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

W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 1, 2002 -- 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."


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.

"It has been tried many times going back to at least Jan Stevenson and Laura Bow in the '70s," she adds. "It didn't help women's golf. In fact, it can become kind of a laughingstock. It, it focuses people's attention on the sexual aspect and clouds the athletic aspect and clouds the athletic aspect.

"Women have always been degraded by being disrobed and that option I think will always be open to women," Nurton says. "And women will be offered a lot of money to take their clothes off. But what happens when they do is they lose respect. It's a mistake for female athletes to go ahead and agree to do that and it can be damaging to all of women's sports when female athletes are seen as sex objects rather than as athletes."

Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today and a consultant for ABCNEWS, says women's sports need to progress in their marketing approach.

"We seem to be still pandering to the frat house when … many viewers of women's sports are 12-year-old girls with their 40-year-old dads," she says.

But Drew Rosenhaus, a sports agent, says the women's leagues are just giving the fans what they want.

"There is a large part of the sports viewership that wants to see good looking, female golfers and good looking female tennis players," he says, "and there's nothing wrong with that."

Double Standard?

However, when it comes to male athletes, their sex appeal definitely has something do with whom gets chosen to make commercials, but it's different.

"People aren't asking Tiger Woods to take off his clothes, and if they did he wouldn't do it, I hope," Nurton says. "I don't think he would because he respects himself too much. It would get him more attention. It might even get him more money. But it's not who he wants to be to the public."

On the other hand, Stevenson says, "If Tiger would disrobe there'd be a lot of people who'd like to see it, including myself."

While there are now individual voices raising objections to the sexualization of women's sports, you are not hearing protests from the organizations that oversee these sports, most of which are run by men, like the Women's Tennis Association.

"We don't apologize for, I think, the marketability of our players off the court," WTO CEO Kevin Wulff says. "You know, they're attractive. They're fit. They're recognized as great athletes, which they are — some of the greatest athletes in the world."

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