Nine for IX: Branded (2013)

Directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady

The previous Nine for IX film, The 99ers, creates a near perfect segue into the final installment of the series of films “about women, by women, for us all”. Brandi Chastain won the US the Women’s World Cup in 1999, yet gained headlines and attention more for ripping her shirt off than for scoring the winning goal. That is branding. So what does this mean in the sports world, and what does it mean specifically to women athletes? Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady look to find the answer to this question in examining some of the larger personalities in women’s sports marketing, such as Mary Lou Retton, Anna Kournikova, Danica Patrick, as well as sports agents and people in the marketing business. This isn’t just about sex, though it can be argued that the majority of it is. Sex sells.

It does seem to come much easier to men. Sports is a business, and many of the dollars made by athletes comes from highly lucrative advertising deals. Sign with Nike, or Adidas. Sign with McDonald’s or Kellogg’s. Being on the cover of a Wheaties box, or claiming you’re going to Disney World after winning a championship are as ingrained into the sports culture as the Vince Lombardi trophy or winning Wimbledon or Olympic gold. Many men get these deals simply based on performance on the field. Tiger Woods, despite his recent controversy off the course, still makes millions a year off it. Women on the other hand, must rely on the beauty and wholesomeness to guarantee their marketability. This double standard is unfortunate, but it exists.

Anna Kournikova is the most obvious example. A very talented tennis player in her own right, it was her looks that make her millions in advertisement. While heralded as a great young talent, markets quickly jumped on her sex appeal to sell their product, which quickly begged the question of whether she deserved such attention, as her game on the court began to unravel. Kournikova never won a tournament, let alone a major championship. But is it Kournikova’s fault she was offered millions for her beauty and not necessarily her talent? Sports are a business, and with any business the objective is to make money, as much of it as you can. In this realm, Kournikova was massively successful, even if she was a mediocre tennis player. This is what creates the question, a question I am not so sure Ewing and Grady sufficiently covered.

The topic of female marketing in sports is ripe with content and discussion points, yet the directors seem content on merely scratching the surface, and using cheap tricks to convey their preconceived conclusion. The entire film is very melodramatic, with undertones of pity and tragedy running throughout. They deliver the talking head interviews in the most unusual style, lingering on moments of the subjects with heads hung, almost ashamed looks on their faces. This unnecessary depiction of female athletes, and male sports agents/marketing analysts, as victims of the system is leading and off putting. Even the score of the film implies some impending doom or unfortunate reality. The reality is, at the end of the day, the objective of our society is to make a buck.

So how has Title IX affected this process, if at all? Female athletes had a very limited chance prior to the landmark legislation, and now there are professional women’s sports with television deals, and lots of advertising dollars. Is it as much as men? No, not even close. But this idea of sports equality seems slanted in my eyes. Sports is a business, and yes, I know I have said that a few times already, but it bears repeating. It is entertainment and like any other form of entertainment, success and money are dependent on demand. Should the crummy B-movie get the same marketing campaign as the Hollywood blockbuster, and take a share of box office sales? There is more money behind men’s sports. However, the problem is not the money, or the inequality of it. The problem is the demand and the attention the sports warrant from fans. Ewing and Grady seem to get more caught up in showing female athletes as victims: look how unequal and different the process is. What they should be focusing on is why are women’s sports different than men’s (because they are), and how does that influence the marketability of each?

** – Poor


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