Sex Can’t Sell Sports

February 9, 2012 12:00 am0 comments
Brian Bencomo

So the championship football team on Sunday was the same as in the previous championship matchup between the two squads. I’m actually not talking about the New York Giants beating the New England Patriots, but I’m referring to the Los Angeles Temptation’s win over the Philadelphia Passion, in the ninth annual Lingerie Bowl.

This was the third consecutive year in which the Bowl game was the culmination of the 7-on-7 tackle football league known as the Lingerie Football League. The league, which is in no way affiliated with the NFL, is a fanciful attempt to meld the popularity of football with the sex appeal of beautiful women. Take an NFL cheerleader off the sidelines, put her on the field in shoulder pads and a helmet, and you have the prototype of the typical player in this league. 

However, it’s not all fun and games. The girls are supposed to be athletic, and the games are meant to be competitive. Formerly marketed as an alternative to the Super Bowl halftime show, the game was, for the first time, held prior to the big game this year, perhaps signaling the move toward a more serious league. Of course, the sexual nature of the game is blatant, and league founder Mitch Mortaza is unapologetic about using it to draw eyeballs, banking on the adage that sex sells. 

It may be unethical, but the reality is that the LFL is not the only female league that has used sex to sell its sport. Some examples from just last year of female leagues trying to market the physical attractiveness of their players were the Women’s Tennis Association’s “Strong is Beautiful” promos, an ad campaign by the Ladies Professional Golf Association that seemed to market appearances and the ill-fated mandate by the World Badminton Federation that all female players wear skirts on the court. In 2004, FIFA President Sepp Blatter was ridiculed for suggesting that in order to increase the popularity of women’s soccer, perhaps they should consider playing in “more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball,” such as wearing tighter shorts. Even still, last year, the U.S. women’s soccer team sported strikingly tight-fitting jerseys that some likened to a nurse’s uniform.

So do such attempts to market female athletes actually work? According to research done by University of Minnesota sports sociologist Mary Jo Kane, this sexual allure of female athletes may make them desirable to men, but it doesn’t make men more interested in the sports they play. Furthermore, such marketing actually alienates other fan bases such as women and older males who have daughters. “Sex sells sex, not women’s sports,” Kane wrote in The Nation.

It actually makes a lot of sense if you consider the reason why men, as well as women, watch sports. Although people may be drawn to athletic contests for a variety of reasons, it seems that the most common ones would be interest in the sport, its participants and in the competition itself. Whereas the attractiveness of a certain female athlete may draw curious eyes, it’s just not compelling enough if you don’t develop a rooting interest for her or her team, if you don’t care about the sport or if the competition just isn’t entertaining. Furthermore, television and the internet make it very easy to stare at attractive female athletes or any attractive female, without watching a game. 

I think it’s sort of similar to following a television show. Like the fan bases of sporting teams and leagues, television shows have stable fan bases that watch the show because they’re interested in the story or the characters. I tried watching Gossip Girl for a bit because I think Blake Lively and Leighton Meester are extremely attractive, but ultimately, the show just wasn’t compelling enough to keep me watching (sorry Gossip Girl fans). If I wanted to see Blake or Leighton, I could just google their pictures online.

So if sex doesn’t sell female sports, then what makes some of them more popular than others in the long-term? I’m guessing the answer would basically be the same as why people watch sports in the first place: the game, the competition, and the competitors. It seems as though basketball (at both the collegiate and professional levels), tennis and women’s soccer are the most popular, and the key similarity among these is that the level of play in each of these is comparable to men’s games. What many female sports lack in strength and power to their male counterparts, football being the prime example, these sports make up for in skill. 

An inferior level of play is often the reason given for why not as many people watch female sports. If the level of play is comparable, then it stands to reason that the level of interest between male and female versions of a sport would be comparable as well. I, along with millions of other Americans, was captivated by women’s soccer last year because the national team played so well and provided such drama in its matches. It was great soccer to watch. In a similar vein, Major League Soccer is not quite as popular as it could be among U.S. soccer fans because its level of play is considered inferior to that of European Leagues. 

In the case of women’s tennis, a strong argument can be made that sex is an integral part of the sport’s marketing, but here, again, one should factor in level of play. Women’s tennis player Billie Jean King actually beat former tennis great Bobby Riggs in the 1973 match that was billed “The Battle of the Sexes.” This match, along with mixed doubles matches, exemplifies how the level of play among male and female tennis players can be similar. The same argument can be made for golf even though the LPGA is not nearly as popular as the PGA. There was a buzz around the LPGA when phenom Michelle Wie was said to be able to play with the boys. Furthermore, she was touted as a star. Tennis similarly lauds its stars.

The notion of star-power highlights the fact that there are probably plenty of other contributors to the popularity of all sports, regardless of whether they are played by males or females. Much has been studied and written about the effects of media coverage, which brings me back to the LFL. The fact that marketing of the original Lingerie Bowl piggybacked on the popularity of the Super Bowl and that the current league has been broadcast on MTV2 may partially account for why it’s more widely known than other women’s professional football leagues (yes, they do exist). Yet if Kane’s studies are valid, then the over reliance on sex appeal will ultimately doom the LFL as a professional sports league.