Does Sex Sell Women’s Sport?

I’ve been wanting to write a blog about this topic for awhile and a recent interview given by my colleague and the Director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport Professor Mary Jo Kane on the Edge of Sports Radio with Dave Zirin provided me with a perfect opportunity!

In the interview with Zirin she discusses research, conducted with Heather Maxwell (Ph.D.), in which their findings refute the idea that sex sells women’s sports. Kane also discusses how the notion of “sex sells” is related to depictions of motherhood and female athletes—like the magazine covers of Sheryl Swoopes and Candace Parker pictured here, homophobia and Pat Griffin’s idea of The Glass Closet, and her thoughts on the Women’s Final Four sport media coverage. (Note: Motherhood and elite female athletes is a popular blog topic lately..see Maria Hardin’s blog and the Pretty Tough blog)Swoopes and Parker_pregnant

I also think Kane’s interview helps us think through why some female athletes feel it is important to “have it all” (i.e., be sexy, feminine, AND athletic)…which I’ve touched upon in a previous blog about social media.

The interview is less than 5 minutes and well worth your while to hear one of the leading experts on sport media, Title IX, gender, and women’s sports talk critically and share cutting edge research. In the end, as Zirin says, “Sex sells sex“. Sex does NOT sell women’s sports.

8 Replies to “Does Sex Sell Women’s Sport?”

  1. Sex does sell women’s sport but not dramatically. I believe men see these ‘sexy’ women on magazine covers, commercials, etc. and get a little curious about the sport but once they actually do turn the channel to an Indy Car race or WNBA game they switch the channel shortly after. They realize that they won’t see these female athletes the way they are depicted in the media (can’t see Danica Patrick since she’s in her car, women are in their uniforms, etc.). So it does promote the game slightly but it won’t keep the interest of men all that long. Basically what this is is what the radio host said and that is sex sells sex, and once men realize they won’t get it by watching the sport they become less interested. Another idea that I thought of when listening to the audio clip was that men might actually get intimidated or scared of women that are about their skill level or better then them at a particular sport. Do they want to deny this possibility so they don’t pay attention to women sports? In closing, unless it’s women’s tennis where women are wearing short shorts/skirts or tight little outfits, men won’t tune in to the sport all to long unless they actually have a passion or a connection for/to that sport.

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  2. This is an informative post. To my mind, athletic competence (i.e., athleticism) is indeed the key thing. Unfortunately, an excellent opportunity to address this was missed during the interview. The gentleman in the studio, there ostensibly as a friendly witness, informs us that female basketball players have better “fundamentals.” Why? Because they can’t rely (as much?) on athletic gifts. The slight is overlooked, however, in the rush to talk of other, less relevant matters.

    Payton Manning can host SNL and star in a half dozen or so loopy commercials without anyone once thinking it hurts his status as an athlete. The same goes for Reggie Bush when he reposes like a half-naked Adonis in an equally loopy Subway commercial. (Shaq? look at his IMDb profile.) They can do these things because they are among the very best in the world at their sport/position. Their superior athleticism is self-evident, on the court or field, and requires little marketing. (Indeed, more often it is turned to market other things.) Sport is, after all, the search for the superior athlete, so it is no surprise that athleticism matters most in the end. Hence, the pecking order of the sports world as you find it today.

    The problem is there are few female athletes who fall into this category, which isn’t, of course, their fault. In many cases, where they theoretically could, they aren’t allowed to compete directly with men, and thus can’t prove themselves against the established best. Moreover, outmoded, traditional ideals of femininity keep them from fully developing their physical prowess, atrophied from generations of forced neglect; e.g., it still isn’t entirely acceptable for a woman to develop large, powerful muscles–something many women are quite capable of doing.

    Clearly, then, this research at best skims the central issue (as for what sex sells, I think Jaime has it about right), and has no relevance at all to the career choices or personal expressions of someone like Chantelle Anderson. But I end by pointing out something: namely, it is based on nothing more than focus groups, a not always satisfactory way to gather data.

