I was pointed to an interesting posting by Solomon Ryan on the adverse affects of the WTA and media focus on sex appeal for the top stars (Women’s Tennis: Too Much Focus on Sex Appeal and Stars Are Why No One Watches). Good article, but I think the premise is slightly off and needs to be adjusted a bit.
The main point is that instead of “letting the tennis speak for itself”, the WTA and the media are more focused on and concerned with stars that are attractive. Solomon postulates that if the final had been Marion Bartoli (instead of Maria Sharapova) versus Petra Kvitova, no one would have watched the final on TV. I had originally picked Bartoli and Kvitova to make it to the final. And he is correct… it would have been awful tennis for the mainstream tennis viewer. Not just because of the perceived deficit of sex appeal/attractiveness (Bartoli and Kvitova are not two of the touted WTA glamor girls). This is part of a broader problem for the WTA that goes beyond the need to push the most attractive players to help with fan popularity.
Two players who I think would have garnered decent ratings (apart from Venus and Serena) are Li Na and Francesca Schiavone. They are both very good players, representing the two past French Open champions (Li Na was also a finalist in Australia at the Australian Open). They are both fairly attractive when cleaned up and out of their tennis gear at WTA soirees. Maybe not in the ways we define classical beauty, but they are attractive. They are both extremely personable with personalities that are readily evident on-court. These are the reasons they would garner better TV ratings. They have the necessary combination of traits that provide a better alchemy for spectator popularity.
And this is where I feel a focus on only the players’ sex appeal comes up a bit short in the analysis women’s tennis popularity. Optimal appeal for women’s tennis is about all three pieces of the puzzle: attractiveness and sex appeal, an engaging personality (star power), and championship ability.
One of the first big pushes towards using player’s sex appeal came with the Sony Ericsson “Looking for a Hero” ad-campaign. In the TV spot, select top (pretty) players at that time got secret phone calls (on their Sony Ericsson phones, of course) and then started running, transforming into tennis heroes (complete with makeup). Venus, Maria, Ana, Jelena (a little miscast by comparison). The print campaign featured other players. This year the WTA unveiled the “Strong is Beautiful” campaign. Featured WTA players were presented in various states of being scantily clad with makeup, glitter, dramatic lighting, etc, followed by slow motion shots of them hitting tennis balls with major aggression. There was an accompanying print campaign as well. Both campaigns worked to some degree. I would assert that the latter was more effective because of the dramatic nature of the images and the subjects. Did they achieve the goal of highlighting the next generation of tennis superstars? One only has to read few tennis news outlets to discover that prior to Wimbledon, all talk was about Serena and Venus coming back to competition. So I would say “No”. The supporting cast in the WTA has yet to produce on either the personality front or the championship ability front. Attractiveness and sex appeal was clearly not enough for Wozniacki, Azarenka, Zvonoreva, and the others.
Ana Ivanovic is a good example of a player who started off on the right path with all three but has lost her wattage. If it were just about her attractiveness she would still rank highly as a valuable commodity for marketing women’s tennis. Owing to her stunning beauty and sexiness, she is someone who could easily be as big and as marketable as Anna Kournikova. Anna was a top ten player who never won a singles titles. But she was good enough, pretty enough, and engaging enough that she parlayed her brand into a very marketable empire. Ivanovic hasn’t been able to produce enough good matches since her French Open win to take her to that next level like Anna. She often appears weak and mentally frail in her matches, and can’t hold her nerves at bay in the big matches. She then goes into the mandatory post-match interviews looking completely raw and vulnerable, and often a little lost. These are not championship qualities, nor do they represent star power. They are not marketable commodities at all.
Vera Zvonareva is also one of the more attractive top female players, and she has a good game which she showed last year by making it to the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals. But she doesn’t have an engaging personality on court that connects with the fans. In the past she has gone through spells of on-court crying, breaking her racquets, and putting towels over her head during changeovers. You can’t sell a sponsor’s inventory with that combination.
In the end, you have to be able to win, you have to be able to look good doing it, and you have to be able to hold court with the press and fans. Sharapova can do all three of these things easily. She is a striking player to watch, and can also crush an opponent in a big match OR fight like hell in a loss. The same holds true for Serena. She is physically striking, a killer on court, and about as engaging as you can get off the court. I have talked to many tennis fans who have traveled the world for the opportunity to watch her play. It also holds true for Caroline Wozniacki to a lesser extent, but only outside of the grand slams. She has never produced her best tennis at the slams.
So it is no wonder that Maria Sharapova got the bulk of the focus between the two Wimbledon finalists. If Petra Kvitova weren’t such a shy girl and maybe had a better grasp of English, she could easily have been a good focal point for the media prior to the final. She’s got a pretty and fresh face, big blue eyes, an easy demeanor, disarming smile, and a forehand to the beat the band! I hope her handlers can help her along with those things if becoming more marketable is something that interests her.
I do take slight issue (and I do mean slight) with his assessment of Venus and Serena Williams. Solomon writes “Only the Williams sisters have managed to eliminate the “attractiveness” discussion from tennis commentary”. Not true. The attractiveness factor was just as much a huge part of their appeal as their athleticism. The standards of attractiveness are different when comparing the typical tall, leggy, blond tennis player to these strong, muscular black women, but they are present nonetheless. The need was still there for them to abide by, and even set, a beauty standard for themselves and other women of color. The effect was clear when you saw their fans at tournaments sporting the same beaded hairstyles and tennis dresses as their idols. They have definitely brought athleticism of unparalleled heights to the women’s game. But that’s not the reason they are TV worthy.
Their “look” has always been important. They had to “represent”. For themselves, their family and, in a way, for all African-American women. The hair, the jewelry, the outfits… it all added up to a visual appeal that could live up to and match their game and personalities. Now that they are older and not playing as much, the issues are a bit different. Serena felt slighted by her Court 2 placement at Wimbledon for one of her matches. But having not played a tour match in almost a year AND with so many question marks about her match toughness and fitness, she couldn’t expect to have the same champion treatment as Rafa or Roger who are still in the mix at every tournament.
The WTA still has a ways to go right now in terms of a good sustainable product that can offer all of these traits. The young guns have potential but need to keep producing at the big events. And they also need to be made more aware that their whole package is as important to the product as their fierce backhands or forehands. People will pay to see good tennis, but they will pay more to see good tennis with a bit of flair and drama. And lest anyone think I’m picking on the women, just take a look at the men. You couldn’t ask for a better mix of these traits than that found in the top 10 (maybe not Soderling, but you see where I’m going with this).
I’ll end with two words that illustrate my point better than anything else I could write: Serena catsuit!
(Thanks to Solomon Ryan for a great jumping off point with this discussion)