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Commentary > SportsBiz
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Sex in play in women's sports
Women sports execs believe athletes' sex appeal is marketing plus, but tough to see long term gains.
August 23, 2002: 7:02 PM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - No one denies that sex appeal is part of Derek Jeter's or Jason Sehorn's strong fan popularity. But it's tough to imagine the Yankees or the Giants calling in fashion designers or top hair stylists and makeup experts to give their stars lessons on enhancing their appearance.

But the Ladies Professional Golf Association did offer that kind of training to about 60 of its members last month, saying that appearance is one of a five point plan to attracting more fans to their sport. The full day of instruction included help from fashion designer hair-stylist John Barrett, and makeup artist Trish McEvoy, who helped give the athlete tips such as how to make their hair appear more "touchable."

Professional soccer player Heather Mitts turned down her chance to pose in Playboy, but her looks helped land her on late night television.  
Professional soccer player Heather Mitts turned down her chance to pose in Playboy, but her looks helped land her on late night television.

No women sports executive or expert I talked to suggested that sex appeal alone is enough to build fan interest in a sport. With so many R-rated and X-rated forms of entertainment easily available, it's tough to picture young males flocking to women's sports simply because the players are nice to look at.

But while some executives worry about a backlash from families and young female fans if the promotion of player's sexuality goes too far, others see sex appeal is an important part of the product they have to sell, in a market where competition with other sports for fans' attention is always fierce.

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"We don't ignore the sexuality part of it. But we don't feel we go over the line," said Chris De Maria, spokesman for the Women's Tennis Association, which has published calendars with pictures of its stars in evening gowns or other non-tennis poses. "We do go after glamour pieces in non-sports publications, but in a tasteful way. It's part of our marketing for sure, because it's a positive part of what we have to offer."

Ty Votaw, the LPGA commissioner, insists that his sport emphasizes athletic performance first and foremost in its "five points of celebrity" program to attract fans. But he also says that athletic performance alone is not enough to build strong ties between players and fans.

Women's tennis executives say they see their players' sex appeal as an asset for the sport.  
Women's tennis executives say they see their players' sex appeal as an asset for the sport.

"I was proud of our players for wanting to learn about things that could help them present themselves to the public," said Votaw about the seminar on physical appearance. "I think it's one of high points of the year. It's no different from any other entertainer who is concerned that they present themselves in the most favorable light."

The most blatant promotion of women athletes' sex appeal isn't done by any of the sports - it's generally done by men's magazines. For Him Magazine just put tennis star Anna Kournikova on the cover as its pick for the World's Sexiest Woman, although no naked photos of Kournikova appeared in the spread.

Playboy, which ran a nude pictorial of volleyball player and model Gabrielle Reece in January 2001 issue, regularly runs online polls of readers asking which women golfer, tennis, basketball, or soccer player they'd most like to see pose, and it has contacted winners and some of the other top finishers in the polls to see if they'd be willing to pose.

WNBA star Lisa Harrison held negotiations with Playboy about posing last year but decided not to.  
WNBA star Lisa Harrison held negotiations with Playboy about posing last year but decided not to.

Women's National Basketball Association star Lisa Harrison had negotiations with the magazine last year before deciding not to pose. The latest winner, soccer player Heather Mitts of the WUSA, also said no. But Mitts landed a late night television appearance due to winning the poll.

"If we had gotten a soccer player to pose, I think privately the league would have said it was a great thing while publicly they would have said it was a bad thing," said Blair Fischer, sports editor for Playboy.com. "The average person doesn't know who Heather Mitts is. If she poses, it makes news, and people are going to have interest in that person. I don't see how it can hurt."

Mitt's agent David Bober said she never considered posing, and that it wouldn't be the best thing for her or any athlete's career to pose naked.

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"I think it would probably put some change in her purse short term, but it wouldn't help her relationship with corporate sponsors in the long run," he said.

WUSA President Lynn Morgan said she was pleased but not surprised that none of her players agreed to pose. She worries that a soccer player posing naked would cause a backlash with parents and young female fans that make up a majority of ticket buyers, and wouldn't do anything to attract male fans to the games.

"If we market ourselves as anything other than what we truly are, we become a one-hit wonder with the fans we attract," said Morgan.

Even the PG-13 promotion of players' sex appeal diminishes many fans appreciation of the women's athletic abilities, whether that's fair or not.

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"Jason Sehorn can be on a billboard in his underwear in Times Square and no one questions his athletic ability," said one women's sports executive, who didn't want her name used with these comments. "Can you imagine what people would say if Venus Williams or (WNBA Star) Sue Bird posed in her underwear? It's a double standard, but we're fairly schizophrenic when it comes to women sports and sex."  Top of page




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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.