Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — With the Summer Olympics less than two months away, more magazines are running cover stories with shots of navel-bearing female athletes to rev up their readership.
Esquire’s August issue touts “A Portfolio of America’s 10 Sexiest Athletes,” GQ’s August edition has a sultry shot of tennis babe Anna Kournikova, and an Olympics supplement in Teen People’s September issue features Serena Williams in a gold snakeskin halter top and gold skirt.
Athletes were also pictured more in swimwear or skimpy outfits than in activewear this spring in Sports Illustrated for Women’s first swimsuit edition, which spotlighted elite athletes.
All this attention comes as major activewear companies continue to pour millions of dollars into their advertising budgets to present athletic images, although manufacturers said they don’t mind if their athletes bare their souls — or themselves — for a little publicity.
But the issue is not without some controversy. Some observers say portraying women athletes in a sexy way is degrading, sets back the cause of feminism and diminishes the strides women have made in all sports.
“Anything that heightens athletes, sports apparel and sports in general for consumers is important for our industry. Now we’re in sort of a lull — not as much as the men’s business — but we’re looking to rejuvenate the business,” said Alden Sheets, president of worldwide apparel and accessories for Puma. “If a beautiful athlete leads us to that, that’s fabulous.”
The media’s current interest in women athletes is only going to increase with the Olympics approaching, and that’s a good thing for activewear companies, Sheets said.
When told that Williams, a Puma-sponsored athlete, landed the cover of Teen People’s Olympics supplement, which hits newsstands Monday, Sheets noted that she hasn’t signed on yet for the Sydney Games. But Puma doesn’t shy away from flashy lifestyle pieces about her, he said.
“By being a little bit of an alternative player, she identifies perfectly with Puma. Her style, power, presentation, what she talks about and aggressiveness are slightly alternative,” he said. “We want to be the same type of company.”
Williams is among the female Olympic athletes who will be featured by Vogue and Sports Illustrated For Women in their September issues, Sheets said. But the onslaught of publicity won’t sway Puma’s marketing plans.
“We’re not going to be leveraged into any print advertising if it’s outside our strategy,” Sheets said.
As part of their endorsement deals, Nike-sponsored athletes, not surprisingly, must wear Nike when being photographed in activewear for profiles, but there are no guidelines for nonathletic apparel, a Nike spokeswoman said. Case in point: Marion Jones’ action shot in Esquire. She wears a sports bra and shorts with Nike socks and track shoes.
But Nike isn’t opposed to the nonathletic images that have become more prevalent.
“We trust in the athlete to make the right decision,” she said. “We like seeing athletes being seen as themselves often in situations where you might not expect to see them, like in a fashion shoot. Sometimes we see a shot with nothing Nike and we’re happy about it.”
While enthusiastic that more flashbulbs are directed at female athletes, the Nike spokeswoman said the issue draws a fine line. She said the danger for women athletes has always been that if they use sex to sell their sport or themselves as athletes, it might jeopardize their credibility in the sport.
In a Sports Illustrated’s cover story about Kournikova that ran last month, tennis legend Billie Jean King noted how “unfortunate it is when others with a high skill factor don’t win the endorsements. Sure, the good-looking guys get more endorsement, but the difference in men’s sports is that the ugly ones get their share, too.”
The Women’s Sports Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports women’s and girls’ sports, also took issue with the article.
“When writers and photographers use negative or inappropriate labels or inconsistent images to describe the female athlete — such as beautiful models or naked women in sports magazines, and in the same pages, depict men for their skill and prowess — they are defining the female athlete as different from and less than the male athlete. They are applying a double standard to women’s sports.”
Adidas America stands by Kournikova, who faced some criticism for her coquettish poses in Sports Illustrated. Even columnist Maureen Dowd, who typically does not cover sports, weighed in with a piece in a Sunday edition of The New York Times, criticizing the magazine for featuring the tennis star on its cover, even though she has yet to win a major tournament.
“We’re very supportive of anything [Kournikova] wants to do,” an Adidas spokeswoman said. “She obviously has an interest in more fashion pieces. A lot of designers send her clothes. She’s quite sought after because she is such a high-profile figure.”
For lifestyle pieces, Adidas generally doesn’t get involved with outfitting athletes with activewear, unless the athlete or a stylist asks for help. Many magazines prefer to use photographs of athletes competing.
“We like to control things when we can. That’s because we want to make sure our athletes are in current product so the consumer can buy it,” the Adidas spokeswoman said. “Most athletes are pretty reasonable about what they put on. There are always times when we’re not involved and we see pieces in the magazines just like everyone else.”
In GQ’s August issue, Kournikova is shown in four midriff-baring shots, including three full-length ones and one in action. For the cover, she chose white shorts from Ralph Lauren Collection — not Adidas. The Russian tennis player’s photos are reportedly downloaded off the Web more than any other athletes.
