Observations from the 2010 Women’s Final Four

As I’m watching the Men’s Final Four Final on TV, I have a few observations to share from my recent return from the Women’s Final Four in San Antonio. Both are related to Baylor’s Brittney Griner.

Play Like a Girl T-Shirt from SOOZN Design and Print

First, it was my week of meeting enterprising women that own their own companies. I was sitting on the Riverwalk before the semi-final games and fans of all the teams (Baylor, Stanford, UConn, OK) were filing by. There were even some lost Tennessee fans for some reason. Anyway, a couple women walked by with a great T-shirt that said “Play Like a Girl”. I had to get a picture of it, so I ran after them (see pic). The t-shirt is by SOOZN Design & Print. The shirt plays off of Griner’s ability to dunk. I asked the co-owner Susan Loftus (pictured on left with friend Jacky Howell) why make this shirt? She answered they were disgusted with the lack of t-shirts that pictured female athletes in action, that looked authentic and represented an accurate portrayal of athleticism. I thought to myself “Wow”…we need more women like this making sportswear. They were gracious enough to let me take their picture. This is a perfect example of many things: 1. women ARE sports fans, 2. many fans desperately want to see real representations of female athletes, and 3. female business owners can help create change by making products the giant sportswear makers don’t want to make, didn’t think to make, or don’t care enough to make.

The second occurrence happened while I was at the airport gate and overheard a conversation between two high school girls. These two were returning home after playing in the WBCA High School All-America Game. where one of them had met and talked to Brittney Griner. She talked for a good 20 minutes about her conversation with Griner in which she over and over again iterated how “nice” Griner was. She couldn’t believe Griner would care enough to talk to them for that long. It sounded like Griner genuinely took the time to answer her questions, and spend time with she and her teammates. It was obvious what an impression Griner made on this young woman, and I’m guessing on countless others. The girls asked Griner how she dealt with all the media attention and being accused of looking like, sounding like, and playing like a boy. Griner told them something to the affect of… “I can’t control what other people say. I just focus on myself and my basketball”. This also made quite an impression–What a great take away message! I do think Griner will help change and grow women’s basketball just as UConn has set the bar for what the future of women’s basketball will look like. Both are redefining what “Play Like a Girl” means and looks like…unapologetic athleticism.

The NBA.com Dance Bracket?

When a student (nice find EH!) sent me this blog post “She Got Game Too: Is the NBA Dance Bracket’s Time Up?” by Sarah Tolcser (@ticktock6).  At first glance I thought the blog was about  “The Dance”…like as in, NCAA March Madness. I was mistaken.

This blog post is about the NBA.com Dance Bracket 2010, which I had no idea even existed…did you? If you click on a Dance Team logo, for example the Luvabulls (yes…roll eyes at the name) you will see pictures of the dancers so that you can appropriately vote. I couldn’t find any criteria for what I’m supposed to be voting for, so I’m guessing it is a vote for the best dancers?

Tolcser makes some GREAT points about the NBA’s confusion about how to market to female fans. She writes, “The answer is not more pink jerseys. Things like, as a member of a growing class of unmarried women ages 25-44,”family friendly” promotions and cute distractions on court during the game entice me no more than they entice male fans. Things like, some of the advertising spots from your own sponsors have sexist overtones that make me uncomfortable. Things like, when I go to your official website and see scantily-clad girls on the front page, I can’t help feeling that the NBA is not meant to be “for me.” WELL SAID!

Females comprise a growing, and predominately untapped, market of sport fans. In a previous blog about female sport fans, I summarized the statistics about the percentage of women that attend professional sport events.

I’m joining Tolcser (@ticktock6) in challenging the NBA and other professional sports to ask their female fans–what can we do for you?!  Who’s in?

3/25/10 addition: Tolscer just added another great blog on the “Body Shot” contest the Memphis Grizzlies are currently running pertaining to their dancers The Grizz Girls and their “preparation” for the NBA.com Dance Bracket. It just keeps getting better…it certainly is MARCH MADNESS!!

Reebok on the Rebound?

So I’ve been offline for a few days and I come down off the slopes from boarding in the Tahoe area to an email from a blog fan (you know who you are!) with a few links to Reebok’s new ad campaign and product line. Please click on these links, but the short story on the marketing tag line for Reebok’s new EasyTone sneakers is “better legs and a better butt with every step”. What? 

According to Reebok, American sales rose 4 percent—its largest increase in four years—on the strength of that launch and the goal of the campaign was to get consumers to “reethink” their perceptions of sports “and remember why they play, sweat and cheer—because it’s fun.” I find this statistic a bit troubling.

My question is this—if Reebok’s target market is women who want to buy ‘performance gear’, how does this commerical appeal to women? With this ad, who are they really trying to get to “rethink their perceptions of [women’s] sports”?

