The lightning struck first in 1996, when the United States
women's soccer team won the gold at the summer Olympic Games, a
traditional generator of sports heroes.
Then it happened again, a year ago. After a month of matches, the
United States women's soccer team -- composed largely of Olympic
athletes -- beat China in a spectacular finale and captured the 1999
Women's World Cup.
Before, during and after, the nation watched, rapt, as it rarely
had for any women's team sport. Players like Mia Hamm became media
darlings, their names known to all. And Madison Avenue sat up and
Or did it?
"With their great success on the field, it should have been a
given that great commercial success would have come to all of these
women," said Nova Lanktree, whose Lanktree Sports Celebrity Network
in Chicago has been matching athletes and endorsers for 15 years.
"But it hasn't."
One year after the triumph of Team USA and with the start of the
2000 summer Games only weeks away, prospects are indisputably better
than they once were. But it seems that when it comes to women and
product endorsements, sex still sells better than athletic prowess
on the playing fields.
Exhibit A: Anna Kournikova, the pretty 19-year-old tennis player
whose looks have earned her an estimated $11 million to $15 million
in endorsement contracts despite a lackluster record on the
While Kournikova is only ranked 19th in the world, her earnings
are about equal to those of the top-seeded player, Martina Hingis,
who has won millions in tournament money. Kournikova, in fact, came
in first in income among female athletes on Forbes' Celebrity 100
list. Indeed, her endorsement contracts put her ahead of more
accomplished athletes like Monica Seles ($7.5 million in annual
income) and Venus and Serena Williams ($5 million and $6 million,
Even Kournikova could not come close to earning what the men did,
like Tiger Woods ($47 million), Michael Jordan ($40 million) and
even the 70-year-old Arnold Palmer ($19 million).
Simple economics. "For an advertiser, the most important element
is visibility," Lanktree said. "And in sports, women are just not as
The problem is one of marketability, according to Lanktree, not
sexism, Kournikova's obvious use of sex appeal to get endorsement
"There are not a lot of women's sports that are on par with
respect to attendance and money," said Jackie Thomas, the director
of women's marketing at Nike, in Beaverton, Ore., which uses many
female athletes to promote its footwear and athletic apparel.
"Endorsement payments are based on market value," Thomas said,
"whether it's a man or a woman."
That does not mean, of course, that no woman athlete has achieved
success in advertising on par with men, or that women cannot go
beyond the sports clothing endorsements to which most have been
limited in the past. …