This is an excerpt from Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Sport by Ellen J. Staurowsky & Algerian Hart.
By Amira Rose Davis
Perhaps the clearest way to observe how gender affects sports marketing is by looking at the sponsorship and marketing of individual athletes. Athletes are seen as particularly profitable if they perform in gender-appropriate ways. As scholars like Nicole LaVoi, Janet Fink, and Mary Jo Kane have demonstrated, sex appeal and an emphasis on physical appearance over athletic ability have typified the branding of women athletes. Market logic rewards and promotes narrow blueprints for sports marketing success.
The perceived physical attractiveness of women athletes is understood through familiar expressions of femininity, Whiteness, and heterosexuality. Despite the women of color and queer women prominent in professional sports, the faces of the leagues have historically been White, conventionally attractive women who could be read as heterosexual. These narrow frameworks limit the visibility and earning potential of women athletes who fall outside these parameters. As LaVoi, Fink, and Kane argue, women athletes cannot “define themselves in ways that fundamentally alter men’s ideological and institutional control of sports” (Fink, Kane, & LaVoi, 2014).
Consider for instance, that Serena Williams, who has outplayed her opponents and dominated her sport, has struggled to make as much in endorsement and sponsorships as her White competitors. In 2015, she had won 20 grand slams and was ranked number one in the world, drawing in roughly $11 million in endorsements. That same year, Williams’ media-framed rival and five-time grand slam champion Maria Sharapova was set to earn over $22 million dollars in endorsements—double Williams’ amount. Williams held a 17-2 record against Sharapova, but the media seemed intent on framing them as a storied rivalry. In truth, it was the contrast between them—their bodies, appearance, and identity—that fueled this framing. It is also this juxtaposition that explains the huge disparity in earning power (Soong, 2015; Bain, 2015).