Right at the end of Branded all the talking heads assembled are finally asked the capstone question suggested by the entire Nine For IX series: Have circumstances improved for female athletes since Title IX was enacted over 40 years ago? The answer is unquestionably “yes”: Participation is up across the board, and there are far more opportunities for young girls to begin playing sports at an early age and continue through to college while getting an education on an athletic scholarship. But from a business perspective, comparatively little progress has been made in establishing professional sports as a viable option for women outside of a few venues (tennis, women’s basketball in isolated cases).
There are rare and visible exceptions, and that’s what Branded pursues, the notable exceptions who made money as female professional athletes, and the steps they had to take in order to translate celebrity and visibility into economic viability, because the athletic skill alone didn’t pay. Branded isn’t about the progress of Title IX, though it often feels like a recap of many previous episodes in the subjects it chooses—women’s tennis, the WNBA, Brandi Chastain from the 1999 World Cup team, Mary Lou Retton from the 1984 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. It aims to be a unique discussion of how the media covers female athletes, and how they make money outside of athletic skill, but it’s so haphazard—attempting to show so many facets and weave in so many stories at a furious pace—that it feels like a bullet point list of common sense observations about women’s professional athletics.
The film does have the unlucky misfortune of mentioning Billie Jean King’s 1973 tennis victory against Bobby Riggs as a watershed moment for female athletes in the same week as Outside The Lines published an in-depth exposé on whether Riggs threw his match with King to settle a gambling debt. But from there it begins alternating between short case studies of athletes interspersed with business commentary from sports marketing professionals, agents, publicists, and ESPN sports business analyst (and noted voice of sensitivity on issues of how media depicts women) Darren Rovell.
There is no question the media covers traditionally-attractive women with more excitement and fervently follows attractive women who win. Advertisers flock to winners with sponsorship deals, but they flood attractive women with offers. As Hope Solo states early in the documentary, men are able to amass significant wealth through their athletic skill. Women’s athletics doesn’t generate enough money to pay a sufficient salary, or to offer large enough prize money for tournaments, for anyone outside the best of the best in a handful of sports. Chris Evert started winning tennis tournaments as a teenager, but what contributed most to her fortune were the commercial endorsement deals she made to take full advantage of her stature as a popular figure. Tennis is one of the rare sports where women can make as much money as men through athletic skill by winning tournaments—though as Venus Vs. pointed out, that only occurred shockingly recently.
Anna Kournikova gets a segment, where the imbalance of talent to media obsession reaches its widest gulf. Kournikova didn’t win a singles major (but won two in doubles with Martina Hingis), though she was still a ubiquitous presence in Sports Illustrated and on television because of her appearance. The backlash was unfortunate, because as Branded hammers home, Kournikova wasn’t just an athlete to a lot of people, she was an investment that didn’t pan out, the literal transformation of a woman into a commodity because of her looks.
But the sentiment toward female athletes who appear in advertisements for their looks while not succeeding in their sport seems to draw the same reaction as reality-television stars who attempt to continue trading on their brief moment of celebrity. While consumers may enjoy their antics to a point, it feels too hollow to continue for long. Though the unsuccessful athlete or reality star makes money from their 15 minutes by trading on whatever minor stardom they have, that celebrity fades quickly and leaves a bad memory.
The WNBA is the longest-lasting major women’s professional sports league, and it’s floundering. Franchises are closing, nobody wants to buy the ones that are in trouble, and attendance is pitiful. As Darren Rovell says, you have to get people to show up, and not just the mothers and daughters. This is a business, and if the market does not demand women’s sports, then they don’t advance—though Branded subtly argues that a larger cultural change is necessary, whether or not that’s true. We as a nation can offer equal opportunity up to a certain point (which has been determined to be college-level, outside of Olympic sports), but after that, the market dictates professional viability, and so far women’s sports has not lived up to that potential. MLS has held on for nearly two decades, but multiple women’s soccer leagues have folded despite far more success on an international level for American players.
Lolo Jones is an interesting case study, because she was probably the biggest risk taker of any female athlete courting endorsements and chasing an athletic dream. She looked at the athletes surviving between Olympics and saw they were cutting endorsement deals, so she did that too, taking advantage of her looks. But the media backlash—and statements from medal-winning athletes—painted her as undeserving of attention. When women aren’t able to make money through their athletic skills, only by trading on their looks in association to their sport, it’s hypocritical to fault an athlete for seeking out financial support this way.
So on one hand, the reaction to Lolo Jones was despicable, since it should be common knowledge that she had to engage with followers and make sponsorship deals in order to continue competing. But the other side of that is Jones should’ve known the stakes. Win, and it justifies all the effort and attention; lose, and it’s a wasted investment, similar to Anna Kournikova. And though she may claim to be satisfied with fourth place, nobody should believe it, since Jones has been desperately attempting to transition to bobsled in order to compete for another medal in Sochi.
Danica Patrick is another unique case. She traded explicitly on her looks, and though she’s had middling success as a driver—one win on the IndyCar circuit, one pole position and a handful of top 10 finishes in NASCAR—she’s still incredibly popular. Rovell points out she’s made hundreds of millions of dollars for what could have been a total flop of a company, GoDaddy, selling internet domain names. Instead, by trading exclusively on sex appeal in increasingly problematic commercials starring Patrick, the company made boatloads of cash. Over and over again Branded shows that appearance is the only thing about female athletes that gets picked up and carried by the media. Even the Brandi Chastain segment centers on the sports bra picture, a sentiment that refutes all the positive depictions from last week’s Nine For IX.
I watched every U.S. match of the Women’s World Cup in 2011 and Olympics in 2012, countless other Olympic events, and a bunch of Northwestern women’s lacrosse and soccer in the past few years, but I can’t think of a single women’s professional sporting event I’ve watched in the past four years. Not the WNBA, not any of the pro soccer iterations, nothing. Even if I wanted to, events are scarce on even the most diverse television package. SportsCenter devotes only 1.4 percent of its airtime to women’s sports. At every turn, Branded argues for better coverage for female athletes, and for the focus to shift from their appearance to their athletic accomplishments. The larger point of this entire documentary is what happens after they ask about progress since Title IX, the fact that “it’s a cultural issue, not a women-in-sports issue.” Changing the larger culture takes a lot of time, and though the tide has begun to turn in favor of opportunity at a young age, unless business practices get a whole lot shrewder, the state of professional athletics for women will not support more than a select few who make a comparable living to men over the course of their athletic career. That’s a hard sell, and something that takes an entertaining product, a dramatically altered approach to watching sports in America, and a lot of time.
- The outtakes at the end of the doc provide a few great moments that didn’t make it into the documentary. Lolo Jones talks about turning down an endorsement offer from a condom manufacturer, which is sickening; Gabrielle Reece, meanwhile, honestly cannot believe that lingerie football exists.
- Best episodes in the series for me would be The ’99ers and No Limits, the latter of which has the most breathtaking filmmaking of Nine For IX, but also has the least to do with the umbrella theme.
- The one GoDaddy commercial shown in the episode features Todd from Community.
- About Don Van Natta Jr.’s article on Bobby Riggs: As Josh Levin said on Hang Up And Listen this week, I’ve never gone from “it’s possible” to “who could possibly believe this isn’t entirely true?” so quickly in my life. The evidence uncovered in that piece leaves very little doubt in my mind that Riggs threw the match entirely, so the takeaway about that event has to be that though he didn’t do it for the right reasons, it still had an important effect on women’s sports.