(WOMENSENEWS)--Nike's Jordan brand announced the addition of a new athlete on its 25-person star roster this summer, and it's not another guy.
In a highly publicized press conference in May, Maya Moore became the first female basketball player to be signed onto Michael Jordan's Nike brand, considered to be the most exclusive sponsor by athletes and sports enthusiasts. Jordan, otherwise known as his "His Royal Airness," is said to handpick athletes that represent his famous organization.
Moore raises female representation on the brand to 8 percent.
After spending four years playing college basketball at the University of Connecticut, and leading Uconn to two national championship titles and a record-breaking 90-game winning steak, Moore became the No. 1 draft pick in the Women's National Basketball Association this year. She also made her way onto the all-star team as a rookie for the Minnesota Lynx.
April Holmes, a world record-breaking runner in the Paralympic category of competitors with single-below knee amputation, was the first woman to join Jordan's roster of impressive athletes in 2009.
The choice of Moore, a team player, is welcome, particularly in a summer when the U.S. women's soccer team stirred unprecedented national, across-the-board sports interest with its championship match against Japan last month.
Typically, the female athletes who attract and hold media limelight are from non-team sports, such as tennis-singles sister stars Serena and Venus Williams. And such stars inevitably attract fashion-model-type media interest: "What's she wearing?" "How's she doing her hair?" "How much did she pay for that bling?"
Cultivating Sexy Media Image
The example who most jumps to mind is Maria Sharapova, whose photographs are focused on her seductive eye contact and body language instead of her physical intensity. She has cultivated a sexy media image that seems designed to attract male viewers--not sports fans.
In other words, women who do not play on team sports are more likely to be sexualized, says Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.
"When you're engaged in individual sports like tennis and golf, the requirements of the sport are consistent with what it means to be a traditional female," Kane said in a phone interview. "When you play basketball you sweat, you have to be physically aggressive, tough and wear big baggy uniforms. The sport requires you to engage in physical activities that are inconsistent with traditional definitions of femininity."
There is no research looking specifically at the ratio of female vs. male athletes in advertisements and marketing campaigns, but general statistics around sports coverage speaks for themselves. Recent research shows that only between 2 and 4 percent of sports coverage is women's sports, said Kane, even though women make up 40 percent of all sports participation nationwide.
Kane recently conducted a study that explored the connection between sexualized advertising of women's sports--featuring images similar to the June issue of Playboy magazine which had Germany's women's soccer team on the cover--and their fan base. Did sexualized advertising help draw viewers?
Turning Off Sports Fans
In her focus groups--organized by sex and age groups--she displayed images of female athletes, some in traditional athletic poses and some more sexualized. The latter, she found, could be an actual turn-off to serious sports-events marketing.
"My study showed that it alienates the core fan base. Even though younger males might be interested in buying the magazine or the calendar featuring sexy images, it doesn't mean that they're going to go to a women's games," said Kane.
Jordan's brand has not sexualized any of the men in its marketing strategies--Dwayne Wade and Carmelo Anthony have yet to appear as anything but basketball players in their featured commercials. Holmes, the lone female representative on Jordan's brand until Moore came along, also hasn't been portrayed sexually in advertisements.
"Maya Moore is considered one of the greatest women basketball players, if not the greatest, this country has ever produced, so her personal 'brand' is about her extraordinary athleticism," Kane said. "Unlike Maria Sharapova. Even though she was a professional tennis player her brand was about how beautiful, blond and sexy she was. That's not the case for Maya, her primary identity has been that she's an extraordinarily gifted athlete."
So there could be a sports-marketing breakthrough to be hailed here: A female athlete appreciated for her athleticism.
But Kane isn't hailing a milestone yet.
"Now the question is, when they choose to market her, will they continue to emphasize her athleticism or will they try to sexualize her and make her a girly girl?" she asked.
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Krystie Lee Yandoli is an editorial intern at Women's eNews.
For more information:
Maya Moore's WNBA Player Profile:
Nike's Jordan brand:
Women's Sports Foundation: