Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why Do Women Athletes Have to be Celebrities?

Jill Smoller, the head of the Sports/Entertainment Division at the William Morris Agency took some heat today at a lunch hosted by the Wellesley Centers for Women on the topic of Women and Sports. She talked about the need for women athletes (unlike male athletes) also to be celebrities, if they are to garner the attention necessary to get the much sought-after endorsements, which are many athletes primary livelihoods. The example she used was one of her own top-knotch clients, Serena Williams, who, she says, needs to get out in the media for much more than her tennis skills, if she is going to be noticed and command the attention (and sponsorship) that she does.

Serena's soon-to-be-announced new sponsor?--OPI. Yes, I mean the nail polish company. Serena, known for her long nails on the court, engaged in a specific strategy to highlight her personal affection for a good manicure to woo that sponsor. And Jill Smoller (who, one imagines, was instrumental in that media strategy) says that's exactly how it needs to be for women. She pointed out that corporate America (aka the sponsors) still requires that women athletes be attractive and feminine.

There was an audible rumble in the room. But as others astutely pointed out, let's not be too quick to blame corporate America, because until we women start to value women athletes more (by going to their games, by demanding more women's sports coverage, by holding out for Nike basketball shoes that are named for a woman basketball star and not a man, and by generally valuing a broader range of athletic women), then there's no reason for corporate America to change.

We have market power. We just aren't using it! Why not?

This called to mind an article I once read about a union organizer who continued to shop at WalMart, though that act went against all his union politics (Walmart being quite renowned for its union busting and oppressive supplier policies). Why did he do it? Because shopping at WalMart was easy and cheap.

Indeed. It's a lot easier to accept the status quo, than it is to change things, especially if changing things means personal, though possibly temporary, deprivation (as in, I won't buy Nike products because the company doesn't support women athletes at the same level it does male athletes; or, I'm going to a WNBA game by myself, instead of the usual NBA game with my boyfriend/husband/partner/lover/father/brother/etc...because he won't come to the women's game with me).

Instead of rumbling at Jill Smoller's possibly incendiary comments, let's make change!