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 Forbes.com 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 (SI.com) 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.