Selling sex doesn’t sell sports

“Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” were the words that FIFA President, Joseph S. (Sepp) Blatter uttered back in 2004, sparking intense controversy.

“They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball.”

Blatter’s comments caused an outcry among female soccer players the world over but in truth, he was not saying anything new; sports organizations and the media have been attempting to sell women’s sports with a sexual tinge for years.

2009 saw the most blatant example of using the sex appeal of female athletes to sell sports when the Lingerie Football League was created, a professional female tackle football league that sees the players wearing only bras, panties, shoulder pads and helmets (with clear visors instead of face masks, of course).

Not all examples are so extreme, however. In 1999, the ruling international governing body for volleyball, the FIVB, standardized beach volleyball uniforms to be smaller, even implementing a maximum size.

“There really is no empirical proof to prove this assertion,” says Dr. Nicole Lavoi of the Tucket Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota. “Yes, we know sex sells – it sells jeans, and perfumes and god knows what else. But nobody has any proof that sex sells women’s sports. It’s a big assumption. And those of us that critique that assumption say ‘show us the data,’ because we have data that says otherwise. To those that actually want to consume women’s sports, it’s quite an offensive assumption.”

More than from just inside the actual organizations, it is the media portrayal and coverage given to women’s sports that puts an emphasis on sex. Each year when the Rogers Cup rolls around, it is rarely the number one seed that gets to grace the cover of Canadian sports sections, but instead one of the players with universal sex appeal like Maria Sharapova.

“[What this does is it] makes female athletes think how they themselves have to promote this kind of sexy, hetero, feminine image, whether they want to or not. It’s kind of like that’s the business, so that’s what you have to do,” Lavoi said. “This is problematic because it has nothing to do with athletic performance, but it’s kind of seen like you have to play this game to be promoted, and not all female athletes can conform to that feminine norm.”

By the same token, though, it’s hard to ignore the fact that some female athletes do project this sexy image themselves in other media. Last year, U.S. Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn famously posed in a bikini atop a ski hill for Sports Illustrated, while mediocre tennis star Anna Kournikova has posed for Maxim and FHM multiple times.

Lavoi believes one reason for this could be the result of poor media attention and endorsements towards women’s sports, so they are trying to take advantage of their 15 minutes of fame and make a significant amount of money to help fund their training and simple living expenses.

The other side, according to Lavoi, is that these female athletes feel they have a choice to show off their bodies, but don’t realize that that choice is created in an unequal system.

“Yes, they have a choice, but their choices are tempered by this whole binary system that female athletes are never valued as much as male athletes. So when they go ahead and sexualize themselves they’re in fact becoming part of the problem, not the solution, but they don’t see it that way. And it’s not their fault they’ve been co-opted into believing this is the way to promote female athletes.”

Regardless of the reasons for sexualizing female sports and female athletes, it simply is not working in promoting the sports on the same scale as their male counterparts. Looking at basketball figures, the WNBA averaged just over 7,800 fans per game in the 2010 season, while the NBA averaged a whopping 17,520. In college hoops, the female UConn Huskies team – who had a record 90 consecutive wins and were named third on SI’s “Teams of the Decade” – averaged 10,182 fans per home game, comparable to the men’s Xavier team, who finished 44th in overall attendance.

Lavoi believes that the media must cover women’s athleticism as opposed to the “sex sells” approach and that female athletes must stand up to this idea in order to get women’s sports appreciated for the athletes themselves.

Another possibility, however, could simply be time-based. Compared to the men’s professional leagues, women’s pro sports are still in their infancy and trying to break into the mainstream market. Coverage and attention have gone up in recent years, so these leagues and sports may just need to go through this rough patch and time will bring them the desired attention.

The worst thing for them would be to be typecast for their sex appeal – that is, if they want to be taken seriously.

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