Sports marketing is serious business. Social media exposure through “likes” build an audience and advertising value, but what about marketing women in sports beyond the bikini? Sexy sells, there’s no denying it, so is it bad for a female athlete to flaunt a fit physique? Exposure can open doors and opportunity for the sponsorship necessary to live the dream as a professional athlete. Surfers can attest to that, as beautiful female athletes sell sunglasses through lifestyle shots, but good luck finding them on the cover of a surf magazine.
The controversial Roxy Pro video generated over 2 million views for a Women’s World Championship event, but how can we promote female athletics without the shower scenes? Photo: Surf Channel | Selma Al-Faqih
However, its not just within the surf industry – it’s a universal issue for female athletes across the board, and it has been like that for decades, but will it ever change? Should it? The Surf Channel walked into the Women+Sports espnW Summit in Dana Point, California with the following question:
In a sports world dominated by men, can female athletes still be markable beyond the bikini?
While rhetorical at best, the question opened up a conversation worth discussing between top athletes and influential leaders in the sports industry. We spoke to elite athletes, such as: surfers Lisa Anderson, Lakey Peterson, pro volleyball player Gabby Reece, Olympic swimmer Summer Sanders, as well as leaders in the space to get their opinion and gain further understanding as to the business behind marketing women in sports. VP of espnW, Laura Gentile, opened up the Summit with goals to advance the dialogue around women in sports to inspire new thinking and real progress, and create positive change.
Goals for the Women + Sports espnW Summit?
Laura Gentile: We’re bringing together some of the most influential people in the sports landscape, who care about the future of women in sports. It’s an opportunity for us to work together and think about the future together, to share incredible ideas and really come away here inspired, that the next year is going to be even bigger and better, and we’re going to do even more.
The energy is great. I think every time we’ve had this event, you can feel the passion and the excitement… which makes us feel really good about what we’re creating.
Biggest challenges facing women in sports?
Gentile: One challenge is really having a voice that’s heard, and to be on equal footing. We’re lucky enough at ESPN that we have a lot of senior women. Women supporting each other is critical, and having that team atmosphere means someone is there to back you up.
Another challenge is growing the business of women in sports, whether it’s women endorsing products and/or women being respected as athletes and not just as sex objects. Are our sports being taken seriously? Those are big challenges and the Summit brings people together to talk about those challenges, to see what can be done differently and change that dynamic…
It’s been central to espnW from the beginning. We know we’re not going to change the industry alone. It’s fantastic that we exist and we have a brand new platform for women, but we know that to really shift societal norms and what women can or cannot do in the sports space, it’s going to take all of us. So, we’ve always been very inclusive, looking at everybody here as partners instead of competitors. It’s formed a real bond with all of us to keep working together and keep thinking about the future.
Respected Brazilian big wave surfer, Maya Gabeira, just finished a spread for Playboy, and seems to be applauded for it. What’s your perspective?
Gabrielle Reece (pro volleyball player): In the niche lifestyle sports, such as surfing, it’s hard to get attention. Doing something that is perceived as mainstream and driving attention to the sport may be praised, so maybe the audience can identify. The platform for Playboy may be secondary, but seeing that someone in the sport getting attention out in the mainstream world can be very challenging.
When I was photographed for Playboy, I was 30-years-old and was offered $750,000. I hired my own photographer so I had total editorial control over the shoot… and royalties on the images.
Marketing female surfers beyond the bikini body is possible, but isn’t happening. Similar marketing strategies occur in beach volleyball. How do athletes break the mold?
Reece: Be a badass and perform. The beauty of athletes is that they’re human… Their stories need to be told. Take off the glasses and hats and allow the world to connect…
Sometimes you do things for attention, but in order to build a brand you have to realize that you are an extension of the sport… Thus, represent yourself well. An agent can only represent you to a certain extent. In interviews, it’s best to be diplomatic, but true. I think it’s refreshing to give an opinion. Authenticity is important to me.
I tell athletes they have to think about what’s after their career. Things are not just going to fall into your lap. Go out and plan, build your career, get shut down… but even the best player in the world (as a female) will struggle to make their next move in order to support a career of professional sports.
How do you balance over-exposure when you work in a bathing suit?
Summer Sanders (Olympic swimmer): Confidence and control. You can tell if a girl walking on the beach has confidence, and frankly, with that comes the sexy image. If you are walking the beach even in a wetsuit or hospital garb, with confidence comes a control over the situation.
