Ready for prime time
August 31, 2001: 9:40 a.m. ET

Athletic ability, not sex appeal, is what puts women's tennis on top in the sport
A weekly column by staff writer Chris Isidore
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Women's tennis is going where few women athletes or tennis players of any gender have gone before. On to prime time.

The women's finals for this year's U.S. Open will be at 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 8. The men's finals will be the next afternoon starting at about 4 p.m., finishing up in time for CBS to air "60 Minutes" and "Touched by an Angel" that evening.

Staff writer Chris Isidore covers the business of sports for
The women's game has the sport's marquee stars at the moment, and a more interesting and exciting style of play according to most tennis fans' standards. While the top men players blow 130 m.p.h. serves past one another, women use a full repertoire of shots to win exciting volleys.

If sex appeal of the stars is any factor in CBS's decision to make the women's final the first tennis tournament to get such valuable exposure, it's only the third most important factor, says Rob Correa, senior vice president of programming for CBS Sports. He ranks name recognition of the players, and the recent attention that their criticisms of one another has received, as the No. 1 factors, and their style of play as No. 2.

"There seems to be a little more sizzle to the women's game," Correa says. "I think the advantage the women's game is there's a number of dream match-ups (for the finals). The Williams sisters together, Jennifer Capriati going for her third major of the year, Lindsey Davenport the all-American girl, and there are a number of others that could give us a great match-up for the final."

Venus Williams is not only one of the top players in the game, she's the top woman athlete in terms of endorsements.
Left unsaid is that finding a compelling pairing for the men's final is as likely as the late Bobby Riggs coming back to head the Women's Tennis Association.

And yet there are many men, and some sponsors, who apparently believe sex appeal is still the most compelling part of women's tennis.

When this column has focused on women's sports, it gets e-mail about the need for more sex appeal by the players. Many ads involving tennis player Anna Kournikova still center on her sex appeal. But playing up sex appeal over sports appeal is an idea that should be as out of date as wooden rackets and leaping over the net.

For starters, the majority of any tennis match's coverage consists of wide angle camera shots that cover both sides of the court, and makes it difficult to tell Jennifer Capriati from Gustavo Kuerten. Virtually any other sport other than football and hockey has more close-up shots of the players than does tennis. No one watches football or hockey to ogle the players, and few are watching tennis for that reason either.

Second, anyone who is watching for the sex appeal of the players must never have heard of cable, videos, or even prime time network programming, and probably is still reading National Geographic for cheap thrills. Women might be wearing more attractive outfits than in the past, but no matter the appearance of the stars it is never going to draw viewers seeking prurient rather than athletic excitement.

Anna Kournikova, shown here in a Lycos commercial, is the exception who's known more for her sex appeal than her athletic ability.
True, Kournikova, a marginal player with supermodel looks, is one of the sport's top endorsers. But CBS clearly wasn't planning on her making the finals when it set the tournament schedule.

She would have only been the 19th seed at the Open before an injury forced her to withdraw and she's never won a tournament. It's unfortunate, but an exception to the rule, that she's one of the higher-profile players in the game.

"If you look at advertising, in general it's about appearance and beauty, said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports & Celebrities Inc. "But in the case of sports endorsements, it's not a decision maker. Anna Kournikova has taken that to the nth degree. But she's the first athlete who's been able to acquire and maintain a large portfolio based on her appearance rather than her performance. Normally you have to be a top player in your sport."

Click here for a look at's coverage of the U.S. Open

And despite what many people think, Kournikova is not at the top of the women's endorsement list.

That title goes to Venus Williams, arguably the game's best player, who signed a five-year, $40 million deal with Reebok and has a bevy of other endorsements in her equipment bag as well.

Martina Hingis is the No. 3 woman tennis player in terms of endorsement dollars.
Martina Hingis, another top player, is No. 3 in endorsement dollars with about $6 million a year according to Burns' rankings, which puts her just behind the photogenic Kornikova.

