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Female Athletes' Endorsement Opportunities Hindered By Sexualization And Lack Of Visibility, Say Researchers

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Jordyn Weiber, Sarah Robles, Gabrielle Douglas, Missy Franklin, Dana Vollmer. Quite a few female athletes have already become household names during the 2012 Olympic games. But don’t expect them to crop up in advertisements the way Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte do, says new research.

The paper, soon to be published in the Journal of Brand Strategy, indicates that the reason female athletes get fewer endorsements is twofold: They aren’t featured in a way that effectively appeals to brands’ audiences and -- unfortunately -- many of these elite athletes are only really visible during the Olympics.

Co-author Professor John Antil of University of Delaware described in a press release the “cycle of failure” that occurs with female athletic endorsements, “The way female athletes are being used as endorsers negatively impacts their effectiveness and reduces wider opportunities for other female athletes.” Professors Matthew Robinson of the University of Delaware and Rick Burton of Syracuse University authored the paper along with Antil.

One way that advertisers go wrong is by sexualizing female athletes. Research has shown that women -- the core demographic for women’s sports and the products that female athletes are recruited to help sell -- do not respond well to overly-sexualized portrayals of women’s sports stars. Antil, Robinson and Burton pointed to a 2009 “Got Milk!” ad featuring Olympic medalist Dana Torres in a bikini, as an example of advertising gone wrong. “Respondents suggested this was a poor image for an outstanding athlete who achieved so much while raising a family," the researchers wrote. "Featuring Dara Torres as a middle-aged single mother, able to balance family with work commitments, might be more effective than highlighting her physical attractiveness at age 40."

Another major barrier to female athletes getting big sponsorships is their lack of visibility during most of the year. Only 1.6 percent of women’s sporting events were broadcast in 2008, reported USA Today. Often women’s teams are passed over for men’s, which garner far more attention and ratings. This means that female athletes are generally less recognizable than male athletes, even though the number of female athletes has substantially increased since Title IX went into effect in 1972, and this year the U.S. sent more female Olympians than male. Unfortunately, the lack of attention that these women get during the year means that their faces just aren’t as profitable.

What do you think? How could female athletes attract more sponsorships (without appearing in sexualized ads)? Would you like to see more female athletes featured in advertisements?

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