Playing the (wo)man: why women’s sport is still all about sex appeal

Maria Sharapova has managed to move her appeal beyond sexiness. AAP

BUSINESS OF SPORT: The marketing of women in sport in Australia in 2011 is simple: sex sells.

Don’t take my word for it though. Google the name of any female athlete and chances are the top search results are for that athlete in some form of skimpy attire showing off anything other than her athletic talents.

The history of the marketing of Australian women in sport reinforces this: calendars, Black & White magazine issues, men’s magazines, internet sites and galleries, television commercials, and even the official competitive clothing attire in many sports all have been focused on highlighting the physical attributes of the athlete, and not the sporting.

Should this be the case? Should Australian women focus on sex appeal to market themselves in 2011 or is it time to really start developing women’s sport in this country where the focus is on the sport and not the athlete?

Male dominated

To answer these questions firstly we need to examine how Australian sport is run. Most professional Australian sport codes are male dominated. They have an established place in the market place, but the market they operate in is no longer sport but entertainment. This has changed everything.

The smarter operators, led by the AFL, realised the change was coming and have evolved their brand in line with the change. Every single aspect of the AFL is reviewed every year to ensure that in the entertainment market it is keeping its place. The AFL has also increased the percentage of women who attend matches to around the 40% mark. Not bad for a man’s game.

This has helped them secure higher TV rights deals, bigger corporate sponsorships and undoubtedly the long term survival of the game itself. The AFL also has diversified revenue with money coming from stadium deals on naming, food and beverage, attendance, internet sites, merchandise and even government grants. Then there is also revenue from the fan base itself, ticket sales, memberships, merchandise and events.

Whilst the AFL lead the way in managing their brand, rugby league, rugby union, cricket and soccer are all trying to move their sports from the 1950’s model of largely government funded blokey sport organisations to multi-million dollar inclusive entertainment brands focused on several target markets and the corporate dollar. This is not an easy process. But it must happen or else these sports will just fade away.

Dreaming of gold

It is this old business model that is hurting the marketing of women in Australian sport. Most sports in Australia rely upon government funding to survive. Sadly this means that it’s time to keep politicians happy.

Politicians love being associated with winners. Gold medal winners that is.

So most governments, state or federal, tell sports organisations that gold medals are the most important KPI for organisational performance. The Olympic dream becomes the only thing that matters. And sports administrators, led by the Australian Sports Commission, are only too happy to oblige. This means that many sports in Australia will have, at best, four year objectives focused on getting as many shiny round objects as possible.

This short term focus has neglected the actual development of the sports themselves, and evolving the sport to match the changing market. The sport then becomes unattractive to spectators, media and the corporate world, reducing revenue every year and making the organisation more and more dependent upon government funding.

Limits of sex appeal

This vicious cycle means sports organisations provide only limited funding to elite athletes. They must look somewhere else to make ends meet. And as most corporates aren’t interested in the sport itself that somewhere else is usually marketing their own brand.

From a marketing perspective though, sex appeal has a very limited use in 2011 and even then only with a very specific target market, usually young males aged between 18-34.

The smarter athletes have realised the limitations of pure sex appeal and now focus on offering a personal brand that is attractive, intelligent and an excellent role model with on field and off field behaviour.

Unlike their male counterparts they are unlikely to be caught doing something stupid that harms not only their brand, but that of their sponsors as well. And also unlike their male counterparts they can be used to target women in marketing campaigns.

The female ideal

Considering that most research demonstrates that women make most household spending decisions, including the one to buy the family home, this makes female athletes ideally positioned to be used as celebrity endorsers in marketing campaigns.

The worlds no.1 highest paid female athlete, Maria Sharapova, is proof of this. According to Forbes in 2010 her earnings were over $24.5 million, of which $23.5 million came from endorsements. Her endorsements match her with the target market she is most attractive to, Gen Y, perfectly: a lolly brand called Sugarpova, a web based TV show with Sony-Ericsson, clothing range with Nike that includes exclusive items for both on-court and off-court, and an accessories line with Cole Haan, are just some of the deals that further build her brand appeal on and off the court.

In Australia many female athletes are also following the example set by Sharapova in marketing their brand and moving away from sex appeal. Hurdler and Olympic medallist Sally Pearson, cricketer and soccer player Ellyse Perry, basketballer Lauren Jackson and tennis player Samantha Stosur all are great examples of athletes that market their brand as a complete package.

Sport being competitive and performance driven as it is what we are seeing in Australia is the athletes are often doing a better job at marketing themselves than the sports that they come from.

Positive potential

But there are some sports that are realising the potential in having positive role models that may be attractive to 50% of the total market and who are influential on those who influence the purchase of most household spending in Australia. Netball is one. Netball, if managed and marketed well, will be bigger than soccer in Australia within 10 years, and eyeing off cricket next. Why?

Netball has the participation numbers at junior level that most sports would give up an endorsement deal with Nike for, sell out crowds at stadiums, a growing and sustainable national league, free to air TV coverage, an iPhone app that is more popular in the sports category than the Collingwood app, and corporate sponsors who are lining up to get on board while it is still cheap to do so. ANZ is one good example.

ANZ’s marketing strategy of focusing heavily on women, such as with their website bemoneyconfident.com, is a natural fit for netball.

As a bank they do not want any negativity from their sponsorships. The recent dramas in the mainstream male sports show the damage that can be done to a sponsors brand by being associated with negative issues.

Netball players minimise this chance. In fact when was the last time anyone can remember hearing about a bunch of netballers going nightclubbing and then associated stupidity following shortly after? Exactly.

Good fit

Netball’s wide appeal with women also fits nicely with the bank’s segmentation, targeting and positioning strategy. Not to mention there is the free to air coverage on a commercial network that also helps. This is likely to increase now that the drama associated with the AFL rights has unfolded in favour of Channel 7.

Still, without being seen as a mainstream sport, undoubtedly netball could not ask ANZ to pay the same figure NAB does to sponsor the AFL. Yet the value return is nearly the same between the two deals. So ANZ are making an excellent return on their investment.

The sponsorship deal, TV coverage and sell out crowds are also transforming the game itself. Players are starting to become full time professionals.

Deals are made to players from competing clubs that include more than just coaching junior teams as the employment component. Houses, cars and accommodation are now being offered to the elite. And this is just the beginning if the sport can keep on marketing itself well.

And remember there is not a bikini in sight.

Corporates and the TV networks want more sports in Australia to follow netball’s lead. To move away from selling just sex appeal, and market the entire brand of the sport itself. The market needs and wants more female sporting celebrities who can offer a complete brand, not just one that appears on the cover page of FHM.

For this to happen though it will be up to the sports themselves to wake up to the fact that they now operate in the entertainment market, that Olympic medals are great for politicians but are actually harming the sports themselves by hampering their development with the market and that sex appeal is much like their current futures: quickly diminishing with the bottom line.

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