has been called into question. This will include a review by a panel of "external appearance" experts along with a number of blood tests. Apparently 8 athletes failed the tests in Atlanta in 1996 but were all eventually cleared with subsequent tests.
- There are 20 moms on Team USA, ie, women who have given birth. Madd props, mommas!
- They agreed to hold the swimming and gymnastics finals in the morning in China in order to create prime-time viewing for US Olympic fans.

Whew. That's my entire preview. Now we should all sit back and relax, and let the Games begin!

(Serious thank you to the Sports Illustrated Olympic Preview issue for much of the information you find here about athletes, Olympic history, etc).

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Who earns the Big Bucks, and why?

If you weren't aware that sports is a multi-billion dollar industry, you've probably been living in a cave most your life. Obviously we're all hyper aware of how much the world pays attentions to sports in times like this, when we're headed into the Olympic Games.

But today, as you read this, when you think about the most famous celebrity athletes, who comes to mind? I guess it depends on who you are and what you pay attention to. I am biased now because I'm always looking for news about women in sports. But when I was younger, there was one athlete who stood head and shoulders above the rest. His Airness, Michael Jordan.

I grew up with three Jordan posters in my room. I had his autobiography, his coffee table book, a couple of treasured basketball cards, and I even got to see him play a game with the Birmingham Barons during his brief stint in AAA baseball. He was never a role model for me (obviously I wasn't going to grow up to be in the NBA...) but he was "it" when I thought about an elite athlete. He was the one doing Nike commercials and endorsing athletic equipment. His image was everywhere, and he became a household name.

I also grew up in Tennessee as a rabid Pat Summit and Lady Vols fan. And Geena Davis was, in my mind, a professional athlete after her role in A League of Their Own. I followed tennis pretty religiously, and I was just as interested in a match between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi as I was in a match between Monica Seles and Steffi Graf. The female athletes in the early to mid 90s who were really on the map were Michelle Kwan and Kerri Strug.

Being well on my way to my 5'10" frame and size 12 feet, I couldn't identify with them as "athletes." I was looking for women who could body up against a defender in the paint for a layup, or put a forearm into someone's hip as they jostled for a soccer ball. I think I chose those posters of Michael Jordan because they captured the sheer power and agility he possessed. I wasn't looking to throw on a unitard and wobble around on ice skates. (Don't get me wrong...I have huge respect for the immense strength and stamina it takes to make ice skating look graceful).

But I just didn't see those Lady Vols on posters when I was 7 or 8. There was no "female Michael Jordan" in TV commercials or on Wheaties boxes. In fact, it wasn't until 1997 when the WNBA launched that I remember seeing any strong female athletes in mass marketing efforts.

And then in 1999, Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain swept the world with their World Cup victory. And Marion Jones was everywhere after the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games, and then those Lady Vols and the UConn Huskies produced a rivalry that would dominate NCAA women's basketball for years. And then Serena and Venus Williams were changing the sport of tennis with their extremely physical style of play. And then more and more women were finally in the spotlight. What changed?!

Simply said, women's sports blew up in the 1990s, and corporations were finally throwing bigger dollars at female athletes to endorse their products. According to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, women's participation in intercollegiate athletics (varsity, club, IM, etc) jumped from 300,000 before Title IX to 2.25 million in 1997. Little girls born in the 1980s had a plethora of strong female athletes to look up to. Why? Because there was money behind it.

So what makes a female athlete marketable? Or any athlete, for that matter? Let's not fool ourselves. Marketing 101 will teach you that sex sells. Michael Jordan is not ugly. Neither is Michelle Kwan. Almost everyone out there with a big endorsement deal has a pretty face. Being athletes, they naturally have the hot bodies (well, some of them). And if they aren't pretty, they better be damn good at what they do.

I'm going to make the case that both male and female athletes are exploited for their bodies. However, I see a pattern that suggests that the best-looking female athletes, sometimes regardless of their actual talent, tend to be more successful than other female athletes, where this is not necessarily the case with the men.

Some have argued (Fink & Parker, 2008) that female athletes who really make the Big Bucks are those who play more "gender appropriate" sports, like tennis and golf, versus sports like basketball or softball, which often require bigger frames. I would venture to argue that most athletes who are good at their sport will attract endorsements. However, the female athletes who possess more "delicate" or "feminine" traits will remain on top, simply because sex sells. Fans want long, swishy ponytails and toned (but not bulky) bodies to look at. They want short spandex and tight swimsuits and women who are certainly athletes, but also not someone they'd be afraid to stumble upon in a dark alley.

