I Wish I Was the Anna Kournikova of Anything

"What I love about the WNBA is that there are women who dunk."

Paula Madison, CEO Los Angeles Sparks

"I don't think selling sex is ever going to be outdated. It's like when people say breasts are in or breasts are out. Our breasts are never going to be out."
-Gabrielle Reece, Former Pro Beach Volleyball Player.

from Branded, an ESPN Films/espnW Nine for IX Documentary, Dir. by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing.

I've been asking my sports marketing students for years "What does it mean when a female athlete is referred to as the 'Anna Kournikova of their sport?'"

The answer I get: "That means the female athlete is not that good at her sport but she's well known because she's so good looking."

"That's right," I say, then I progress further in our colloquy; master of the Socratic Method that I am. "And why is it that 'Anna Kournikova' should be the name for this distinction?"

The answer I get: "Because she promoted her looks while she was not actually a very good tennis player."

Now, I've got them in my trap. "Uh huh, she wasn't that good of a tennis player. How high was she ranked?"

The answer I get: "She was never ranked higher than eighth in world."

"Yes, exactly," I say. "She never got past being eighth in the world."

Then I pause, uncomfortably silent, staring at them for a good 10 to 20 seconds.

"Not that good?" I say. One more little dramatic pause, "Tell me: How many of us, at some point in our life, would like to be ranked eighth in the world in anything?"

Anna Kournikova was not a good tennis player. She was a great tennis player. How many hours of her life did she practice -- repetitive, solitary, hard work and drilling -- to become the eighth best in the world?

If I pointed out to you a guy in a crowd and said "See that guy? He used to play first base for the Atlanta Braves." You'd think that nameless guy must be an excellent baseball player just to make it to the big leagues. Kournikova was ranked eighth in the WTAk ahead of 2 others in the Top 10, ahead of 72 others in the Top 100 and ahead of thousands who strive every day hoping to ranked at all. Anna Kournikova was one of the best tennis players in the world. To question her tennis prowess (i.e. equate her name with an athlete who is all looks no skills) is stupid as well as incorrect.

The reason the phrase "she is the Anna Kournikova of (blank)" has evolved pejoratively is because despite not reaching the pinnacle of her sport (#1 ranking or winning a WTA tournament (though she did win two doubles Grand Slams with partner Martina Hingis, and hence they were dubbed "The Spice Girls of Tennis"), she became more famous and concomitantly more enriched (endorsements, sponsorships) for her sex appeal than competitors who had garnered more success than her on the court. Similar complaints have been voiced against other good looking (I will hold in abeyance, for now and not lightly, any Naomi Wolf-style arguments about subjective, societally coerced determinations of who/what is "good looking." For the practical purposes of this discussion "good looking" is whatever Madison Avenue and its consumers say it is) female athletes who have gotten lots of marketing attention (cash) off the field while on-the-field competitors have amassed more trophies.

Yet let us be very, very clear: But for their athletic achievement, you would not know about (not at the level of celebrity) Anna Kournikova, Danica Patrick, Lolo Jones, Gina Carano and others. It is precisely because of their rarefied level of athletic achievement that we care about and know about them in the first place -- not their looks. Reaching a top level of athletic performance is the condition predicate for activation of the female athlete's looks as a market asset.

So, after they have achieved some, let's call it, "market relevance" through sports by being among the best in the world, should their good looks give them a marketplace advantage? In other words, now that so many people can see how they look, should these good-looking athletes exploit their looks for financial gain? Some don't think so.

Last August, the New York Times columnist Jere Longman was excoriated, even by his own publication's ombudsman, for thrashing hurdler Lolo Jones and her ability to get all kinds of marketing deals despite not having won the Olympics yet. Like Kournikova, who was one of the top 10 tennis players in the world, Jones was a ranked #1 in the world at the time the article came out. Again, it wasn't only her looks that made her interesting. But how can anyone in this day and age really say that there is something wrong or unusual with an athlete diversifying his/her personal brand -- looks, personality, outrageousness, villainy, Dancing With the Stars-ability -- to earn a living? It's not just commonplace, it's a brisk and potentially lucrative marketplace. The business of sports happens regularly, in large part off the field.

Is the objection to Kournikova, Danica, Lolo simply that only the very best, or reigning champions should allowed to have the market consider their looks? Or is the objection that selling good looks in an athlete is wrong in some absolute sense because if it is, then we've been wrong since long before the likes of Joe Namath, who was signed by Sonny Werblin, a former television executive who knew all along just how much sex can sell. In today's world of sports business, every single athlete is a brand and a business and whatever assets they have are very much a mixture of athletic performance and other personal assets. After they achieve professional success the business they are in is not so much about sports as about branding.

The problem that Longman and others have, I think, is the same problem implied in the "she's the Anna Kournikova of (blank)", which is the fear that anytime a female athlete's looks are valued before or over her athletic ability, we will be moving backward in the struggle for gender equality, especially in the world of sports. That thinking puts good-looking non-champion female athletes in the modern world of sports business in tough spot. In Branded, the last of the ESPN Films/espnW Nine for IX documentaries which airs tonight, we learn that Brandi Chastain took so much grief for jubilantly tearing off her jersey and showing the world her sports bra in the 1999 World Cup Soccer final that she has rejected offers for the bra in the hundreds of thousands of dollars -- more money than she made in her entire career as soccer player -- just so as not to send the wrong message.

Does such an athlete have a responsibility to the growth of women's sports to moderate, or even sacrifice, the market power of her sex appeal in favor of slowly ventilating the athletic achievement of the very best in her sport? Should she turn down money, lots of it, in an effort to have people see women in sports differently than they do now? Will more women athletes in the long term be better off (socially, financially) if good looking female athletes of today refuse to emphasize/sell their looks?

Branded, an at-times impressionistic and at-times straight-talking documentary delivers a powerful cumulative response to these questions. Through interviews with some of women's sports greatest icons plus a selection of modern sports business types, the film essentially concludes that it is the overall societal playing field that's still not level for men and women. Sports business reflects that inequality. Perhaps selling looks of women in sports might be okay if the sports business playing field were level, but it's not. How do we level that playing field and whose responsibility is it? And in the modern realm of sports is the playing field that needs leveling sports itself or sports marketing? It is easy to conflate and confuse these overlapping issues.

Gabrielle Reece, in the film, suggests it would require profound societal change: "I think unless we say [sic] as a culture greed is bad. We'd have to say fame is something not everyone [should] revere. We'd have to look at all of the messages we send on a daily basis about what we think is important."

Profound change may be what's needed because the stakes are getting much higher. With Fox Sports 1, CBS Sports and NBC Sports stepping into the ring with ESPN, the unabated proliferation of regional sports networks for professional teams, collegiate conferences and in some cases individual schools, and then add Google, SONY and Intel jumping into the sports broadcast fray, the market opportunities for female athletes to maximize their brands are and will continue to expand exponentially.

Even though the most recent surveys indicate that female participation in high school sports has increased nearly 1,000 percent since the passing of Title IX, I do not believe the full transformative effect of that necessary years-old legislation has even begun to manifest. But it will. Soon. And when it does, the thought leaders who market sports and sports brands must be clear about the business they are in. May they all be so blessed to be in league with someone who is the Anna Kournikova of something.