Sport on Saturdays: Does sex really sell when it comes to athletes? Apparently not.

Stephanie Rice on the cover of FHM






It’s the oldest advertising adage out there: sex sells. People sit up and pay attention when they see a sexy ad, whether it’s the Old Spice guy or just a bunch of girls dancing around in their Bonds undies.

And ever since it became socially acceptable for one to remove their clothes and pose on a billboard, we’ve seen more and more incidences of athletes taking advantage of their good looks and toned bodies to star in campaigns or boost their popularity – both on an international and on a national level.

This is especially true for female athletes. After all, in an industry where gaining sponsorships is notoriously difficult – especially if you want to earn enough to support yourself – it almost makes sense to show off the body into which you’ve invested so much time and energy.

And for those who are considered especially aesthetically pleasing, it’s occasionally resulted in really prominent placement in the media, despite smaller incidences of success on the actual sporting field. This is especially true in America – blonde, busty figure skaters and NASCAR drivers have become well-recognised names, regardless of the fact that they haven’t placed very high up at all on the scoreboard.

Don’t believe me? Think about the recent examples we’ve seen. For example – the promo for Roxy Pro Biarritz, a surfing contest for professional female surfers that featured zero surfing and a whole lot of close-up shots of Stephanie Gilmore’s bum:



Or Ellyse Perry, the 22-year-old Aussie athlete who plays on the national teams for women’s soccer AND cricket. She’s been named Australia’s most marketable athlete and she’s also an ambassador for underwear brand Jockey Australia:

Ellyse on the cover of Body and Soul in July (left) in her Jockey undies, (right) in her Jockey undies for a shoot

How about the many, many other female athletes who, over the years, have taken it off for sponsorships or magazine covers or magazine spreads :

But here’s the thing.

New research has been released and it could very well change everything for female athletes in the near future. ESPN has written an article based on their film “Branded”, which asked the very question of sex appeal, and whether it’ll always supersede achievement.

Their answer surprised me. It’s surprised just about everyone. Because the truth is that the research shows that sex doesn’t sell for female athletes at all.

ESPN have quoted Janet Fink, an associate professor in the Department of Sports Management from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She studies not only consumer behaviour but also how female athletes are marketed:

“Another thing we are finding, and this makes sense, is that each time a female athlete is pictured in a sexualized way, it diminishes the perception of her athletic ability.”

They use the example of David Beckham, who has spent many a moment posing in his undies and showing off those incredibly famous… um… tattoos. Apparently, when you see a sexualised photo of a sports star, your subconscious goes, “hmmmm, he can’t be that great at sport if he is spending all that time posing in his undies”. Immediately, you start to doubt his skills on the soccer field. Innately, you’re prone to question whether he can really Bend It Like Beckham.

Which photo makes you believe he’s a better soccer player?

And it’s the same for female athletes, every single time you see a sexualised image.

ESPN points out that sporting performance has taken a backseat in the commentary surrounding the great majority of mainstream female athletes; as a result, that’s partly why our society doesn’t take female sport seriously. It’s why things like Lingerie Football League (recently rebranded, but still) were allowed to exist, and not simply laughed off the field. It’s why our female athletes are STILL battling for sponsorships if they don’t have great boobs to get them over the line.

The key is to shift the thinking of society by exposing us to more images of female athletes being… athletes. Diving off podiums, running tracks, jumping off ski jumps, playing tennis in non-skimpy dresses. Like this Nike ad, starring Serena Williams:

Serena Williams in a Nike ad

Their conclusion?

Talent sells. Not sex.

And it’ll help female sports along considerably if the girls put their clothes back on. And wouldn’t that be far more interesting to see?

In other sporting news…

Liz Cambage, a player in the Australian Opals team, unfortunately injured her ankle during a game with Los Angeles in the US on the 25th August. She’s now on her way back to Australia and will unfortunately be out for the rest of the season.

Canberra basketball team Canberra Capitals have welcomed a new player, Abby Bishop, who will replace Olympian Lauren Jackson. The Capitals didn’t meet a final deadline to rework her contract, and so she won’t play for them again until next year.

W-League club Sydney FC have announced the addition of two new Matildas to their squad. Danielle Brogan and Leena Khamis unfortunately missed last season due to ACL injuries but are back for this season. 25-year-old Brogan has also been announced as the captain.

The top four women’s wheelchair basketball teams in Australia are taking part in the National Wheelchair Basketball League Finals this weekend at the Sydney University Sports and Aquatic Centre.

On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee will vote to get softball a spot in the 2020 Olympic Games. It was dropped after the 2008 Games and is now in a joint bid with baseball. Squash and wrestling also are in contention.

US player Jennie Finch made a case for softball, writing to the IOC: “Softball is one of the world’s most popular sports for girls and women, and the IOC’s vote will be a fundamental test of its commitment to women and its own core Olympic values, particularly equality…

Adding a sport women enjoy playing, like softball, would further encourage and promote women’s participation in sport at all levels and give women more opportunities to be empowered through sport.”

And in video-game news – EA Sports has confirmed that women fighters will be available on the UFC title to be released next spring.

 Have you seen anything in women’s sport this week that you want to talk about?