Charles Schwab Challenge

Colonial Country Club


Should we be trying to sell sex in golf?

August 30, 2013

After her historic performance at the Solheim Cup, Charley Hull had the golf world talking. She gained attention not just because she's the youngest player to compete in the event, or because her record for the tournament was 2-1, or because she trounced Paula Creamer 5 & 4 in Sunday singles.  More noteworthy was how she did it. Hull was calm, quiet, and composed in an event that is known for its loud cheering and celebrating. It was surprising and refreshing to see an athlete so young display such maturity. We're surprised when a player like her generates buzz -- but why? Is it because there simply aren't as many golfers (or athletes in general) that conduct themselves as she does? Or is it because we haven't made room for that type of competitor?

ESPN aired a documentary, "Branded" Tuesday night about how female athletes are marketed. If you're a female athlete in a world where the top 50 highest paid athletes in the U.S. are male and just 1.4% of ESPN's SportsCenter airtime is of female athletic events, it can be tough to find support and money. There seems to be two dominant ways to get sponsors: be more of a cute, relatable, quiet competitor or be outwardly sexy. From the film, athletes historically haven't had as much success selling themselves purely as tough competitors, like the WNBA does. Even if you can tap into one of these two main molds, there can be penalties. Mary Lou Retton, a cute, relatable, small town girl that signed everyone from Energizer to Wheaties after achieving stardom with her perfect 10 in the 1984 Summer Olympics, retired just a year later. Anna Kournikova never won a tournament, but was the most searched athlete on the Internet for a while. The film showed a clip of an old Kournikova interview where she stormed out of the room after being asked if she saw herself as more of a tennis player or as a sex symbol. Lolo Jones was the subject of a judgmental article from the New York Times that said her performances didn't meet the level of attention and endorsements she was receiving.

Looking at the LPGA, there are athletes that fall into these two categories. Charley Hull, Stacy Lewis, and Azahara Munoz give off the quieter vibe, while Belen Mozo and Carly Booth have posed for the Body Issue, and Natalie Gulbis for Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit edition. There's nothing wrong with posing for either magazine, but the question remains: Though less flashy, could selling the quiet competitor work as well -- or better than -- selling the outwardly sexy female athlete?

Coupled with the film, ESPN published an article by Kate Fagan with research that says "consumers, when deciding whether to buy a sports-related product, respond more to advertisements that portray female athletes as -- get this -- athletes." Athletes are going to have to keep selling what we consumers are buying. If we buy into athletes as athletes, this trend could continue.