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Sports Illustrated and Sexism

by CHARLES MODIANO

POP QUIZ:

Which of the following statements are true.

In one single week Sports Illustrated (SI) has had:

A) As many covers depicting women athletes as the last five years [1].
B) As many covers depicting African-American women athletes as the last 16 years [2].
C) More covers depicting women basketball players than in SI’s entire 54 year history.
D) All of the Above

If you selected D, you are most unfortunately correct. This week SI issued a 6-part college basketball preview cover set that depicted six different female athletes sharing the cover with male basketball counterparts.

The women are:

§ Maya Moore, Connecticut
§ Briann January, Arizona State
§ Shavonte Zellous, Pittsburgh
§ Rashanda McCants, North Carolina
§ Courtney Paris, Oklahoma
§ Ashley Barlow. Notre Dame

Please run to the store now to buy these collector’s items because you may never see anything else like it for the next 50 years. There has been a women’s revolution in sports during the previous 50 years, but Sports Illustrated did not get that memo. Check the stats:

% of SI Covers with Women Athletes:

1950’s: 10% (5-6 per year)
1990’s: 5% (2-3 per year)
2000’s: 2.5% (0-2 per year)

No. Really.

Sports Illustrated’s record on women leaves much to be desired. As detailed in Sports illustrated’s Cover Barrier: Who Will Break the Bikini Line?, in recent years SI has released more issues with women in swimsuits than in an athletic uniform. Past accusations of “entrenched sexism” [4] were certainly not aided by SI writer Justin Gimelstob’s outrageously sexist remarks this summer. And while Gimelstob was rightfully terminated, it was SI’s workplace culture that promoted [3] Gimelstob’s previous articles listing “tennis players with the hottest wives”, or championing the benefits of “every young sassy player trying to …under-dress the next”. Gimelstob may be gone, but scapegoating the bad apple without examining the tree is not change we can believe in. The question still remains: “does Sports Illustrated get it”? Recent articles highlighting “The 25 Sexiest Sportscasters” do not build much confidence.

If SI truly intends on turning a corner, this week’s 6-part cover was a wonderful and commendable step in the right direction. If it is to really mean anything, it must be a sign of a new kind of SI coverage. And that would mean leaving the old kind of media thinking behind. Can SI do it? Yes they can.

WHY WOMEN ATHLETES = SMART BUSINESS

When previously writing or discussing SI’s “cover barrier” with others, the most common response was:“women in sports don’t sell copies”. This Pavlovian reflex does not just come from “sexist pigs” found drunk in the stands chanting obscenities at football games. Instead, it is an accepted ironclad truism in progressive-minded sports fans, writers, and editors. And they are dead wrong. It is a culture of sexism — and not sales — that have stopped women from landing SI covers. Want evidence? Here are four specific examples:

1) THE SHARED COVER:

The College Basketball Preview Issue: 2001 – 2006

Number of Single Copy Sales Sold [5]:

80,000 – 2001 (Cover: Jason Williams – Duke)
100,000 – 2003 (Cover: Emeka Okafor AND Diana Taurausi – UConn)
80,000 – 2004 (Cover: Rashad McCants – North Carolina)
67,000 – 2005 (Cover: Duke Team)
80,000 – 2006 (5 Multi-Covers)

No Ph.D. in “Business and Marketing” is needed to notice that the 2003 cover had that special woman’s touch. Diana Taurasi completed the first male-female college preview pairing since 1985 (USC’s Cheryl Miller). Despite selling an additional 20,000, SI would not have another woman share an NCAA preview issue for the next four years. What made that decision so head-scratching was the simultaneous emergence of Tennessee’s Candace Parker — arguably the greatest and most marketable college basketball player the women’s game has ever seen. Yet despite a highly-promoted high school reputation, two NCAA championships, and increased TV ratings, SI never granted Parker a regular issue [6] — not alone or not shared. SI not only left extra revenue on the table, but lost a prime chance to grow its long-term female customer base. That SI waited until this week to have another woman share the NCAA preview is deeply offensive — to sound business principles.

2) THE SOLO COVER:

In 2004, women would receive two more covers! The Olympic Softball Team sold a very healthy amount (59K) that edged out male Olympic star Michael Phelps. The cover also out-paced many big names including Tom Brady, Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Albert Pujols, Tim Duncan, and Lance Armstrong. The other female cover was Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova whose 87,671 sales simply dominated almost all issues that weren’t annual previews or Red Sox commemorations. Most tellingly, Sharapova DOUBLED the sales of Derek Jeter and Kevin Garnett.

In 2005, women athletes would land two more covers and two more top-sellers. The first (79K sold) was quite the dubious “achievement” as SI was “throwing a party” and [softball player] Jennie Finch showed up in a mini-skirt. The other was pioneering race car driver Danica Patrick (59K) who would easily outsell: the previous seven covers including Tiger, Shaq, Randy Moss, and Steve Nash, and every single baseball and basketball issue that year (non-previews).

Since 2005: A solo woman would not grace SI’s cover for another three years until Danica Patrick made a comeback this year in May. The 2008 Summer Olympics — traditionally kind to women athletes at SI — promised a hopeful follow-up, but all three Olympic issues featured Michael Phelps. Meanwhile, Lisa Leslie’s historical gold medal success as leader of her 4th consecutive dominant basketball team could not sneak a cover in edge-wise.

3) THE MULTI-COVER:

In recent years, the Internet has forced the decline of magazine sales and SI has responded with innovative strategies. In 2006, SI introduced “the multi-cover” where the same magazine is issued with various covers. For example, after NCAA basketball players Tyler Hansbrough and Kevin Love both landed covers in March, SI just couldn’t decide which player to showcase once again in April. No problem, they picked both! No surprise for Love who previously had benefited from a 6-cover “March Madness” special. The multi-cover has also help hockey make an SI cover comeback after a 5-year drought. In June, hockey split a cover with the NBA playoffs (Kobe-Pierce), and in October with the baseball playoffs (Manny Ramirez).

