Academic journal article Sport Marketing Quarterly

How I Perform Is Not Enough: Exploring Branding Barriers Faced by Elite Female Athletes

Academic journal article Sport Marketing Quarterly

How I Perform Is Not Enough: Exploring Branding Barriers Faced by Elite Female Athletes

Article excerpt

ESPN Films and ESPNW recently aired a documentary film series, Nine for IX, highlighting captivating stories of women in sports (ESPN Films, 2013; Cingari, 2013). One of the films in the series, Branded, earned the highest television ratings of the Nine for IX films (Carol Stiff, personal communication, February 10, 2014). Through interviews with elite female athletes Mary Lou Retton, Chrissy Everett, Anna Kournikova, Gabrielle Reece, and Lolo Jones among others, Branded compared elite female and male athletes' brands, endorsements, and marketing potential (Cingari, 2013). This film provided an impetus for further examination of the sport industry and the marketing culture for female athletes.

Previous sport management research indicates that positive strides have been made regarding how female athletes are being marketed (Fink, 2012; Kane, 2011). For example, scholars have found that sex appeal and physical appearance are not a primary focus when it comes to marketing women's sports successfully (Kane & Maxwell, 2011). Youth consumers, a large target market for women's sports, have been found to value a female athlete's skill over her femininity and sexual orientation (Fink, 2012). In addition, Kane (2011) discovered that NCAA Women's March Madness tournament fans were attracted to women's sports due to the athletic competence of female athletes and riveting games over other factors. These findings could impact the sports world and may be reflective of changing societal norms and values.

However, Branded suggested female athletes encounter a myriad of barriers in building their personal brand, a challenge not often shared by their male counterparts. For instance, Branded emphasized the repeated sexualization of female athletes and the discrepancies between athlete endorsement earnings, which are familiar topics explored in extant sport literature (e.g., Fink, Kane, & LaVoi, 2014). Scholars have also explored the underrepresentation of female athletes in the media (Kim, Sagas, & Walker, 2010; Messner & Cooky, 2010), as well as the tendency for marketers to promote physical attractiveness stereotypes1 rather than the athletic skill of female athletes in sport and society (Kane, LaVoi, & Fink, 2013). These factors seemingly limit female athletes' ability to "define themselves in ways that fundamentally alter men's ideological and institutional control of sport" (p. 293). The struggle to define themselves in this contested terrain could hinder a female athlete's brand identity creation based on the notion that the initial step in human or athlete branding is to establish, create, and communicate a brand identity that differentiates the athlete from others (Ghodeswar, 2008; Kotlar & Keller, 2008; Lair, Sullivan, & Cheney, 2005).

Yet, female athlete branding and the barriers they face to build their brands are not well-explored in sport management, marketing, or diversity literature. While Branded is now a few years old, the vignettes reported in the film provide the foundation for this investigation. Specifically, this investigation addresses an important gap in sport literature regarding barriers female athletes face to build their brand in an overwhelmingly male hegemonic sport industry.

Therefore, the purpose of this investigation was to examine perceived brand building barriers encountered by elite female athletes. The premise of this investigation is that traditional branding theories can be applied to female athletes as human brands in order to advance our understanding of their personal brand building practices. However, based on the lack of visibility female athletes receive (Fink et al., 2014), the gendered social roles and behaviors expected of female athletes, and the potential scrutiny and risks female athletes receive for violating these gender norms, the role of gender could be critical in the brand identity creation of female athletes.

Drawing from literature on human branding, gender and sport, and social role expectation, respondents were asked to discuss their perceptions of gender differences in brand identity practices, as well as barriers female athletes encounter when creating their personal brand. …

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