Game, Sex and Match: The Perils of Female Sports Advertising

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Dewey Nicks / Reel Sessions

How you feel about Kim Clijsters doing a split in a frilly orange skirt probably depends on your reaction to a well-oiled Caroline Wozniacki serving a tennis ball into a wind machine. Then again, these provocative scenarios, which form part of the Women's Tennis Association's new Strong Is Beautiful advertising campaign, seem tame compared with the spot starring Belarusian tennis ace Victoria Azarenka. "I like to hit the ball hard. Crush it," the 2011 Wimbledon semifinalist says in a voiceover, as the camera pans from her crotch to chest to face. "If the ball comes back, then it's trying to tell me something. How about a little harder?"

Some call them racy, while others call them inspiring. Either way, the series of photos and commercials that will roll out in 80 countries over the next two years certainly makes a statement. Hoping to raise the profile of the women's game, the WTA filmed 38 of its players — from Serena Williams to Li Na to Petra Kvitova — slugging away at balls that release glitter and colored powder upon impact. With their bulging thighs and taut arms, the women display their athleticism in a way that is meant to cut through the layers of chiffon and lace and suggest that beauty stems from strength. "The images are very much about power and grit and artistic beauty as opposed to physical beauty," says Andrew Walker, chief marketing officer for the tour. "We're very focused on who our players are: the world's best female athletes."

That may be true. But according to a number of sports-media researchers, the campaign — like so many others in female sports — undermines its players' achievements by sexualizing them, inadvertently or otherwise. And that just adds insult to injury. A recent study found that major television networks in the U.S. devote just 1.6% of airtime to women's sports — down from 6.3% in 2004 — and across TV and print media, female athletics makes up, at most, 8% of overall sports coverage. When female athletes are featured in ads, it tends to be in ways that hyperfeminize them rather than highlight their athletic competence. "Yes, these women are beautiful, but we see lots of cleavage and legs, and it's set to music that is reminiscent of soft-core porn," says Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota. "That might be interesting and titillating, but it isn't going to make me turn on Wimbledon."

LaVoi, who writes a popular blog on female athletics called One Sport Voice, says there is no evidence that sex actually sells sports. She believes the overwhelming presence of men on executive boards accounts for all the flashing of flesh in ad campaigns for women's sports, and says they may not even realize what they're doing. It's an issue that appears again and again. In May, the World Badminton Federation, hoping to raise the sport's popularity, decreed that starting June 1, all female players must wear skirts on the court "to ensure attractive presentation of badminton." (Following widespread outrage from players and fans alike, the federation is now reviewing its decision.) In February, the LPGA released its first ad in four years. It featured überfeminine player Natalie Gulbis, despite the fact that she is ranked No. 108 in the world. The WNBA has come under fire for focusing its campaigns on its more attractive players — like Diana Taurasi, who has long, flowing hair and appeared nude on the cover of ESPN magazine last October.

It's no mystery as to why these campaigns conform to gender norms, showcasing female athletes as feminine and sensual. It's the same reason that men's tennis will probably never run a campaign suggesting "strong is handsome" or try to court viewers by showing new world No. 1 Novak Djokovic with his shirt off. The issue at play is homophobia. "That's a huge part of this," says Marie Hardin, associate director of the Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. "There's this idea of the lesbian bogeywoman, the predatory lesbian in sports. Unfortunately, there's a real fear mongering that doesn't help women's sports at all."

But it isn't just organized sporting bodies that try to capitalize on notions of femininity. Mindful that they need to sustain their personal brands long after they retire, a number of female sports personalities portray themselves less as athletes and more as pinups. Timed with this month's Women's World Cup, five of Germany's professional soccer players posed in German Playboy in their underwear. "We want to disprove the cliché that all female footballers are butch," German midfielder Kristina Gessat told the magazine. "The message is: look, we are very normal — and lovely — girls!" And last November, U.S. skier Lindsay Vonn re-created Sharon Stone's infamous crossed-legs scene in Basic Instinct on the cover of ESPN magazine. "There's a real tension there," says Hardin of Penn State. "What female athletes choose to do to empower themselves personally does oftentimes chip away at the collective power of female athletes and of women's sports."

Ultimately, the controversy surrounding the portrayal of female athletes comes down to the context in which the public is comfortable looking at women. With that in mind, it's harder to fault the WTA. In fact, in its 30-second commercials, it blends the provocative imagery with details of the players' lives — and that elevates the ads beyond mere fluff. The spot featuring Ana Ivonovic is particularly stirring. "During the war in Serbia, they bombed us all day and all night," we hear her say as she takes a swing at a ball in slow motion. "But if I got up early enough, I could practice before the planes came." It's just a shame that her inner strength has to be wrapped in a billowy dress.

With reporting by Sonia Van Gilder Cooke