Advertising: Women Athletes Gain Fame but Madison Avenue Isn't Buying

Article excerpt

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 paid attention.

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 professional circuit.

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, respectively).

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).

Why?

Simple economics. "For an advertiser, the most important element is visibility," Lanktree said. "And in sports, women are just not as visible."

The problem is one of marketability, according to Lanktree, not sexism, Kournikova's obvious use of sex appeal to get endorsement contracts notwithstanding.

"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. …

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