The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Friday, January 16, 2004

So what can we infer from FIFA president Sepp Blatter's suggestion that women's soccer players need to show off their hot little bods in order for their game to succeed? (Other than that he's a bonehead, that is?)

Basically, he's saying a couple of things: One, that the play's not the thing when it comes to women's sports, and that the main audience for women's sports--and really, just about any sports--is male (and so should be tailor-made to appeal to the average male's sensibilities).

Is he right? On the first point, it's not unique to women's leagues that the off-field showbiz should take precedence over the actual contests. The success of a big-time sports league hinges on appealing to the casual fans, because they're the majority and they're the ones who are harder to attract and retain. The awesome success of the Super Bowl is a testament to this strategy. That extends to taking elements of the game--namely, the athletes--and defining them in such a way that the audience can identify something appealing in them. This is the concept behind everything from having players' names on uniforms to autograph signings at the local department store. Similarly, the idea to draw attention to women athlete's titillating areas is a way to draw in people who aren't especially fans of soccer or women's sports.

That leads to the second point: The assumption that when it comes to all sports entertainment, you're selling mainly to men. This ignores what should be presumed to be an appeal to women, in that since the athletes are the same gender, there should be that level of identification. But that's not the logic at work here. The reasoning is that sports, regardless of who's executing them, hold little appeal for the average woman, and so you take them out of the equation right away. Further, the male audience that's left is less likely to appreciate a female athlete solely on the basis of skill, so you have to appeal to the more prurient interest, i.e. sex appeal.

Basically, it's a numbers game, as any broadbased entertainment programming is. Are there enough paying customers ("paying customers" meaning ticket buyers, television viewers and radio listeners who'll be exposed to advertising, merchandise consumers, etc.) that will flock to sports by and (mainly) for women? The WNBA is one example, and not a particularly good one, if the story from the parent league NBA of annual losses can be believed. The rival American Basketball League had to fold mid-season a couple of years ago, perhaps exemplifying the lack of appeal. After that, there's college sports, which have a steady following, and specialized sports like tennis, golf and skating (in general, individualist sports seem to do better for women's athletics--but you could argue that's because they're the ultimate in the personification mentioned above; think Anna Kournoukova).

Perhaps partly inspired by this, Liz at Breakfast of Losers devoted some thought to her first-hand experiences with the emphasis placed on cosmetic appeal over sporting skill in women's sports marketing. Her main target, though, was the upcoming Lingerie Bowl pay-per-view Super Bowl halftime stunt--which, really, is just an extreme extension of the mindset on display from Blatter.