It’s the adage few seem to question. Female athletes can only be successful off the podium if they’re a 10. Right? Fans will only tune into women’s sport if they get to see a certain level of ‘hotness’. Right? Male athletes can resemble a big toe and still pull-in million-dollar sponsorship deals. Yet in order to gain any kind of recognition out of the game, leading to endorsements, female athletes are expected to be Victoria’s Secret runway ready.
Let’s face it. We want female athletes to be making bank. We want to go onto our Insta feeds, and amongst the male athletes showing off their Patek Philippes, we want to see female athletes driving to training in their custom Lambos. And, we want to have to use at least two hands to count the number of ‘femaths’ on Forbes’ “Highest Paid Athletes” list. For this to happen, we want female athletes to be drowning in endorsement and sponsorship deals – beyond tragic laxative teas and teeth whitening kits.
However, looking at a couple of the female athletes that have been able to break into the marketing game: Danica Patrick, Lindsey Vonn and Anna Kournikova – at one time they have been accused of trading on their looks and body first, with their athletic ability often being overlooked. We don’t blame them for this. In fact, they have done a great service to their sport by bringing eyeballs that wouldn’t have otherwise been tuned in. Not just that, but they’ve also eschewed the traditional – exasperating – image of female athletes as “manly” and, therefore, unattractive. A woman can be smokin’ hot AND kick a ball the length of a football pitch? Crazy!
But then the logical (albeit sad) conclusion from that premise seems to be that in order to be a highly-paid female athlete, women must be conventionally attractive. I refuse to believe this has to be so. Surely sex appeal doesn’t always have to supersede athletic achievement? Because if the only way for female athletes to bring in lucrative sponsorship deals is if they’re appearing in lads’ mags’ “hot lists”, no one – neither female nor male – is going to respect women’s sport.
Problem 1: Femaths Need $$$
Money comes from sponsorship. Sponsorship comes from exposure. Exposure comes from TV viewers. TV viewers come from interest. And for the most part, women’s sport has yet to create the kind of wide-scale interest that sponsors are keen to get on board with. But it’s difficult for female athletes to generate a vast fan-following when visibility on our TVs is minimal. Whilst we laud femaths when they bring home medals and trophies, the minute they step off the podium, many fall into obscurity.
When female athletes are featured on TV, anachronistic coverage can centre on their appearance, clothes and personal lives. Each international sporting event brings yet another demonstration that television commentary is stuck firmly in another century. Last year’s men’s football World Cup featured Eniola Aluko (an incredible female Juventus forward) as a pundit, alongside Patrice Evra (a former male Man U defender). Evra was visibly shocked at Aluko’s astute football commentary (his eyes nearly popping out of his head), and he even patronisingly clapped as she spoke.
We hope this was just a misguided attempt to show how he was impressed with her analysis. But the way that television networks filter women’s positions in sport through a heterosexual middle-aged male gaze means that female athletes don’t stand a chance to have their presence respected in the same way as their male counterparts.
For women’s sport to become more visible, we need men to watch. There’s no denying that the stereotype exists of the male sports fan who refuses to entertain the notion of women’s sport on the basis that it won’t be as “good” as men’s. But not all are so ignorant. The necessity for female athletes to be portrayed as sex symbols is wrong; not all male sports fans need to have sex shoved in their face to hold their attention. It’s an insulting misconception on the part of the media that the ultimate audience for sport is low-brow males who, ultimately, don’t care about what women can bring. Regardless, if men are so desperate to see “sexy” women, we feel like the sports channels won’t be their first stop.
Whenever a female athlete is portrayed in a sexualised way, through no fault of her own, it diminishes the perception of her athletic ability. Granted, this is the case for men too; seeing David Beckham on a chaise longue in tight boxers doesn’t exactly conjure memories of his free-kicks. Talent aside, as soon as a sportsperson is depicted in such a way, viewers cannot help but subconsciously reduce their athletic endeavours. However, this is a much, much bigger problem for female athletes because of the way that women’s sport is perceived by the media and masses.
Female athletes are faced with a predicament: with women’s sport fandom ranking significantly behind men’s, they could thwart this by leveraging their appearance to get more attention. Whilst this may result in short-term income for them and generate a potential temporary spike in interest in their sport, this may not necessarily lead to respect for the sport itself. With the end goal for women’s sport to be seen on a par with men’s, women need to be perceived as athletes – not just Maxim fodder.