NOT the Same: Vonn v. Kitt Sports Illustrated Covers

Sports Illustrated Covers of Olympic Skiers

In rebuttal to the “Vonn Watch” Sports Illlustrated cover blog post I made, many people commented and pointed out that A.J. Kitt was similarly posed in 1992 and no one called it sexual. I don’t recall  the media buzz, so I’ll have to take their word on this point, but I’m inclined to believe it to be true.

Many argued the cover of Kitt was “exactly the same” which provided evidence that male athletes, particularly skiers, can be similarly portrayed in the media.

I would argue from a sport media research perspective that these covers, while at first glance appear to be “exactly the same”, they are in fact not similar in many key facets. The reason why the Kitt photo is unlikely to be interpreted as sexualized, while the Vonn cover might, is the focus on this post.

1. Kitt is literally “in action” doing his sport, Vonn is posed in a tuck position–she is not literally skiing.

2. Kitt has his helmet on, Vonn does not. Skiers don’t ski without their helmets.

3. Kitt is looking down the hill as he would DURING COMPETITION, Vonn is posed looking sideways (not downhill) into the camera.

4. Kitt appears to be actually in context on the mountain, Vonn in her picture appears to be super imposed with the mountains in the background. (However, I am not certain of this)

5. Kitt is leaning down the hill which connotes forward motion during his event, Vonn is static and while she is in a tuck position there are many other positions she performs in the course of a race that could of been used that might be construed as less sexualized.

Another point many made on the blog about this photo comparison, is that we had to “see Vonn without her helmet” because otherwise no one would know who she is because skiing is such an obscure sport. However, Kitt is pictured with his helmet on where we can’t see his face. He is identified by a caption. I would argue skiing is no more or less obscure today than it was in 1992. Therefore, the argument that we need to “see Vonn’s face” to know who she is does not hold up.

I will make one last point that might lend credence to the sexualized argument (albeit subliminally). There is one ironic twist to the Vonn cover photo if you didn’t catch it prior. Someone who works in the media pointed out to me that if you look at how the text in the bottom right corner aligns, you can clearly see the word “AsS” is spelled out vertically (start with the capital “A” in America and look down to the next line of text). Is this coincidental?

Is it great that a female was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Olympic preview issue–YES! Could the photo chosen been a better representation of the great athleticism and talent of Lindsey Vonn–YES!

Vonn Watch: Part II

Ok, so if you didn’t agree with my critique (and many didn’t!) of the February 8, 2010 Sports Illustrated cover of Olympian Lindsey Vonn that can be interpreted as sexualized, the photographs of Vonn and other female athletes in the 2010 SI Swimsuit Issue being released today (shown here below) might help illustrate some of my original points.

Sports Illustrated 2010 Swimsuit Issue

I became aware of these pictures, from a news story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that ran today which stated, “Minnesota skiing sensation Lindsey Vonn is among a quartet of Olympic athletes featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue that is out today in print and online.”  The online version of the SI Swimsuit Issue includes video clips of the Olympic Stars doing their photo shoots.

The critique here is the same, when we DO see female athletes (some of the best in the world at their respective sports!) which happens in only 6-8% of all sport media, they are more often than not in poses that highlight physical attractiveness, femininity, and can be interpreted as sexualized. Is it coincidental that the four female Olympians portrayed here are all blond, attractive, feminine looking, and sexy according to societal norms?Arguably, the Vonn SI cover can be interpreted (or not) as sexualized, but these images are clearly sexualizing in nature and tone.

The obvious target market for the Swimsuit Issue is men.  Therefore, the idea that “sex sells” is viable and research does support that sex sells. What I want to argue however, and some emerging research is supporting, that sex sells sex…but sex does not sell women’s sport.

The point being, by seeing Vonn on the cover of SI, these images of female Olympians, or any other female athlete… does it make the male demographic more likely to attend and pay for a ticket to an event where these women are competing, buy merchandise, or read a story about them? Researchers say it is unlikely. So yes, sex sells sex but it likely does not promote women’s sport or female athletes in a way that helps to grow women’s sport in a meaningful and sustainable way.

The last point I want to highlight is these type of images also reinforce to consumers what is most important and valued in terms of female athletes and females in general, and meaning is constructed from what is chosen to be included and not included. If you want to read more about  how the sexualization of females affects everyone, particularly young girls, go to the American Psychological Foundation’s Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls. The report can be downloaded for free, and in short states, “The proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising, and media is harming girls’ self-image and healthy development. This report explores the cognitive and emotional consequences, consequences for mental and physical health, and impact on development of a healthy sexual self-image.”

Therefore,  I hope to see many more images like the one below in the weeks to follow, as Vonn (who I really hope is healthy enough to race given her shin injury) and other female Olympians have great potential to be positive role models, not only for girls, but for us all.

