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Women Athletes Gain Fame, but Madison Avenue Isn't Buying

The lightning struck first in 1996, when the United States women's soccer team won the gold at the summer Olympic Games, a traditional generator of sports heroes. Then it happened again, a year ago. After a month of matches, the United States women's soccer team -- composed largely of Olympic athletes -- beat China in a spectacular finale and captured the 1999 Women's World Cup. Before, during and after, the nation watched, rapt, as it rarely had for any women's team sport.

Players like Mia Hamm became media darlings, their names known to all. And Madison Avenue sat up and paid attention.

Or did it?

"With their great success on the field, it should have been a given that great commercial success would have come to all of these women," said Nova Lanktree, whose Lanktree Sports Celebrity Network in Chicago has been matching athletes and endorsers for 15 years.

"But it hasn't."

One year after the triumph of Team USA and with the start of the 2000 summer Games only weeks away, prospects are indisputably better than they once were. But it seems that when it comes to women and product endorsements, sex still sells better than athletic prowess on the playing fields.

Exhibit A: Anna Kournikova, the pretty 19-year-old tennis player whose looks have earned her an estimated $11 million to $15 million in endorsement contracts despite a lackluster record on the professional circuit.

While Ms. Kournikova is only ranked 19th in the world, her earnings are about equal to those of the top-seeded player, Martina Hingis, who has won millions in tournament money. Ms. Kournikova, in fact, came just behind Ms. Hingis in income among female athletes on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list. Indeed, her endorsement contracts put her ahead of more accomplished athletes like Monica Seles ($7.5 million in annual income) and Venus and Serena Williams ($5 million and $6 million, respectively).

Even Ms. Kournikova could not come close to earning what the men did, like Tiger Woods ($47 million), Michael Jordan ($40 million) and even the 70-year-old Arnold Palmer ($19 million).


Simple economics. "For an advertiser, the most important element is visibility," Ms. Lanktree said. "And in sports, women are just not as visible."

The problem is one of marketability, according to Ms. Lanktree, not sexism, Ms. Kournikova's obvious use of sex appeal to get endorsement contracts notwithstanding.

"There are not a lot of women's sports that are on par with respect to attendance and money," said Jackie Thomas, the director of women's marketing at Nike in Beaverton, Ore., which uses many female athletes to promote its footwear and athletic apparel.

"Endorsement payments are based on market value," Ms. Thomas said, "whether it's a man or a woman."

That does not mean, of course, that no woman athlete has achieved success in advertising on par with men, or that women cannot go beyond the sports clothing endorsements to which most have been limited in the past. Nike, for example, uses Ms. Hamm, the soccer player, to promote products that "transcend the gender line," as Ms. Thomas put it, and has in fact named one of the buildings on its Beaverton campus headquarters in her honor. And Gatorade, sold by Quaker Oats, recently introduced a campaign titled American Woman, with a television spot featuring Ms. Hamm; Chamique Holdsclaw, a star of the Women's National Basketball Association; the tennis legend Billie Jean King; and Marion Jones, the champion runner.

The Gatorade campaign is aimed at all consumers, not just women, as are other ads for Gatorade, featuring male athletes like Derek Jeter, Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan.

But that commercial is still the exception. Usually, advertisers who use female athletes do so because they are seeking to reach women. For instance, General Mills for its Multi-Grain Cheerios cereal just signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the Ladies Professional Golf Association because the market for the product is "women over 25," according to a General Mills spokesman, Greg Zimprich, who are a "perfect fit demographically" with the women's golf tour.

And then there is the ballyhooed case of Ms. Kournikova. She has endorsement contracts with Charles Schwab and Adidas, among others, and was the subject of a cover article in Sports Illustrated in June. The cheesecake layout accompanying the article led to criticism of her for perpetuating the stereotype of women as sex objects to the detriment of other female athletes who may be better at their sports but not as conventionally attractive.

But Ms. Kournikova has her defenders. "One of the beauties of being a woman today is that you can be a lot of different things," said Ms. Thomas at Nike, who said she believed that glamour was one of the many options that should be afforded to female athletes.

Nancy Lieberman-Cline, coach of the W.N.B.A. Detroit Shock and president of the nonprofit Women's Sports Foundation, agrees.

Though she called the Kournikova example an "isolated situation," Ms. Lieberman-Cline said that if "playing off her looks" is what Ms. Kournikova wants to do, she has the right to "project her image any way she wants."

Despite lingering inequalities, Ms. Lieberman-Cline said, things are "absolutely better than they were before." She ought to know: a member of the United States women's basketball team that won a silver medal at the 1976 Olympics, she was at the time one of only a few women athletes to obtain nationwide recognition and substantial product endorsements from companies like Johnson & Johnson and Jordache.

"In my day, it was Nancy or nothing," Ms. Lieberman-Cline said, adding: "That's really changed. Now I could rattle off the names of dozens of female athletes who are highly marketable."

"It's very empowering to be a woman in sports these days."



Bernard Stamler, The New York Times. August 9, 2000

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times. All rights reserved.