Sex sells? Trend may be changing

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

In an exclusive clip from the Nine for IX film "Branded," the WNBA brands its new surplus of athleticism as the reason why fans should watch. "Branded" premieres Aug. 27th on ESPN (8 p.m. ET).

Sex sells.

Most of us have heard this phrase so many times, we no longer question its veracity, especially when it comes to sports. As the popular thinking goes, if a female athlete wants to succeed in the endorsement game, she should be willing to trade on her body and her looks first, her athletic talent second.

Just take a glance in the rearview mirror. Over the past 15 years, some of the female athletes who have won biggest in the race for sponsors are Danica Patrick, Maria Sharapova and Anna Kournikova.

In the Nine for IX film "Branded," premiering Tuesday on ESPN (8 p.m. ET), filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady tackle the age-old question in women's sports: Will sex appeal always supersede achievement?

But before we try to answer that, we need to ask ourselves a few more: Does sex really sell now? How do we know for sure? What if I told you it doesn't?

What if I told you there is research to the contrary? As in, research showing that consumers, when deciding whether to buy a sports-related product, respond more to advertisements that portray female athletes as -- get this -- athletes.

Because that's exactly what grassroots studies have shown, according to Janet Fink, an associate professor in the department of sports management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. "Another thing we are finding, and this makes sense, is that each time a female athlete is pictured in a sexualized way, it diminishes the perception of her athletic ability," said Fink, who specializes in sports consumer behavior, as well as media and marketing depictions of female athletes.

This perception is true for men, too: When you see a sexualized picture of a male athlete, say David Beckham modeling underwear or Tom Brady wearing Uggs, your subconscious tends to put a little black mark next to his athletic endeavors. Doubt creeps in where none might have existed before, and you begin to question Beckham's soccer skills or Brady's superiority as a quarterback.

Even though this kind of marketing can undercut both genders, the real damage has been done on the women's side, because nearly all of our popular, mainstream representations of female athletes play up their off-the-field appeal, with performance taking a backseat.

In light of the research conducted by Fink and other academics in recent years, just think of the negative effects these marketing images have had on how we, as a society, view women's sports. It goes a long way toward explaining why a highly successful female athlete can often feel like Sisyphus, pushing the rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down -- because the sports world is still mostly operating as if bikinis on soccer players and slinky dresses on tennis stars are where the money is.

Changes are coming, though, and some are already upon us, providing a glimpse of how female athletes might be marketed in the future, when we will likely see a wider range of women as endorsers, rather than just a select handful (those traditionally deemed the sexiest and prettiest, within narrow parameters).

Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images

Brittney Griner is the first openly gay athlete to sign with Nike.

Consider WNBA rookie Brittney Griner. In rejecting the age-old marketing model for female athletes -- to begin with, she is the first openly gay athlete to sign with Nike -- she has made it clear she wants her brand to represent her authentic self, not an ideal that Madison Avenue has created. While Griner and Nike are still determining the exact approach they'll take, both sides have said they want to "break the mold."

Likewise, young girls who are just starting out in sports will take note when they see a fierce competitor like soccer star Abby Wambach pitching Gatorade with a take-no-prisoners attitude on the field. Tough. Sweaty. Strong.

"If girls see more images of female athletes as athletes, then it shifts their thinking," said Nicole Lavoi, a professor at the University of Minnesota and the associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports. "That's the game-changer. It opens up the idea that we can see and celebrate all female athletes."

Usually a company wants to work with a male athlete if he can check at least one of the following boxes: seems trustworthy, possesses expertise, looks attractive. The more boxes, the higher his worth. But with women, there is typically only one box that marketers care about. "What we seem to do with female athletes is focus on their attractiveness," Fink said. "It's the only thing we sell about them. So if you look at female endorsers, sometimes they are not even the best in their sport."

And then the rock rolls all the way back downhill and we start again.

"The blame isn't on the athlete," Fink continued. "They're playing the only game that exists. I think soon the marketing executives and mainstream media need to realize how the next generation wants to see its female athletes. And that's simply as athletes."

The irony, as both Fink and Lavoi point out, is that some female athletes, and entire leagues, are still glamming themselves up in the name of mainstream appeal, even though several studies have shown (for male and female athletes) there is no correlation between seeing a sexy image and then actually turning on the game to watch the player whose sexy image you have seen.

"Actually, what helps, believe it or not, is to show their true athletic ability," Fink said.

Talent sells.

That might not sound as sexy, but for the next generation of female athletes, it could prove more rewarding.

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