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Volume 25 No. 46
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ESPN's "Branded" Concludes "Nine For IX" Series, Explores Marketing Of Female Athletes

ESPN concluded its "Nine For IX" documentary series on Tuesday night with "Branded," which examined how female athletes brand and market themselves. Co-Dir Heidi Ewing said "branding is all about controlling one's image and what we found making this film is no matter what sport the women play, branding themselves and creating a persona has become more and more important, especially in the Internet age." Co-Dir Rachel Grady said, "My assumption was always if you're at the top of your game, you can make a decent amount of money. But that's not the case so the branding and the endorsement deals they get are even more crucial. We're not talking about gravy, we're talking about survival."

CREDITS: The film featured interviews with former WNBAer Lisa Leslie, gymnast Mary Lou Retton, beach volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, tennis player Chrissie Evert, soccer players Hope Solo and Brandi Chastain and WNBA Mercury VP Ann Meyers Drysdale. From the business and media side, interviewed were ESPN's Darren Rovell, SI's Jon Wertheim, former SI For Women Editor Sandra Rosenbush, Leverage Agency Founder & CEO Ben Sturner, former player agent Leonard Armato and WME Senior VP Jill Smoller.

SEX SELLS: The film began with the "Battle of the Sexes" between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and what her victory meant for female athletes, as well as the rise of Evert to becoming a marketing icon. Evert said of her rise at the same time Martina Navratilova was playing, "Whether you like it or not, the feminine women athletes were the only ones that got the endorsements." Retton's marketing prowess after her dramatic Gold Medal-winning performance at the '84 Summer Games was also examined, as was former tennis player Anna Kournikova using her sex appeal to market herself. Wertheim said "other athletes before" Kournikova "had used sexuality, but not to the point where it really became the centerpiece of her whole marketing strategy." Wertheim: "We had never had a package like this." Smoller added that Kournikova "certainly got eyeballs on tennis that wouldn't have been there and that helped everybody." Sturner: "At that time, she was on the top of any sports marketers' list for an endorsement deal. Like the stock market, you get someone at the right time and Anna Kournikova could have been the next Google or the next Apple or the next any kind of company that would take off in a big way. But she lost (on the court). She lost a lot and she kept losing and that's tough." The documentary also examined the marketing of NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones, with Ewing noting both "were criticized publicly for getting a lot of endorsements or for being in sexy ad campaigns." Ewing: "Most of the women had to make this decision between vixen or the girl-next-door."

ALL OR NOTHING: The success of the U.S. Women's Soccer team at the '99 World Cup and the momentum it created for female sports in the U.S. was also examined, but Rovell noted of the WUSA, "It just didn’t work." Rovell: "They got the mothers and daughters but they didn’t get the sons and fathers. In order for women's sports to survive, you need men to be into it." This school of thought gave rise to the Lingerie Football League, with Rosenbush noting, "You cannot put the common denominator low enough when you're talking about the American public. It's a white male world. We're just living in it." Armato said a female athlete's "currency" is "how attractive she is, that's really the bottom line."

ROUND BALL, SQUARE HOOP: In looking at the state of the WNBA, Armato said, "Our press doesn't give women full credit for being great athletes. For example, women's basketball. It doesn't fit squarely within the way our society wants to view women." Wertheim said the WNBA knows their "niche audience and their niche audience would not respond well to sort of sexing-up this league." Leslie said of the WNBA, "At the end of the day, it’s about business. It’s about getting sponsorship and it's about having enough money to be able to pay players, to be able to raise salaries, to be able to play the game. So people have to realize that we are a product, we're selling something. We're selling our sport and how we look is just as important as how we play." Sturner said of changing the uniforms for WNBA players to maximize their sex appeal, "Tennis players and beach volleyball players and track-and-field players, they wear a little bit less and it kind of helps generate some more buzz and interest."

ODDS & ENDS: Retton said "there are two categories" female athletes fall into with their marketing: "Wholesome, all-American, squeaky-clean or sexy vixen." Retton added, "Why is our society today like that? Why do women have to be like that and the men don't?" Solo noted male athletes "can make their entire living based off their skill. For a female athlete, we make most of our money on the side." Solo: "For us as women, the only respect you get is if you shut your mouth and play the game." Armato said, "If you look at why the media focuses on women in sports, the sex appeal has to be part of the equation." Reece: "I don't think selling sex is ever going to be outdated." Armato added, "Don't shoot me for it, but if you want to be successful as a woman who's an athlete, sex appeal has to be part of the equation." Reece noted, "People get very nervous and upset when women are sort of like, 'Oh okay, exploiting's what we're doing? Then I'll do it myself.' They get very nervous about that. That's uncomfortable for all of us when a woman's like, 'Yeah, here it is.'" Smoller: "We in the sports business don't make the rules. It’s a cultural issue; it's not just a women in sport issue. That's the way it is" ("Branded," ESPN, 8/27).

FEEDBACK: NFL Giants Senior VP/Communications Pat Hanlon on his Twitter feed wrote, “What #ESPN has done with the "Nine for IX" series is incredible. The value of the mirror it holds up for all of us incaluable.” Pistons Director of Community Relations Heather Joy Collart: “Talk about something that's going to make me think for awhile! @30for30's #branded... Where are we as a society with women in the #SportBiz?” Florida Atlantic Univ. Associate Head Basketball Coach Mike Jarvis II wrote, “ESPN hits the mark once again with the Nine for IX Branded. Some great stuff, it is amazing how far women's sports have come.#espn#Branded."

: “Branded” finished with 633,000 viewers, marking the most-viewed documentary in the Nine for IX series. That audience ranked ahead of the net’s “30 for 30” premiere of “The 16th Man” in May ’10 (463,000) and just below the debut “30 for 30” documentary -- “King’s Ransom” -- which averaged 645,000 viewers. The Nine for IX doc with the second-best audience was “Runner” on Aug. 13, which averaged 548,000 viewers for a film about distance runner Mary Decker. For the entire series, ESPN averaged 446,000 viewers (Austin Karp, Assistant Managing Editor).