To see a video segment of me talking with KARE11 reporter Jana Shortal about why sexualized images of female athletes are problematic,  click here.

Lindsey Vonn, Great Athlete..in action, in uniform, on the slope.

What Do Fans of Women’s Sport Want to See?

Leading up to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver the US Women’s National Hockey Team has been training here in Blaine, MN and going on tour to play exhibition games to prepare. I had the opportunity to support the team and watch two games over the winter break. While at the game I saw the program (Thanks to The Good Dr.!) and immediately felt my blood pressure rising. This program, which was being sold at both the games I attended, looks nothing like the team’s online media guide. The program starts out appropriately as you can see with the Team Roster picture. As you flip through the program, you see pictures of the team in “street clothes” and get a synopsis about “The Player” and “The Person” in the “Get To Know ‘Em” centerfold section (scroll down to see pictures of program pages). Why is this problematic?

For decades sport media researchers have demonstrated that female athletes (compared to their male counterparts) are much more likely to be pictured out of uniform, off the ice/court, and in poses that depict femininity and/or sexiness. Where are the pictures of the team IN THEIR UNIFORMS and IN ACTION? These women are some of the best female hockey players in the world!

Marketing the athlete-person duality of female athletes has become the default strategy for a majority of sport marketers in the last five years. Where did this strategy come from? Who decided this was the status quo? Is it based on research pertaining to what is effective in marketing female athletes and women’s sport? Is this what fans of women’s sport want to  see? I want to to see the evidence! Some of the evidence that I and colleagues have collected indicates that fans of women’s sports and female athletes attend because of the athleticism, not because the athletes are cute “girls next door” or look good in a sundress.

So here is my question: Are the “Get To Know ‘Em” pictures, what fans want to see or have fans been sold these images so they do not know any different?

My logic: If marketers continually pitch the athlete-person duality, this is what fans see and expect, and it becomes the norm, so fans think they like this approach. But what if consumers only saw images of female athletes IN ACTION, IN UNIFORM, DOING WHAT THEY DO BEST? Would that become the expected and the norm? I really want to know when and who decided that to successfully market elite female athletes that a “personal”/ human interest component has to be included. It is also not coincidental that a good portion of the “Team Tidbits” in the bottom picture below reinforce very feminine, traditional roles for women.

NOTE: In the Qwest Tour program, in which these 3 images were taken from,  I counted only 4 action shots in the entire 37 pages program.

RELATED NOTE: Do fans really want to see pictures of tennis player Venus Williams’ flesh-colored underwear? I would argue they do not, but when the media covers and makes it “newsworthy” then fans and general sport consumers are told this is important and begin to pay attention. I am wagering that more people know about V. Williams’ underwear than how she is playing in the Australian Open. Newsflash: female tennis players have been wearing “flesh colored” underwear for years. However, when the “flesh” color matches that of an African American skin tone it becomes international news.

US Women's National Hockey Team Roster page
US Women's National Hockey Team "Get to Know 'Em"
US National Women's Hockey Team Tidbits

The LFL Sells Sex, Not Sport

During the recent sport sociology conference (NASSS) I heard inspired critiques of  sport and had many great conversations about sport media and female athletes. Ironically, I returned home today to this tweet by the Lingerie Football League.

RT @MyLFL: “THE LINGERIE FOOTBALL LEAGUE’S OFFICIAL WEBSITE WWW.LFLUS.COM IS OFFICIALLY ONE OF THE FASTEST GROWING WEBSITEShttp://bit.ly/2YQYvj”

As you know, I’ve written previously about the LFL and I’ve been keeping an eye on what is happening with the league. At the NASSS conference I heard some great audience reception research on why sex does not sell women’s sport, sex sells sex. More specifically, sexy images and sexy female athletes sell sex to young male consumers ages 18-35. I would be really interested to see the market research—who are the consumers and fans of the LFL? (any guesses?)

The LFL is a perfect example of how sex can and does sell sex. The numbers prove it. Arguably, the LFL is not sport it is a dramatic spectacle aimed at entertainment and consumption of the female body.  No where in any of the promotional materials is the athletic competence of LFL “athletes” highlighted or portrayed in any serious way. The  sexualization of the LFL women is overt and aimed at appealing to male sexual fantasy. In fact their website promotes the LFL as “True Fantasy Football” which merges two primary desires and interests of many (not all) US men— football and sex.

If you watch the many videos of LFL games posted on the website, you will see continuous images of women tackling each other, acting violent, and slamming each other to the ground.  Yet one women (New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert) acts aggressive and pulls a ponytail and we have a national outcry (see the video and read examples of indicative responses on Perez Hilton’s blog).  Male athletes act aggressively and unsportsmanlike all the time (remember Zidane’s head butt in the World Cup? or Florida football team member Brandon Spikes fingers through the face mask? , both of which were similarly caught on national TV). Yet, the sanctions for Lambert were severe and quick (permanent dismissal from the team), while Zindane and Spikes punishments were much less in scope and severity.

