Branded Doc of the Week


If there is true equality between the sexes, why is it that women in sport, even those competing at the highest level, are often forced to sexualise themselves in order to maximise their commercial potential whereas men are not? Branded looks for answers. BT Sport 1, Fri, June 22nd 05.00

"There are two categories female athletes fall into with their marketing - wholesome, all-American, squeaky-clean or sexy vixen," Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast and one-time American sweetheart Mary Lou Retton explains during Branded, an expose on the murky world of top level female athletes and product endorsement. "Why is our society today like that? Why do women have to be like that and the men don't?"

We all know how important branding is in the digital age. It has become an integral part of the business of sport, particularly for female sports stars. If a top athlete wants to maximise their commercial potential, they have engage whether they like it or not. It’s that simple. That’s how the world works, we are told. It’s a troubling revelation.

"My assumption was always if you're at the top of your game, you can make a decent amount of money,” Branded co-director Rachel Grady explains. “But that's not the case, so the branding and the endorsement deals they get are even more crucial. We're not talking about gravy, we're talking about survival." It’s a relationship that is ripe for dysfunction – too often it’s more about looks than accomplishment.

Part of ESPN’s Nine For IX series, Branded features interviews with a wide range of female sports stars including Retton, former tennis player Chris Evert, beach volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, soccer players Hope Solo and Brandi Chastain and former WNBA star Lisa Leslie amongst others. Other interviewees include players’ agents and advertising and magazine executives.

Basically, the story is the same throughout as the harsh realities of the commercial world are laid bare. It’s a double standard in this so-called age of equality. For females it’s a case of sex sells - nothing else matters. Retton reveals how she was advised to “just be neutral, just give them that big smile” by branding experts at the time. “And that’s what I did,” she says ruefully, “and I lost my voice for a long time.”

Sex sells

The piece begins with the infamous ‘Battle of the Sexes’ between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in September 1973 and what her victory meant for female athletes. It was supposed to be a breakthrough moment, but it’s hard to know when you look back at what has happened since. We then see the rise of Evert to the status of marketing icon at the time of her great rivalry with Martina Navratilova. What she says of it all is quite revealing: "Whether you like it or not, the feminine women athletes were the only ones that got the endorsements." Sad but true and a real kick in the teeth for Navratilova who is without doubt one of the greatest female tennis players of all time – her face just didn’t fit.

Contrast that with the story of another former tennis player. Russian Anna Kournikova became the biggest name in the sport without ever winning a tournament. It was all about sex appeal. Others had exploited their sexuality before but never to the extent that it was central to their entire marketing strategy.

Double standard

While branding experts have been advising their female athlete clients to exploit their sexuality where possible, it doesn’t always go down well. NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and hurdler Lolo Jones were both heavily criticised for “taking on too many endorsements and for being sexy in ad campaigns”. One wonders if the ubiquitous Cristiano Ronaldo gets the same criticism? Put your shirt back on, Cristiano!

Speaking of people removing shirts, footballer Brandi Chastain was heavily criticised for removing her shirt during celebrations following the USA’s triumph in the 1999 Women’s World Cup. She doesn’t regret what she did, but remains surprised at the amount of discussion her ‘sports bra’ moment continues to generate.

It gets worse. The commercial reality was that the USA’s exploits at the 1999 Women’s World Cup weren’t enough to create sustainable interest in the sport. It brought in the mothers and daughters but not the sons and fathers. “In order for women's sports to survive, you need men to be into it," ESPN’s Darren Rovell says. "You cannot put the common denominator low enough when you're talking about the American public,” former Sports Illustrated For Women Editor Sandra Rosenbush says. “It's a white male world. We're just living in it." Jill Smoller, Senior VP with talent agency WME, adds: "We in the sports business don't make the rules. It’s a cultural issue; it's not just a women in sport issue. That's the way it is."

It’s both shocking and sad. However, a lot of progress has been made and former volleyball player Reece is optimistic for the future. Now a model and television presenter, she was born in 1970 and believes that things have come a long way in the battle for equality. “My generation and those younger than me, we’ve had the luxury of exploring other sides of female sports,” she says. “We were beyond having to fight for equality. We didn’t have to contend with just getting a place. It is a luxury to ask the next questions – how can we grow our sports, get more prize money and get more attention.”

I’m not sure all her fellow athletes would be in full agreement.

Images: Getty

There are plenty of great documentaries to watch out for on the eir sport pack every week. From football to golf, GAA, rugby, athletics and beyond, we’ve got something for everyone. Watch out next week for another fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the sporting world or go to for more sports news and stories or to find out more about how we're setting sport free.

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