GQ opted for a shot of Kournikova as a 12-year-old swatting tennis balls because anyone can tune into ESPN to see what she looks like competing today, according to Art Cooper, editor in chief.
This isn’t GQ’s first foray into women’s sports. The magazine’s cover shot of Martina Hingis, featured two years ago, was a “huge success” with readers and with the Women’s Tennis Association, Cooper said.
Kournikova, Cooper said, “knew exactly how she wanted to look. Quite frankly, what she’s wearing in the magazine is no sexier than what she wears when she goes out at night,” he said.
“Anna is the highest-paid female athlete. She hasn’t done that by winning tournaments,” he said, referring to the number of endorsement deals she’s signed.
David Granger, Esquire’s editor in chief, said he came up with the idea for the “Strength & Beauty” issue after realizing the August issue lacked a story about sports and a story about women. After seeing the photos — most of which were black-and-white navel-baring shots of lesser-known Olympians, he gave the green light for a cover story.
For the first time, Esquire has used three different cover shots. There is one of pentathlete Mary Beth Larsen, another of high jumper Amy Acuff and a third of triathlete Lokelani McMichael.
“For some reason, our readers have a huge appetite for looking at pictures of women,” Granger said. “Each one of these photos celebrates their physical beauty and their incredible prowess, while they all look pretty attractive. You see, they are athletes as well as very beautiful women.”
Not so, says Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research for Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.
“These women didn’t get to be Olympic athletes because of their nail polish,” she said. “How much respect do we give to women if we dismiss them as sex kittens? That only continues to marginalize women’s sports and [the athletes’] accomplishments.”
The media is “significantly more likely” to portray female athletes out of uniform and to focus on their personal lives than their male counterparts, Kane said. In addition, corporate sponsors and Madison Avenue work very hard to distance themselves from any lesbian images associated with women’s sports, she added.
Kane said she’s not opposed to personal profiles of female athletes, provided they address the subject from an athletic point of view.
“Some people disagree and say this is a sign that women’s sports have arrived. Arrived at what?” she said. “Women athletes are sexualized in the way that women have always been sexualized. If that’s what to have arrived means, no thanks.”
The Nike spokeswoman said that female athletes are not nearly as likely to try so hard to put forward a heterosexual image as they did 20 years ago, when there was a stigma that many female athletes were lesbians. Part of that is due to the fact that 1 in 3 girls play high school sports today, as opposed to 1 in 20, which was the case in 1975, she said.
Kathy O’Connell Johnson, vice president of fitness and interactive marketing for Reebok International, said that consumers are interested in athletes “as entire people.”
“Sports beyond the game are entertainment and a lifestyle,” she said. “As long as photos are done in a tasteful way, we don’t have any problems with it.”
Reebok was pleased with the coverage of Venus Williams during and after Wimbledon because it showed her strong personality, Johnson said. The brand expects another one of its endorsees, soccer star Julie Foudy, to be the subject of much media attention next year, when she heads up the Women’s Sports Foundation.
“In working with our female athletes, I’ve found they get more involved beyond playing the game,” Johnson said. “They’re willing to go the extra mile or do the extra interview to make sure there’s enough interest and support for their sport.”
Scott Rivers, director of marketing for Burton, said the photo of a bikini-clad Shannon Dunn, a Burton-sponsored snowboarder, in Sports Illustrated for Women’s swimsuit issue helps the brand.
“It brings riders like Shannon into the mainstream market,” he said. “By having Shannon’s name associated with snowboarding, young women will look to see what she rides and will hopefully choose Burton.”
Dunn offered another take. “Maybe more nonsnowboarders will remember this, but snowboarders will like and remember Burton’s marketing more,” she said.
Gary Schoenfeld, president and chief executive officer of Vans, said he liked Sports Illustrated for Women’s swimsuit shot of skateboarder Cara-Beth Burnside, who is sponsored by Vans, refereeing a beach football game between female surfers and pro football players.
“It demonstrates how these core sports — what used to be considered extreme sports or alternative sports — have become more of a part of the overall influence on lifestyle and fashion,” he said.
Schoenfeld was unfazed that Burnside, who has a footwear deal with Vans, was barefoot or wearing shorts made by Volcom, a competitor.
“We’re not about controlling the athletes. We want them to be excited about the brand and being a good spokesperson. Cara-Beth is terrific at that,” he said.
Teenagers and young adults — Vans’ target market — are not interested in wearing “uniforms from one brand,” Schoenfeld noted. Several Vans-sponsored athletes have different sponsorship deals for different types of apparel, footwear and hard goods.
“Frankly, we embrace that rather than try to change it,” he said.

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