If SI can bring back an entire sport, what about an entire gender? Surely, SI could have been added a cover of Wimbledon’s historic all-Williams sisters final (Venus and Serena) alongside the “epic duel” of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Certainly, the dramatic play of NCAA women like Candace Parker, Candice Wiggins, and Sylvia Fowles could have nudged their way into the “Joe 6-Pack” NCAA series. Now that the multi-cover has produced the return of the NHL Preview, how about a WNBA Preview? Or does the multi-cover just mean more men?

4) GOLF:

During SI’s 3-year women drought from July 2005 to May 2008, SI continues to put out proven and consistent low-sellers such as three annual issues of the “NFL Draft” [7], and six issues on golf [8] . Why golf over the other fringe sports outside “the big three”? Because SI writers — like many large groups of middle-aged white men — love the game of golf! They love Tiger Woods, and they love Phil ”The People’s Choice” Mickelson even more. They want you to like golf, so they attempt to create a Tiger-Phil rivalry that really isn’t. Not only that, each year they set aside four separately-sold golf “Preview Issues” — one for each golf Grand Slam. This represresents more additional issues than any other sport. The point is this: SI will invest in golf’s growth despite low returns. Why? Because they like golf!

Ironically, golf has always symbolized corporate America’s “ole boys network” that often limited the growth of female employees who didn’t partake in 18 holes with the boss. At SI, it doesn’t whether you play or not. Just ask brilliant record-setting young golfer Lorena Ochoa. Or ask legendary golfer Annika Sorenstam who retired this year, and is widely considered to be the greatest female golfer to ever pick up a club. For those scoring Sports Illustrated covers at home…

§ Mike Weir: 1 (Resume: 8 PGA Victories; 1 Major)
§ Sorenstam: 0 (Resume: 72 LPGA Victories; 10 Majors)

Annual Swimsuit Issue Note: Much criticism has been written. It sells over one million copies per year, and generates millions more in advertising. To fight against it, no matter how strong the argument, is an unwinnable battle. To demand that some crumbs of that swimsuit revenue be used to invest in lesser known women athletes the way SI invests in men’s golf is a winnable one. Perhaps SI’s very first cover of a WNBA player is a good place to start.

CONCLUSION

There is one and only one objective reason to explain SI’s treatment of women athletes: Sexism.
…or “gender bias” to be polite. Gender bias is when:

§ only men are sitting at SI’s decision-making table with token exception.

§ Michael Phelps graces the cover the previous week AND month, but no one at that table says: “I have an idea, let’s go in a different direction on this one”…

§ Venus and Serena Williams land 16 Grand Slam titles, but only three SI covers.

§ The title of Mike Weir’s 2003 cover is “A Star is Born”, and the greatest female golfer…

§ a new multi-cover business strategy does not include multi-genders.

§ it is assumed that women can’t sell copies without actually reviewing the data.

§ one poor-selling copy of a woman is seen as evidence that women can’t sell, but… a high-selling copy of a woman is NOT seen as evidence of increased revenue potential, and… Tiger Woods can sell only 27,000 (lowest of 2007), and that fact will not impact the future COVERage of Tiger Woods, the sport he plays, or all the other athletes who share his gender.

This week’s 6-part “Double Team” issue is encouraging, but is it an anomaly or a part of a new annual college basketball preview that shows a “double team” every year. And what annual standard might exist beyond NCAA basketball? Will there be other concerted efforts in light of the new multi-covers? Will 20% of their customer-base be seen as more than objects? …if not for the advancement of women in sports, but SI’s own bottom line? This week’s caption reads “He Wins, She Wins”. Can SI turn this single issue slogan into a long-term business strategy?

The answers remain to be seen. But the last eight years have only produced 10 covers with women athletes, and we need a change.

Because we can’t afford more of the same.

CHARLES MODIANO is a sports writer for Sports On My Mind and can be reached at modi@cosellout.com

Notes

[1] Danica Patrick (2008, 2005); Winter Olympians (2006); Jennie Finch (2005), Olympic Softball Team (2004); Maria Sharapova (2004)

[2] Serena Williams (2003; 1999); Marion Jones (2000); Jamila Wideman (1997); Venus Williams (1997); Women’s Olympic Basketball Team (1997). Previous to ‘97 you would have to go back to Gail Devers in 1992 to find an African-American woman.

[3] In Gimelstob’s very first column, SI introduces with: “Over the course of his career, he has developed a reputation for being opinionated and outspoken. Luckily for SI.com, he’ll be writing entries every few days from the U.S. Open, where he’ll be competing.”

[4] In The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine, Michael McCambridge writes in 1998: “The magazine might have deflected some of these complaints [about the Swimsuit Issue] if it had done a better job covering women in sports. … [Julie] Vader’s column put the blame on the entrenched sexism she’d encountered in the building”.

[5] Data from Audit Bureau of Circulations posted via SI website: Data was found for 2001, July-Dec. 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and Jan-June 2007 (Example: Jan-June 2005). Numbers rounded to nearest thousand of single copy sales sold beyond subscriptions.

[6] Parker received a far less circulated “commemorative issue” as all champions do.

[7] From 2005 – 2007, the NFL Draft Issue averaged 39,000 sales.

[8] Golf generally does not sell well unless there are special circumstances like a particularly dramatic victory in a Grand Slam tournament, or the issue is combined with “Fantasy Football”. During this 3-year period three Tiger Woods issues sold for 37K, 41K, and 27K, and three Phil Mickelson issues sold for 43K, 37K, 41K.

 

 

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