    Snippets from “Quantitative Methods in Public Administration: Focus Groups”:

    “Focus groups are not a panacea for tapping “true” feelings. People often do not themselves understand their own motivations and preferences and thus cannot articulate them well. People have complex, even conflicting motivations which may come together in unpredictable ways given only slightly varying ways of presenting a stimulus. People may give acceptable or politically correct responses in front of peers, and they may act differently in real situations compared with hypothetical ones. They may be aware of the study’s sponsorship and tell the researcher what they believe he or she wants to hear. People tend to express views which enhance their own image of themselves, and they also may formulate opinions “on the spot,” lacking any real commitment to what they say. And people lie.”

    “Focus groups are generally a poor choice when quantitative information is desired (ex., when one wants to know the percentage of people who will buy product X or vote for candidate X). The small size of focus groups makes any estimates of quantitative proportions unreliable, even if the members of the focus group are representative of the target population. By the same token, focus group research is a poor choice for multivariate research, where one again needs the stability of large random samples to be ably to disaggregate the effects of explanatory variables through statistical techniques.”
    (http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/garson/PA765/focusgroups.htm)

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    1. Rob, Thanks for your post. I have some thoughts in return. When you said, “The gentleman in the studio, there ostensibly as a friendly witness, informs us that female basketball players have better “fundamentals.” Why? Because they can’t rely (as much?) on athletic gifts” was a missed opportunity for dialogue, I have to disagree. Zirin glossed over that comment, because his comment was sexist. Female athletes have just as many “athletic gifts” as male athletes and I (and many others) disagree that the “superior athleticism[of males] is self-evident”. Those kind of statements only reinforce outdated gender stereotypes.

      Your comments about the method-focus groups- I will address next. First, the study Dr. Kane discusses with Zirin was an exploratory pilot study, therefore focus groups were an appropriate qualitative method to employ (obtaining large amounts of quantitative data was not the purpose of the study). Second, many steps were taken during the focus groups to avoid group think, social desirability, and coercion, but you wouldn’t of known that and that doesn’t make for interesting sports talk radio. Third, EVERY research method has pros/cons but a good researcher chooses a method based on the research question. Few, if any, researchers versed in methodology and methods would agree that focus groups are the magic bullet and without downsides….but for this study, it was the right choice and not chosen without consideration.

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  3. Nicole: I truly appreciate your reply, though it seems a bit jumbled, possibly a result of your misunderstanding me at times. Perhaps I should have made myself clearer.

    I’ll begin with the focus-group study. I am quite aware that each research method has pros and cons; some better suited than others for a certain type of study. I also understand that your colleagues likely had a few controls in place for this “exploratory pilot study,” but these, even if effective, would address only a mere subset of the problems outlined above. The truth, then, is that a focus-group study isn’t nearly capable of producing what you claim: findings that “refute the idea that sex sells women’s sports.” It would take a much more comprehensive study–more nuanced, as Jaime’s comment implies, and more focused on what people do rather than what they only say–to “refute” the notion that sex doesn’t, ever, sell women’s sports.

    My larger point, however, is, I hope, more straightforward: whether or not sex sells women’s sports isn’t the, or even a, decisive question. (I think we can agree that even if it does, the effect is probably modest, not nearly enough to push fan attendance to the levels found in men’s sports.) More important is how the athleticism of female athletes is perceived. I use elite male athletes as examples here only to show that commercials, underwear ads, “sexualized” poses, etc. are of little consequence if the athletic ability is beyond question. Practically by definition, athleticism matters most in sports, and it would be more than a little foolish to deny the superior athleticism of athletes like Payton Manning, Reggie Bush, and Shaq–they are demonstrably among the best in the world at what they do.

    You will find no more staunch a believer in or supporter of the idea that female athletes have as many innate athletic gifts as male athletes. My views on the latent abilities of female athletes fall well outside the mainstream (e.g., that in the near future women will compete with and surpass men in many sports, including those traditionally considered the most “masculine”), and I make a pretty convincing case when challenged to do so. But, as I had hoped my comment made clear, female athletes are also confronted with unfair, unreasonable obstacles, which have thus far prevented the full realization of these athletic gifts.