But relying on sporting finesse alone is not enough to get the much-needed eyeballs on women’s sport. In 1999, Sportscenter devoted 2.2% of their airtime to femaths. Nearly two decades later and this has dropped to 1.4%. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that 60% of elite female athletes are unable to make a living from their sport. Women’s sport as an industry has not yet found a way to be levelled with men’s.
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Problem 2: Women’s Sport Needs Hype
Okay, so clearly the “sexy” thing may get casual viewers to tune into women’s sport. Perhaps for some, it’s a novelty to salivate over women running around. But these kinds of viewers are not going to actually engage with the game being played. Granted, it doesn’t really matter what viewers’ intentions are when tuning into women’s sport. But whilst exploiting shallow sexuality may up TV ratings, playing up the sexy thing alone isn’t enough to turn these casual viewers into long-term fans. These viewers are not going to look further than the booty shorts to see the women for the athletes they are. And without a dedicated, rooted fanbase, endorsements and sponsorships are not going to follow.
To get the required attention to capture the interest of sponsoring brands, female athletes have to create their own buzz, as the respective sports themselves are unable yet to command the hype needed to generate interest from brands wanting to be associated female athletes. So female athletes have to start the conversation themselves.
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This is the only way that they are then going to be able to then steer the conversation. The WNBA player Brittney Griner is a great example of this. Griner was the first openly gay athlete to sign with Nike, and “sexy” has never been a concern of hers. Rather, Griner’s brand represents her authentic self, rather than an unrealistic “feminine” ideal created by Big Corporate. Fans, especially female, want to see femaths are fierce competitors; a take-no-prisoners attitude, tough, sweaty and strong.
We’re not saying that female athletes leveraging their appearance are any less noteworthy than those that do not. Nor are we suggesting that they owe a duty to their gender and sport to play down their looks and bodies. Not at all. Female athletes work hard to keep in shape – their bodies should absolutely be a source of pride.
Swimmers Jenny Thompson and Ashley Tappin have been outspoken in encouraging femaths to seize the opportunity to glorify their bodies whilst raising awareness for women’s sport. However, they also need to let their athleticism do the talking. To get the hype they want, the modern female athlete needs to put forward her own brand as “athletic” before “sexy”. Female athletes have every right to show off their incredible bodies, as a by-product of their athleticism rather than as the foremost talking point.
Female athletes should consider taking to social media and portray themselves in the way that they want to be seen. Serena Williams is a pro at this. She regularly gives fans an insight into her life. Serena Instas from the court, from the gym, from her kitchen, from her closet; through this medium, we are able to see Serena’s personality in the best way possible: in the way that Serena wants us to see it.
This is such a unique way for female athletes to get brands to see them in an authentic way. By forging their own personal brand in the way that they want to be perceived, female athletes need to leverage social media to garner brands’ attention. Sure if they want to be “sexy”, they should – but by balancing that with showing them training, preparing for competitions, working out; their athleticism will come through as well.
But, killing it on Insta isn’t enough. The sports themselves also have a role to play in tackling this issue. As it stands, many would-be fans don’t even know when women’s sporting events are being played. Certainly, we’re confused when Chelsea Ladies are playing; the fixture list is inconsistent and senseless. Tennis stands as the anomaly to this and therefore should be exemplified. Tennis is the only sport where the pay gap is closing, which is due, in part, to female tennis players rallying together and demanding equal prize money at Grand Slam tournaments. But, more importantly, tennis itself is structurally set up to give women an equal opportunity at drawing a crowd. Women play at the same time as men in the big tournaments, which is so key because it means that as many women’s games are broadcast as men’s.
If tennis fans are sitting in front of the TV watching a men’s match, they’re way more likely to tune in to a women’s game if it’s the next match on court. In this way, fans can see that although women’s tennis is different to men’s, its individual merits make it equally exciting. Logistical concerns (mainly, TV broadcasting rights bundles) aside, if women and men’s competitions were synced together, to be played on the same day, this would throw the door wide open for new fans to become engaged. For example, if fans are already at Stamford Bridge to watch the Chelsea take on Arsenal, there’s a high possibility that they will stay to watch Chelsea Ladies play Arsenal Ladies if it takes place right afterward.
We don’t dispute that sex sells. I even think that I may be more likely to purchase a product if it was endorsed by Caroline Wozniacki or Lee Mi-hyang. But not if they were portraying themselves in an overly sexual way. For women’s sport to thrive on it’s own, female athletes need to be seen as athletes. And for that to happen, they need to steer the conversation themselves, taking control and putting the image that they want to represent out into the world.