What is our take home? Females can act aggressively as long as they are sexy, but if a real female athlete acts outside of the rules in real sport, she will be met with quick and severe sanctions…not only within her sport but will be berated by the public…while male athletes can “act like men” with comparatively less fanfare.

What is most interesting to me is the societal discussion and the media’s construction of Lambert’s transgression, rather then the event itself.

Things That Make You Go Hmmmm…More on Social Media & Women’s Sport

Following the  Tucker Center lecture and new blog about the impact of social media and women’s sport, it didn’t take too long for me to be in the middle of a real life example. Life works in ironic ways sometimes, doesn’t it? This example is meant to continue the conversation about this emerging and important topic.

9uwom0322w.lOn Tuesday I was at my computer and looked over the TweetDeck and saw that WNBA player Janel McCarville was live on her UStream channel JMACTV. I’d heard about Candace Parker using UStream but hadn’t checked it out yet, so clicked on the link and….ta dah!…there was Janel. As a Minnesotan, two-time Gopher Alum and now Gopher faculty, huge fan of women’s basketball, and advocate/scholar of women’s sport, I’ve been a long time fan of Janel McCarville (no hate Janel, only love!). Who can forget the Whalen/McCarville dynasty in The Barn!

Janel !I thought, “This is really cool… instant access to an elite female athlete“, as I watched her looking at and responding to the comments and questions from the 60+ fans watching her. I shouted through my office door to my two graduate students to “check this out”. Then I took a harder look and wrinkled my brow, “Is she in the bathroom?” I asked them, “and is she really cutting her own hair?” (see screen shot)  Somehow I was a bit disturbed by this. I immediately wasn’t so sure this was cool anymore—or good for women’s sports. So given this subject has been top of mind, I tweeted about it—twice (see screen shot below).mccarville tweets

I continued to watch for about 10mns, and then shut down for the day. I continued to think about it over the next day or so.  In the course of “doing my warm up activities” for the day (aka surfing), I looked at my @ replies on Twitter and saw that my tweets had incited quite a bit of outrage, and a direct response from Janel herself! (see screen shot right, it will enlarge if you click on it).mccarville tweet responses The tone of the responses was “lighten up, this is just silly and fun and everyone but YOU thinks this is great”. Fair enough. I responded to Janel via Twitter:  “@JanelMcCarville No anger, just continuing conversation re: women’s sport & social media, both pro/con. See http://bit.ly/352s8T“. But I felt badly for criticizing her and it bothered me.

I learned a few valuable lessons which may be instructive as we all move forward and think about how to use social media effectively to positively promote women’s sports.

First, if social media is truly a two-way conversation, then I should of phrased my tweet “What is your opinion about @JanelMcCarville’s UStream videocast?”

Second, attacking people on Twitter is just in poor taste and not classy. My apologies Janel. This has played out for KC Chiefs NFL player Larry Johnson this week, as he is paying the price literally and in the media and  for using a homophobic slur. It will continue to occur with increased frequency as social media becomes part of the way we communicate.

Third, shortly thereafter I read a great piece by Q McCall of www.swishappeal.com on Feministing.com titled,  Is there a “feminist responsibility” to support women’s sports? It put into context some of the guilt I felt. Why was I attacking a female athlete?  I’m supposed to support women’s sport. But on the other hand, as a feminist, scholar, and advocate of women’s sport  I often feel I have the responsibility to wave the red flag and point out when I see something that may not be a “good thing”.  Perhaps my role is to raise the issue, provide an alternative viewpoint, and promote respectful discussion.

It also got me thinking about where female athletes and women’s sport might be headed in terms of social media. If everyone  “loves it” (all 66 viewers)—is this our new model of promoting women’s sport? Is that what fans really want to see? Is this how fans want to interact with athletes? Where is the line between “good access” and access that, to borrow from C + C Music Factory,  “Makes You go Hmmmm”? As was pointed out to me,  Ron Artest of the LA Lakers, got his hair cut that same day…which garnered media attention. But if the men do it, should the women follow? Should we always be trying to emulate our male counterparts? (I’m not suggesting that is why Janel chose to UStream, she’d have to tell us the inspiration). Is it possible male athletes use social media differently because of disparate patterns of traditional media coverage? What are the similar and different ways elite male and female athletes use social media? How can female athletes take control and use social media in positive ways to combat sexism, inequalities, and disparities that are well documented in sport contexts? Is this a responsibility they should bear? In conclusion, I highlight Janel not to criticize or judge, but to provide an exemplar real-life issue to promote discussion about social media and women’s sports.

I don’t have the answer, only a lot of questions. What do you think?