SBJ/February 4 - 10, 2002/Opinion

Sex may sell, but sexism sells women short

Fred Astaire was the dance superstar and media focus, even though Ginger Rogers could do everything he did — while moving backwards in three-inch heels.

Anna Kournikova graces the cover of Sports Illustrated largely on her looks while the more accomplished tennis player Lindsay Davenport does not.

Annika Sorenstam's astonishing 59 gets little or no press on a weekend when Tiger Woods wins.

Despite incredible audience approval and launch results, the media vultures circle the WNBA and WUSA.

What gives? Is this the supermom expectation revisited? Must the female athlete play "glam" to appeal to a predominantly male and predominantly sexist media that still wants to relegate women to the role of decoration or sex object?

It's probably wishful thinking to believe that the progress of newly developed women's leagues will be judged on preseason goals for attendance, sponsorship and ratings compared to season-end results. Sometimes I wonder if the practice of judging the business success of developing women's sports based on a statistical comparison with developed men's sports is done simply to ensure that men's sports are perceived as the dominant sport property.

Consider these examples: The U.S. Open Women's Finals last September earned a top Nielsen rating on CBS and won the night with 22.7 million viewers. The most famous sisters in the country easily beat ABC's Saturday night college football opener between Nebraska and Notre Dame, two popular teams.

In the United States, during 13 of the past 19 Grand Slam finals, the women's television ratings have been equal to or greater than the men's ratings. On CBS in 1999 and 2000, for example, the women earned higher market shares during both the semifinals and the finals at the U.S. Open.

On Eurosport, the women's ratings were in the aggregate significantly better than the men's during the hundreds of matches broadcast in 1999 and 2000. On BBC in 2001, the women's final at Wimbledon outdrew the men.

If these women's events were new men's events, such results would be interpreted as a demonstration of the deepening strength of the sport in question. They would be accompanied by higher advertising and rights fees and more endorsement opportunities for players. The entire sports market would benefit from the success of such properties.

But now, when women's sports numbers beat the guys, there appears to be an effort to minimize such success. Women's sports properties and female athletes do not reap the same economic benefits, such as equal purses and television rights fees.

The market is supposed to expand when more products successfully compete for the public dollar. It's not in the best interest of the sports business for the media to marginalize women's sports when they are successful or to interpret beauty as the equivalent of success in women's sports. At every opportunity our business has to play to our unique asset — extraordinary performance of sports skills, overcoming competitive odds, incredible human effort and dramatic rivalries and contests.

Journalists play a crucial role in determining whether the female athlete will add value to the sports market or be thrown into the fickle Hollywood mix. The media assume the world is sexist, as they are, and will simply love the "dish." They dwell on the soap opera intrigue created by women's rivalries. Monica Seles in the dramatic role of female as victim of violence received more column inches than Seles the No. 1-ranked tennis champion.

On top of such sexism, the predominantly white media barely cover their racist inclination, embracing the pony-tailed, cute All-American white girl soccer champions over the more muscular and diverse undefeated gold medalist softball and basketball players who were relegated to background news.

The popularity of women's sports still appears intimately tied to physical beauty. We still require women's sports to meet the old stereotype of woman as a decorative object; the modern sexist stereotype adds a little skill and muscle, creating a more spirited variety of the "looker."

Maybe I'm being a little impatient. Maybe it's too early to tell if change is afoot; if the best female athletes, regardless of their looks, are going to reap the same economic benefits as not-so-pretty but talented male athletes. Maybe Venus Williams erasing the race barrier with her $40 million deal with Reebok is the harbinger of things to come.

Maybe we need to wait to see what happens to the most recent generation of women's professional team sports and athletes. Central ownership, sophisticated promotions and deep pockets of owners, required for any successful start-up on the cluttered pro sports landscape, is already in place.

Maybe the passionate individual franchise owner, city-based sponsors and economic success are just around the corner. Just as women's college basketball has developed grassroots followings and enviable dynasties embraced by the local and alumni populace (UConn, Tennessee, etc.), maybe female professional sport franchises will soon produce their version of the Yankees and the Cubs and demonstrate the same economic success, even if the players aren't all pretty.

Or, it may be that the future success of both men's and women's sports will be judged by fashion and entertainment standards. Maybe the ultimate outcome of pushing glam instead of skill will limit endorsement success to Venus Williams fashions and model Lisa Leslie. Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods will make more money from underwear and golf apparel respectively than from their sport exploits, as the market for real sport declines.

If glam is going to be valued more than talent, then Jim Fuhse, the WTA Tour's director of player promotions, is a prophet. Fuhse was quoted in the September issue of Sports Illustrated for Women saying, "We're never going to stop selling sex. If anything, I'd like us to be more risqué and take more chances." He explains: "If a player doesn't sell tickets because of her tennis, she has to do something else to contribute." Will there be limited economic rewards for the great but ugly or no-personality athlete?

Then again, maybe the events of Sept. 11 coupled with the inclusion of women's values in the sports environment will create another standard for the economic success of professional sports and the endorsement potential of professional athletes. Maybe we will see a return to the importance of values tied to heroic performance. Maybe the public will override a sexist, celebrity-blinded media.

In short, it's important for the sports business to be concerned about why men's and women's sports products are valued. There's a need to promote what makes us unique as a cultural institution and a business. Men's and women's sports must support each other's growth and success on these unique grounds so that sport as a public choice doesn't become as fickle as fashion. We need to define our success and our value in ways that guarantee timeless and consistent support and make us less susceptible to our throwaway consumerism inclinations.

Sex may sell, but if sport plays beefcake, it will live and die by a sword it neither controls nor owns.

Donna A. Lopiano is executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation.

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