According to a article published on July 22, 2008, the top four highest paid female athletes in the world are all tennis players:

1. Maria Sharapova, Russia -- $26 million
2. Serena Williams, USA -- $14 million
3. Venus Williams, USA -- $13 million
3. Justine Henin, Belgium -- $12.5 million

And nipping at their heels are the female golfers:

1. Annika Sorenstam, Sweden -- $11 million
2. Michelle Wie, USA -- $12 million
3. Lorena Ochoa, Mexico -- $10 million

Sports Illustrated ( had a "Fortunate 50" list based on 2006 salaries enumerating the top earning U.S. athletes, which was led by Tiger Woods at #1, raking in $112 million/year, with $100 million of that from endorsements alone. Next was Oscar De La Hoya (boxer) at $53 million in earnings, and $2 million in endorsements. Then came Phil Mickelson (golfer) with $47 million. Shaq and Kobe followed at spots 4 and 5, with $15 million and $16 million, respectively, in endorsements alone. The first woman on the list comes in at #22 with Michelle Wie (golfer) at $20.2 million. (Forbes had her listed at $12 on their list). The list continues with golfers, baseball players, basketball players, football players, and race car drivers.

All of them men.

In fact, Michelle Wie is the ONLY female on that "Fortunate 50" list.

Why? Because big endorsements happen where the money is. And money comes from fans--and the companies who will pay to market to those fans. Female athletes aren't getting endorsements like their male counterparts because they aren't pulling in anywhere near the same sized crowds or tickets sales. Except maybe in tennis and golf. Oh, and figure skating when the Olympics are around. And maybe soccer or swimming (if they agree to pose nude with a few well-placed soccer balls or American flags covering their most intimate parts).

Female athletes are more likely to endorse products like Dove soap or Caress body wash. Big money comes to the females when they can be marketed as "the darling of their sport" or "the girl next door," or the "girl you want to bring home to your parents." They ride the line between sex appeal and good girls--the kind of girl whose smile could sell you anything because you trust that she has your best interests in mind and really believes in the product.

Male athletes, when they are sexualized, can be aggressive and overpowering. We want to see hulking frames with bulging muscles holding onto a tube of Right Guard deoderant (does anyone remember those Charles Barkely commercials??) or gripping the wheel of a 300 horsepower Lexus. We want them to be assertive, confident, and smart. We want to buy a product from them because they know what they're talking about.

Now ponder this. Except for Tiger Woods, golfers are not often the picture of fitness and sex appeal. Look at Phil Mickelson at #2 on that list with $47 million in endorsements. He makes his money endorsing swanky watches or expensive golf clubs (and not by showing off his bod). Even the male athletes (namely golfers and baseball players) who aren't physically fit still have a market for endorsing luxury items that most businessmen would like to acquire.

So what's my conclusion about all of this?

The highest-earning female athletes are those with sex appeal. And their sex appeal commands attention. On the other hand, the highest-earning male athletes may or may not possess the sex appeal, but they at least command respect.

Some female athletes will choose to pose nude for Sports Illustrated (Jenny Thompson) or Gear Magazine (Chastain). Some basketball players, like Lisa Leslie, will try to model on the side. This sex appeal seems to be where the money is for most female athletes today.

But just to throw a wrench in this whole thing, try this:

1. Do a Google Image search for Anna Kournikova.
2. Now try the same for David Beckham.

It's not very obvious that either of those two are athletes, based on these images alone. Both happen to be fairly good at their respective sports (Anna is arguably the underperformer and David is a superstar), but their sex appeal is what makes them so marketable.

Little girls today now have more strong, powerful female athletes to look up to as role models. There's just more money, in general, going into women's sports because more women are playing. More female sports figures are visible to the public because more of them exist. But the majority of sports fans today are still being marketed to with the "sex sells" attitude in mind. If Brandi Chastain wants to pose nude, why not? Will she make more money for herself and her sport? Will her scantily-clad, toned, athletic body appeal to a male fan population who might not otherwise pay attention to her for her athletic prowess? Might they buy a ticket to her game just because they liked what they saw in the magazine spread, and not because she's a phenomenal soccer player?

So what about the WNBA? We've all heard before that many men prefer not to watch women's basketball because the game isn't as fast-paced as the men's. Only two women have ever dunked in a regulation WNBA game (Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker) and there's a much bigger focus on fundamentals, like shooting, since most women don't have 4 foot vertical jumps or 6'8 frames to work with. The game is simply different, and perhaps not as "showy" as the NBA. This means that the stadium is filled by families with little girls, or women who enjoy watching the game played by other women, but the majority of people in those arena's seats are not men. So is it terrible to pull a "Brandi Chastain" and pose nude for a magazine shoot if it will lead to more male fans? Feminists argue that the women are being exploited. I agree that this may be the case, however there are also male athletes being exploited for their bodies, perhaps just to a lesser degree. If the only way you can get a guy to a WNBA game is to add a little sex appeal, maybe it's worth having him there as a spectator for that reason initially because he might start to appreciate the actual game once he watches a few, rather than focusing on the sex appeal of the players on the court.

Fortunately, there seems to be an overall rise in respect for women's sports, as evidenced by the growing number of professional leagues. The fact that the WNBA exists and that they're launching Women's Professional Soccer in 2009 are both great signs. Maybe females just need more time in the sports industry to establish themselves as respectable for their actual talent, and not merely their sex appeal. Maybe we're getting close to a time when fans are willing to pay good money to watch women play basketball and softball.

But it's likely that the highest-paid athletes, male or female, will continue to possess that unique blend of raw athletic talent, a firm athletic body, and a dazzling smile. And that may be the most successful marketing tool ever developed, whether we like it or not.