    The battles we face, then, have to do mainly with providing an environment for female athletes where higher and higher levels of athleticism can be achieved. That means, for example, opportunities to compete against men, since competition is required to improve in athletics. It also means overturning outmoded ideals of femininity so female athletes aren’t reluctant to develop the large, powerful muscles needed for many sports. These are the things that matter, not the question of what happens when an athlete appears on a magazine cover in a revealing swimsuit.

    Thus it would have been better, in my view, to correct the gentleman when he made that comment, because it was not only sexist but cut to the heart of the biggest issue facing female athletes.

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    1. Forgive me. The end of the last sentence in my second paragraph should read: “to “refute” the notion that sex sells women’s sports; i.e., prove that sex doesn’t, ever, sell women’s sports.”

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  4. [quote]The battles we face, then, have to do mainly with providing an environment for female athletes where higher and higher levels of athleticism can be achieved. That means, for example, opportunities to compete against men, since competition is required to improve in athletics. It also means overturning outmoded ideals of femininity so female athletes aren’t reluctant to develop the large, powerful muscles needed for many sports. These are the things that matter, not the question of what happens when an athlete appears on a magazine cover in a revealing swimsuit.[/quote]

    But doesn’t appearing on a magazine cover in a revealing swimsuit, while being lauded as the epitome of what it means to be a “sportswoman,” reinforce those “outmoded ideals of feminity?” I’m sure that there are some that disaggregate the two, but what I tend to see is women who do develop and display a more muscle-bound physique being denigrated as “manly,” which undercuts their desirability.

    This is a dilemma that male athletes don’t have to face. In most sports, muscle mass is desirable, and a body filled with ripped muscles is generally viewed as the masculine ideal. We aspire to it, and look up to those that have it. There isn’t a conflict between athletic performance and sexual desirability, and many male athletes revel in the fact that their physiques suggest potency and virility…to the point that their sexual exploits are often as broadcast as their athletic ones.

    But while I do agree that sex doesn’t “sell” women’s sports, I think that it very much helps “market” women’s sports, through giving athletes promotion and visibility that isn’t being funded by sports leagues, and allowing female athletes to supplement their income through lucrative endorsements — the spoils of being the “superstar” athlete. A female athlete is being insufficiently incentivized to become the next Lebron James or David Beckham, rather than say, the next Britney Spears or Shakira, because the prospects aren’t nearly as lucrative. Because sexualization offers access to revenue that pure athletic excellence does not, promising female athletes may be driven to the sport…so long as they (ironically) preserve the fetishistic status quo.

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    1. Just Mike: “But doesn’t appearing on a magazine cover in a revealing swimsuit, while being lauded as the epitome of what it means to be a ‘sportswoman,’ reinforce those ‘outmoded ideals of feminity?'”

      My answer: No, not of necessity. And certainly not when it is a powerfully built, accomplished athlete; e.g., Dara Torres or one of the Williams sisters. In a case like that, I would in fact argue it has the opposite effect.

      “I’m sure that there are some that disaggregate the two, but what I tend to see is women who do develop and display a more muscle-bound physique being denigrated as ‘manly,’ which undercuts their desirability.”

      Exactly the sort of binary thinking we have to get past. I don’t see where covering them up accomplishes this.

      “A female athlete is being insufficiently incentivized to become the next Lebron James or David Beckham, rather than say, the next Britney Spears or Shakira, because the prospects aren’t nearly as lucrative.”

      Finally the crux of the matter: Why is she insufficiently ‘incentivized’? But before answering that question, answer also: Why do, say, semi-pro athletes (no matter the sport) have fewer prospects than pro athletes? Or, for that matter, pro second-stringers compared to pro stars? Further, Division III athletes as opposed to Division I athletes? …

      Sport is after all a quest for the best athlete. Thus the best athletes are the ones most rewarded; unless you plan to change the entire paradigm on which sport is based, that will always be so.

      What matters most, then, is breaking down barriers that prevent female athletes from becoming better athletes. And since the mere act of an athlete’s appearing on a magazine cover in a swimsuit does not intrinsically present such a barrier, it is of marginal concern–at most.

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