You can make a very strong case that Serena Williams is the best athlete in the world: she has been at the top of her field for an incredibly long time, and has repeatedly smashed existing records. But even at this top tier, Williams not only lags behind her male counterparts in endorsements, but even one of her female peers. In 2015, Maria Sharapova out-earned Serena Williams by $10 million dollars in endorsements (though Williams’ overall revenue was still higher).
This unfortunate situation is echoed across the women’s sporting world: female athletes who fit a certain profile (often white, on the slimmer side rather than very muscly, and conventionally “feminine”) are more likely to get high-value endorsements than their equally-or-more talented counterparts. Female athletes are often valued on their marketability rather than their talent.
But that marketability can be a double-edged sword. Like so many other things in life, female athletes are often damned-if-you-do and damned-if-they-don’t when it comes to being marketable. Talented female athletes who fit a certain physical profile often receive backlash that their success is largely based on their appeal, rather than their on-field success.
Hockeyroo Anna Flanagan has experienced the downside of being a marketable player.
"There is definitely a lot more good than bad, but occasionally people will over look how hard you have worked to get into the position you are in, both on and off the field and say you have been given a hand out or are only in the team because of profile, but this is completely untrue,” she told SBS Zela this week.
In focusing on a player’s marketablility, their commercial appeal rather than their talent can become centre. In women’s sport, this often manifests in the undervaluing of athletes we are sadly so used to.
Marketablity also plays a different role in women’s sport than it does to men’s sport: it is one of the few ways female athletes can draw significant attention and financial support.
Marketablity also plays a different role in women’s sport than it does to men’s sport: it is one of the few ways female athletes can draw significant attention and financial support. According to Flanagan, “because we are not in the media as much, having a bigger profile through marketability can lead to more opportunities that you otherwise cannot get.”
But those additional opportunities come with added pressures.
“There are pressures to perform so that you can back up your marketability, you want to first and foremost be recognised for your sporting talent, so poor performance can reflect poorly on your sport and your sponsors”
“There are pressures to perform so that you can back up your marketability, you want to first and foremost be recognised for your sporting talent, so poor performance can reflect poorly on your sport and your sponsors,” Flanagan told SBS Zela this week.
Female athletes also have added pressure to be marketable in order to get the media opportunities that are routinely restricted, compared to male athletes.
“Men are in the media more so their profile is already bigger and therefore the focus can be more performance based.”
All of this is illustrative of a broader trend with women in media: that their appearance is often draws focus from other achievements. Naomi Wolf, in her classic work “The Beauty Myth”, describes it thus: “the closer women come to power, the more physical self-consciousness and sacrifice are asked of them. ‘Beauty’ becomes the condition for a woman to take the next step.” At the same time, Wolf explains, that same beauty is used to undermine women’s achievements and progress.
This is a dynamic we see playing out again and again in women’s sport, to the detriment of all female athletes, both those who directly benefit from being “marketable”, and thus have their success undermined, and those who don’t.
A more equitable sporting culture should be one that challenges the traditional ideas of marketability, while also recognising the remarkable achievements marketable athletes continue to make. More opportunities for all talented female athletes to get in front of the camera and on the sports page would leave everyone better off.
Hockeyroo defender, Anna Flanagan is a guest editor for a special edition of Zela articles. Anna has written, commissioned and created content for readers around her love of sport and broader interests.