Sex Sells Women's Sports, But at a Price?

Once upon a time in women's tennis, a sport that was the very definition of prim and proper, along came a player named Gertrude Moran who lifted her skirts higher than ever before.

They called her "Gorgeous Gusy," because when she played, as the school yard jingle goes, you could see her underpants.

Well, the times changed and so did women's tennis. The skirts got even shorter, but nobody noticed any more.

The players, meanwhile, got better and better and better. Today, women's tennis gets as much respect as men's, if not more so, and sex has nothing to do with women's tennis now. Right?

Well then, what makes Anna Kournikova the star she is despite her non-winning record in major tournaments? It's simple. Her magazine covers. And the video she made with Enrique Iglesias.

The money Kournikova makes from commercial endorsements is in the same league as the income of the better playing Williams sisters, who, by the way, also have done plenty of off-court photo spreads emphasizing sex appeal.

Not Just Tennis

This is not simply a women's tennis thing.

In the world of soccer, Brandi Chastain — who famously kicked in the winning goal when the US won the Women's World Cup in 1999 and famously de-shirted, a gesture that is a tradition in men's soccer — she too had already taken the next step, an artfully concealing, but nearly nude photo for the men's magazine Gear.

This year, we hear from the world of women's golf — which like soccer is overshadowed by the men's version of the game — that the LPGA, the sport's governing body, is trying to gin up interest in the sport by marketing the players.

"[Appearance] was one of five points of celebrity we focused on and told our players to be mindful of," LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw says. "The very number one point … is performance. Everything else follows from that. But, you have to also find ways in which you make yourself relevant to our fan base, play the game and represent the sport with joy and passion, be mindful of your appearance and also be approachable so the fans want that autograph and that interaction with you."

‘Wonderful to Be Feminine’

It makes a lot of sense to Jan Stevenson, a player who won several championships in her career before moving on to the Senior Tour.

"It's really wonderful to be feminine," Stevenson says. "I mean, why do you have to hide your femininity to be a professional athlete?"

Stevenson is famous for having taken the marketing plunge herself at the height of her career. A picture of Stevenson in an alluring pose, one of several sexy shots, was one of the most talked about photos in sports in the late 1970s.

"If we create interest to get the players out there, or people out there, the fans, they're going to be watching who's leading the golf tournament when they get there," Stevenson said. "They may go watch the other cute girls, but when, when it comes down the stretch, they're going to be watching winners."

Backlash

But as Playboy magazine on its web-site now holds polls for the sexiest women in soccer, basketball, golf and tennis, and as the organizations that run these sports seem to be enthusiastic about anything that will get more men to watch the games, there is a backlash from athletes who say this is wrong.

"There's no evidence that it has ever helped a sport to expose women or to sexualize women," says Mariah Nurton, an author who as Mariah Burton Nelson played basketball professionally and for Stanford University.

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