What’s sex got to do with… Sponsoring female athletes?

This post was inspired by a thought provoking documentary called ‘Branded’ that I watched last summer.  ‘Branded’ is part of a ESPN series called Nine for IX that features nine documentaries that present different stories about female figures in sports and examine the ways in which their stories and challenges have influenced and made lasting impressions on women’s sports as a whole.  All of the documentaries are directed by women, and their work embodies the Nine for IX slogan “About Women. By Women. For us all”.

Although support and interest in women’s athletics has come a long way, there is still a vast difference between men and women when it comes to the feasibility of making a living as a professional athlete.  ‘Branded’ confronts the reality is that it is possible for male athletes to make a living off of their athletic skill alone, whereas female athletes must make most of their money on the side through branding and endorsement deals.


The ability to attract sponsors is therefore a necessary means of survival for professional female athletes.  This documentary connects with concepts that we have talked about in class because it examines how female athletes are ‘branded’ with different personas in order to make them marketable.  Female athletes that are heavily sponsored and appear frequently in ads and media are often portrayed as either sex symbols or wholesome all-American sweethearts.

The fact that these two categories of female personas are traditionally the most successful at selling products reflects both society’s construction of normative and confining gender roles and the social issue of compulsive heterosexuality.  This idea of compulsive heterosexuality is reflected in Adrienne Rich’s theory that gender differences reinforce a societal structure that is organized around heterosexuality.  The positive financial reward that female athletes get when they pose for sexy sports illustrated photo shoots or look intense and provocative for athletic brand magazine ads is an example of the way that society creates the perception that heterosexuality is the norm.  These photos of sexy female athletes showcase strong and powerful women, however they often do so in a way that  suggests that the ideal female body is one that men find sexually attractive.  The bottom line is that sports is a business and sex will always sell.  Brands looking to feature a female athlete in their advertisement campaigns will often consider her sexual appeal as equally important to her athletic accomplishment.  This creates a tough double standard on female athletes that necessitates that they be both the best at their sport and the sexiest of the competition if they want to attract endorsement deals make a decent living as a pro athlete.

NASCAR driver Danica Patrick

goalkeeper Hope Solo

On the other side of the spectrum are the widely known and popular female athletes that are portrayed as American sweethearts.  This brings up the topic of gender normalcy which is related to compulsive heterosexuality and refers to the way that gender is a socially constructed binary.  According to social constructivists, society acts upon us from a very young age and lets us know exactly what is the ‘normal’ way for men and women to behave.  One of the reasons why this sweet, gentle, middle American darling is so marketable is because that persona fits in so nicely with the characteristics that society has labeled as feminine.

Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton

tennis player Chris Evert

So why do you think female athletes have certain personas projected onto them to increase their marketability? Do you think that the way that female athletes are portrayed in advertisements and other media could be changed?  Does it even need to be changed?  Can you think of marketing campaigns that celebrate female athletes character and achievements instead of focusing on their bodies?



One thought on “What’s sex got to do with… Sponsoring female athletes?

  1. I just had a long conversation with my mom about this very topic the other day. I was complaining about sexualizing female athletes when she stopped me and reminded me that male athletes are sexualized too. Frequently seen without their shirts on or posed with their bottoms partially down so you can see their pelvic bones. It does stand that women are far more sexualized, to that my boyfriend would say “nobody wants to see a naked man.” Which I think is the central problem really. Women are supposed to be sexual, but not an agent in their own sexuality. They should “appear available” but be disinterested in sex outside of marriage and thus not want to see undressed male athletes. Companies are selling to their market, they just apparently haven’t realized that women are part of that too.

    Liked by 1 person

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