While the U.S. and Australian open do pay equal purses to men and women champions, women are still fighting for equal prize money at Wimbledon and the French Open and at many of the other eight tournaments where both compete. That's unfortunate, given the sport's better ratings and popularity over the men's game. They should not have to fight for equal respect for their athletic ability, given that theirs is now a more complete, and interesting, game than the one played by their male counterparts.

Hit and run

Football ratings were down last year, along with all the other major team sports. That coupled with the general downturn in advertising in the current weak economy is leading to lower prices for time on NFL games that start next weekend.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the networks had sold only 70 percent of time on the games for the season, down from 90 percent a year ago.

But Andrew Donchin, director of national broadcast for media buying firm Carat USA, says that the many advertisers are taking advantage of softer rates to buy more time on the games, rather than cut their overall spending. Fans certainly shouldn't expect to be spared the television timeouts due to lack of demand.

"It is a softer marketplace, but no more than anything else," he said. "It's still pretty good place to be."

As to ad demand for the other big sporting events on the horizon, Donchin said that NBC is looking at relatively strong demand and ad rates for the upcoming Winter Olympics, helped tremendously by the games being broadcast live to the U.S. market from Salt Lake City rather than on tape delay from the other side of the world.

"There's a premium to be there. It's not a cheap event," he said. "They're looking for an average 17 household rating, but even if you get only 15 or 16, getting that for two straight weeks is pretty damn good."

The sport with the potential for a big lift in ratings could be in the National Basketball Association if Michael Jordan does return, Donchin said.

"The rates could go up, but the ratings will go up, so it could be worth it," Donchin said. "It's Michael Jordan, people are going to tune in to see him."...

The National Football League started using replacement referees in Thursday night's exhibition games, after talks with the league's regular refs broke down. If you're going to bet on one side or the other, bet on the league, which didn't mind using replacement players to win a strike in the mid 1980s.

Replacement refs confer in one of the pre-season games Thursday.

Te NFL refs are all part-time employees who have other jobs, sometimes good paying jobs, during the week. While they might be in better position than most locked-out union members to survive a long-term dispute, the money they make on the field is probably not as crucial for them, making a hard-line negotiating stance less likely.

The NFL refs had asking to get close to the umpires and refs who work full-time in other sports, which would give many of them a four-fold increase in pay. The last NFL offer was reportedly closer to a doubling in pay.

But even if the NFL wins the contract fight, the game could be a loser. That's because there is the potential for far more than bad calls if the NFL prolongs the use of the replacement refs who aren't used to calling games played at the speed of those in the NFL.

As some players have been quick to point out, the refs are there to help protect the players on the field in the dangerous contact sport. If penalties start being missed, and players start taking more chances, the risk of injuries for star players rises.

If the NFL loses some of its marquee players, the league will have proven to be penny wise and pound foolish in these talks ...

Years after he retired and baseball salaries soared, Joe DiMaggio was asked what he thought he'd be paid in the current market. He joked he'd walk in to the Yankees' owner and say "Hi, partner." Apparently retired football star John Elway left the game with that kind of negotiating position.

The Rocky Mountain News reports that a lawsuit involving Broncos owner Pat Bowlen says that Elway had a clause in his last contract that gave him a chance to buy a 10 percent stake in the team for $30 million upon retirement, but he never exercised that option shortly after he hung up the spikes in 1999.

Elway subsequently made an attempt to buy the Denver Nuggets and NHL Colorado Avalanche and is now trying to become co-owner of a new Denver Arena Football franchise, the paper reports. Forbes magazine's most recent estimates puts the value of the Broncos at $471 million, up $10 million from its 1999 estimate, meaning the option represented about a $16 million discount. Forbes puts the Nuggets' value at $124 million and the Avalanche at $160 million.

Strikes are normally the last thing airline passengers want to hear about, but America West Airlines customers may feel differently. The Phoenix-based airline has been offering passengers a 1 percent discount for each strikeout by Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Randy Johnson in his most recent game. He struck out 9 in his last start, Aug. 28.  graphic


Tennis nets sponsors - Nov. 21, 1996

Adidas profit falls on U.S. sales decline - May 3, 2001


Business of $ports column archive - The Sisters vs. The World coverage of U.S. Open

The 2001 U.S. Open

The Women's Tennis Association