Anyone who has had the chance to watch women’s sports know that it is serious stuff. But the way the games are marketed, it’s hard to take the game seriously. And that will remain the status quo as long as those responsible for promoting the games focus on pulchritude instead of power, precision, and play.
The Rogers Cup tennis tournament is the latest example of what’s wrong with the marketing of women’s sports.
Some of the finest women’s tennis players are currently in Toronto for the annual tournament, which switches venues with the concurrently running men’s tournament in Montreal. But the ads they’re running for the tournament make it look like you’re going to be watching a fashion show on the hard court instead of serious competition.
The first transgression comes in the form of the TV ads running that feature some of the top women’s players levelling ground strokes, backhands, and overhand smashes. That’s all well and good, except for the fact that the ladies are doing so while wearing evening dresses. I’ve yet to see an ad featuring Roger Federer, Novac Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal wearing tuxes on the court. Nor am I expecting to. After all, when it comes to the men, the game’s enough. And so should it be for the women.
The second transgression came in the form of a print ad that diminished the women’s game by asking fans to “Come for the ladies, stay for the legends.” This particular ad has already been pulled by Tennis Canada and replaced with a more generic, “Making history, reliving history” statement.
Essentially, what Tennis Canada stated with its print ad was that the women’s game isn’t enough of a draw on its own — and that the real interest should lie with the men, even if they’re now-retired former stars. But at least they’re male.
That attitude is pervasive throughout women’s sport. The recent women’s World Cup of soccer featured more shots of Hope Solo than any other player. Why? Because she’s hot. Casual sports fans would think that women’s softball was dominated only by Jennie Finch — and that she spent more of her time wearing bikinis than cleats. And let’s not even get into women’s beach volleyball.
Despite all of that, tennis has long been the worst for exploiting the looks of its participants over the quality of their game. For many, the face (and body) of women’s tennis is Anna Kournikova — a fine tennis player in her own right, but one who’s off-court appearance overshadowed any of her on-court accomplishments. She was followed by Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams — talented, dominant players in their own right, but still objects of attention for their appearance more than their game.
There’s nothing wrong with beauty. I’m not going to lie and say that there isn’t something appealing about watching attractive women. But it shouldn’t be the focus of your marketing efforts — especially if you want to be taken seriously on the global sports scene.
I fell in love with basketball thanks, in large part, to the women’s game. Back in my university days, I covered the women’s team and learned the game through their efforts. While men’s sports have long since devolved into little more than displays of power, women’s athletics feature much more in the way of team play, fundamentals, and strategy.
Fans complain about how the NBA is nothing more than a run and dunk league, with little regard for shooting fundamentals and passing. Men’s tennis is all about the power serve; a sustained rally is a rarity. Yet, those fans who complain about the lack of finesse and strategy completely ignore that women’s sports tend to offer those qualities in spades.
But until sport leagues and marketers choose to focus on something more than just physical attributes, women’s leagues will remain a side show. You can’t ask fans to take your game seriously while promoting it as little more than an athletic beauty contest. And while you may draw a few eyeballs from those interested in little more than short skirts and bouncing breasts, you’re paying for those views with the credibility of your sport.
Promoting your athletes as life-sized Barbies seems to be the only option leagues are comfortable with. But most people stop taking Barbie seriously in their youth — so why would anyone expect fans will take them seriously on the field of play?