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
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,
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
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
"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
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,
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
"It's very empowering to be a woman in sports these
Bernard Stamler, The New York Times. August 9, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The New York Times. All rights reserved.