Under Armour has been named Ad Age's Marketer of the Year primarily for its novel approach marketing to women. The success Under Armour has enjoyed with its I Will campaign underscores why Title IX -- while generating lots of positive results -- has been an abject failure in reshaping opportunities for women in sports marketing and redefining the way our society treats and values women’s sports.
Now Puma has followed suit by signing Rihanna as the face of its women's fitness line and giving her the title of "creative director."
When Under Armour debuted its Gisele TV commercial, while acknowledging its effectiveness, I offered the opinion that a double standard has been created by the media, and that double standard has shaped viewing habits, public opinion and marketing. I concluded that this trend does not bode well for the growth of women's sports nor does it help top-tier female athletes.
The starting point of all this is that women's sports get a fraction of the respect and audience that men's sports do. The media have not historically promoted or distributed women's sports. And most women athletes grew up looking up to male athletes as their "role model."
Title IX was supposed to change all that. But while girls got to "play" instead of "cheerlead," our sports viewing habits did not change. Why? The reason is that, while schools had to change and let girls play sports, the media were allowed to continue their old ways of ignoring women’s sports. A primary reason why we do not perceive men and female athletes equally is that the media treat them like second-class citizens -- and advertisers only follow suit.
Bottom line, our attitude toward women's athletes is shaped by sport media and Madison Avenue. And Madison Avenue sets the standard for our double standard of social currency among men (rich/winner/athletic) and women (attractive/youthful).
When it comes to male athletes, all that matters is whether you win at one of the major sports. The general rule is that if you are a winner -- the best in the business -- then you will be rewarded handsomely with endorsements or marketing deals (Shaq, Kobe, LeBron, Kevin Durant). In marked contrast, the sports brands realized over the years that you don't have to pay top women athletes the big bucks no matter what.
For example, when we represented Lisa Leslie, the best player in the WNBA, Nike kept reducing its offers to Lisa even as she got better and more dominant as a player. The reasoning was that Nike discovered that male athletes were "still" driving the sales of the shoes anyway (girls looked up to the male athletes more because of the additional exposure and promotion that they received).
More recently, as women have been wearing workout gear or athletic apparel throughout the day (as men have done for years), the sports brands have started to experiment with different approaches seeing this as a growth market. Now there is much more emphasis on whether a female athlete is attractive and youthful, rather than the best in the world. In fact, it is arguably better to be an athletic youthful model rather than athlete who happens to be attractive (at least from Under Armour’s perspective). All of this is completely in line with Madison Avenue's view of how to market women.
There was quite a bit of chatter around Under Armour's signing Gisele to a reportedly whopping deal to be the face of its women's athletic footwear and apparel line. Obviously, Gisele is super attractive and even athletic and perhaps even a remarkable lady -- but she certainly is not considered a world-class athlete or more importantly she is not best in the world at a sport that large numbers of girls play (i.e. soccer, basketball or volleyball).
But who can argue with Under Armour's results in light of the growth for its women's business as a result of the I Will campaign.
I appreciate attractive female athletes, but I don't think that being physically attractive (usually models or actresses win this battle) should be the initial criterion when a sports brand is deciding whether to sign a woman endorser. But it seems the women that are buying the product don't really care about this.
If we really want to see change, the sports media, starting with the major distributors like ESPN, Fox and NBC, should be required to promote and distribute a certain amount of women's sports on TV. Girls and women need to be conditioned to watch women’s sports. They make up more than half the viewing audience for goodness sake. Not only should sports companies should apply the same standard to female athletes as they do to men, they should make women's sports just as relevant to women as men's sports are to men. Interested in your thoughts.
-- Leonard Armato has distinguished himself as a ground-breaking marketer, brand strategist and entrepreneur, launching some of the world's most renowned cross-industry careers, such as Shaquille O'Neal and Oscar de La Hoya. For years he has been a leader in the convergence of sports, entertainment, music, marketing and technology. Follow him on Twitter @leonardarmato.