There are certain sports such as surfing, swimming and beach volleyball in which a bathing suit or bikini is your uniform. It may be viewed as sexy, but you can have control over it with the way you deliver yourself. By walking tall, you can and should embrace that sexy confidence.
How have you been sharing your struggles as an athlete with your fans?
Lakey Peterson: I wrote blogs for espnW over the summer about all the stuff I was dealing with as an athlete, and on my career path as a professional surfer. It was a lot of fun, and I think they got a good response from it. It was cool… Being a pro surfer is a unique position. So I hope to use that as a platform to be able to mentor and set an example for kids. I try to do the best I can and just have fun, and enjoy the ride…
Next season, I am really excited to see what ASP‘s plan is and how everything operates. I think the ASP right now is really doing all the right things… They guaranteed to raise the prize purses significantly for women, which is amazing. Everything is getting better.
How should we market the Women’s World Tour?
Peterson: Bringing in bigger media outlets and more mainstream sponsors is important. How about Covergirl? You could totally market all 17 girls on Tour amazingly through companies like that, which means reaching out to industries outside of the surf space.
Surfing on television brings exposure. It’s huge to see ESPN supporting surfing because they are such an international sports outlet, and especially amazing for espnW‘s interest in female surfing. They really want to dive into women’s sports, which means so much since it’s usually the other way around. Leaning towards the women is an awesome opportunity, and I really hope it all works out because the possibilities are endless.
What could television do for surfing and female surfers?
Gentile: Exposure is critical. The more people that see these sports and understand the athletes, can fall in love with the athletes, fall in love with the sports.
We saw this in Technicolor in 2011 during the early days of espnW. ESPN agreed to televise every single soccer game of the Women’s World Cup. That particular national team was a fairly unknown group of people. Industry executives and the media knew Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lily and the previous generation that won the 1999 World Cup, but people didn’t really know the 2011 team or know who they were. Over a three week span, the audience went from not knowing who the team was, to falling in love with them… finally understanding Amy Wambach, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo.
That was a product of exposure. Every single game was televised and we treated it like a marquee event. Low and behold the entire country was captivated by the Championship game between Japan and the United States. It went from A to Z in three weeks in terms of peoples understanding and love for that team.
Sanders: Surfing has endless potential to live on television, especially if you can capture those moments of being on the wave so that we at home can feel how big that wave is and how fast you’re going down the face. When you can translate that to TV, when we can get to know the athlete on the board and understand what they’ve been through, who is cheering for them on the beach, that’s when a real connection is made and we can really follow that personality.
Sports need their leaders. On the male side, Kelly Slater is a name that everyone knows, but who wants to take that responsibility to put in those endless hours to promote their sport? It has to be a team effort from a few top girls to say, ‘We’ve got this and we’re going to be dedicated.’ It’s not about, ‘What are you going to pay me to do this?’
A leader wants to make their mark and be remembered as the next Lisa Andersen. Surfers are fearless and incredible athletes, and no doubtably respected by the mainstream.
Any advise for women and young girls facing challenges in the sports world?
Gentile: Know that you have a sounding board and a beacon on our site at espnW. We’re always receiving comments from fans and athletes about people to get involved. Every day on espnW, you see women in the spotlight and learn a bit more about those people. Ideally, we can provide daily inspiration to those young girls by showing off the women that are succeeding, whether its in the business world or global mentors or as athletes.
Growing up, I had the Olympics to look to and once in a while, a woman was in Sports Illustrated, but that was really it. Now to have a place to see women competing, striving and succeeding is really important.
espnW has fostered a network of leaders and several initiatives resulted directly from the Summit. What’s in store for the future of marketing sports?
Gentile: Our action plan is to focus on great female athletes, some that the world doesn’t know and who have stories that are often untold. We want to do a better job at storytelling and focusing on the journeys of these female athletes. If you look across some of our partners, whether its the WNBA, WTA or espnW, we’re really galvanized around that concept of getting people to fall in love with these female athletes and fall in love with these sports.
We’re very conscious of what we need to do to raise the profile of female sports, and better market women sports and female athletes. So, we’re having those discussions and trying to talk as a collective on that front.
*Note from the Editor:
After a life-changing week of seminars and discussion with the world’s best female athletes and top executives in the sports landscape, the closing ceremony revealed a progressive initiative for the future. The espnW team encouraged the effort of inclusion – to make the conscious decision to be an ally for the gay community. Especially sensitive due to the controversy of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia (where it is now illegal to promote homosexuality), espnW commits to supporting athletes and making a difference for women in sports.
For more information on the espnW Summit, click here.