NEW YORK — “Relate to” replaces “idolize.” “Real” matters more than “superhuman.” And “grit” without the human touch is simply unthinkable. It’s a gender gap that couldn’t be wider if you bulldozed it. The bottom line is that women relate to athletes — and the adjectives marketers use to describe them — in ways that bear little resemblance to the way men perceive them.

“There is a difference in the sexes,” says Reebok director of advertising Kelly Lowell. “With women, you can’t just show a gritty 30-second spot; you have to add some humanity.”

The more athletic companies grapple with the question of what messages women respond to, the more stereotypes emerge. Though women’s attitudes toward sports and fitness are changing, research by the Zandl Group, a New York-based marketing consultancy, which conducts quarterly surveys of a panel of more than 3,000 consumers from the ages of 8 to 29, suggests the male jock bastion still exists.

When asked to list their favorite activities, boys overwhelmingly mention sports, says Richard Leonard, vice president of Zandl. Girls, on the other hand, are much more likely to say things like, “spend time with my friends,” “shopping,” “dancing,” or “talking on the phone.” “Girls’ idols are fashion models,” he says. Even those girls who play sports in school, who end up captain of every team they play on and who might even know more about nose tackles than eyeshadow, relate differently to their athleticism and the athletes they admire. They might like to see Gabriela Sabatini, Steffi Graf or Monica Seles play, but females as a rule don’t walk into Lady Foot Locker looking for the same shoes their favorite tennis player wears.

“High school girls are more impressed or motivated by their peers or family, or maybe a neighbor they see out running every day,” says Reebok director of women’s fitness Sharon Barbano. “That’s more important than a superstar role model.”

Her explanation is that girls are more grounded in reality. “They see someone like Suzy Favor Hamilton and they see that as unattainable. They think, ‘I may be good, but I’m not that good,’ whereas men are stuck in a dream world. They think they’re going to be like Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal.” That theory of women as realists helps explain another marketing approach. The Team Danskin athletes (who number 60 and are involved in wear testing and consulting) aren’t household names and won’t star in any million-dollar Super Bowl ads, but the company makes use of their appeal and their expertise in ways that work especially well with female consumers, says Maggie Sullivan, vice president of sports marketing.

Top-ranked by the Association of Volleyball Professionals, Holly McPeak won five of her six events broadcast last year. “She was all over NBC in Danskin,” Sullivan says. One of 13 Team Danskin elites used in a print campaign, McPeak isn’t an idol on the Jordan scale but, as part of a core representing diverse sports, she lends credence to the brand. “Women are not easily fooled,” says Sullivan. “They look for credibility.”

What women lack as hero worshipers, they more than make up for as sportswear consumers. They accounted for more than 80 percent of the $368 million aerobic shoe market in 1993, according to National Sporting Goods Association projections. They purchased more than 60 percent of last year’s projected $1.388 billion in walking shoes. And women bought more than half the year’s projected $601 million in tennis shoes. In fact, for the first time ever, in 1992, women accounted for more than half the overall athletic shoe market.

It’s no wonder companies are burrowing into the female psyche, and exploring ways to feminize ad campaigns.

Both Nike and Reebok are on the verge of launching new ad campaigns based on feedback from focus groups with women. “Our new tactic on role models is: Let’s look at them as real people,” says Deborah Johnson, marketing director for Nike’s women’s division. “Our plan is to take maybe five or six athletes and mix them with real people in a campaign.

“Showing athletes winning works,” says Johnson, “but the feat of winning is not what women relate to. Women relate to a variety of women. Just to rely on one or two athletes on the women’s side doesn’t really make as much sense as having a fold of people.”

Coincidentally, Reebok’s research with women consumers led to similar conclusions and a new tactic of its own. “Women want to relate to the athletes, and the athletes have to have a whole litany of other accomplishments,” says Reebok’s Lowell.

“Michael Jordan has to be able to dunk. Women athletes have to be smart, and well-rounded, and have a family and have humility. So the key is to show a different (nonphysical) aspect of the female athletes that is as admired.”

If multidimensional women who happen to be athletes is the next thematic wave for women’s advertising, “empowerment” and “empathy” were certainly the first.

Empowerment is the message from companies like Ryka, whose tag line, Be Strong, underscores its involvement in the Rose Foundation, which funds efforts to combat violence against women. Reebok’s “I believe” touches the same chord, as does a print campaign for Moving Comfort bodywear: “We believe a physically fit woman is a powerful woman, and we take pride in making clothes that encourage a woman on the path to fitness and power.”

The “we” are founders Ellen Wessell and Elizabeth Goeke, pictured in the ad at work and play, which is yet another feminizing tactic: the company-founders-as-peers approach.

While Ryka’s Sherie Poe is a fixture in her company’s advertising, one couldn’t imagine Converse head Gib Ford making a personal appeal to male basketball addicts, or even Nike ceo Phil Knight talking man-to-man as a former runner to his kindred consumers.

Age, along with gender, tends to lend yet another twist to the formula. The Nike focus group, for instance, found that to be true even though all the women said they believe fitness is important and should be a part of their lives.

Johnsen attributes that value to a greater accessibility of sports to young women. “It’s changed,” she says, “even from the time when I graduated from high school to my kids now.

“Now the popular kids are the ones who are in sports, so it’s so much more important. The Homecoming Queen is going to be the girl on the soccer team.” She probably won’t pray for her favorite World Cup team, however.

“I like Kristie Yamaguchi, but I don’t really know what she’s doing now. There aren’t many girl athletes to like. A lot of the boys in school like Michael Jordan, so they wear Air Jordans a lot. They think if they wear them, they can be like him, or be cool like him and act show-offy….I just like Kristie Yamaguchi; I don’t want to BE like her.”

— Erin O’Brien, age 10